Well, it's that time of year again, race fans for Atlanta Motor Speedway President and GM Ed Clark to offer up some bold predictions of what will happen throughout the 2014 NASCAR season!
While some of the picks in the past have been pretty accurate, others have been, well to use a racing term, they "missed the set-up."
Here are Ed's 2014 predictions!
Expect a Huge Year From The Rookies
This year's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie class is one of the most talented groups that we have seen in quite some time! It rivals the 1979 group that included Dale Earnhardt, Sr., Terry Labonte, Joe Millikan and Harry Gant as well as in 2000 when Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., entered the Cup Series.
The two early headline-grabbers this year are Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson. Both of these guys have an awful lot of talent. Add in the fact that they are driving for race teams that are putting a strong amount of support around them and odds are good that at least one of these guys will contend for a win or two this year.
Don't forget about Justin Allgaier, either. He's in the No. 51 in what is now known as HScott Motorsports. Formerly Phoenix Racing, this team has built a reputation of scoring an upset victory or two in recent years. If they are able to do that this year, it would be enough to get this team into the Chase.
Two other rookies to watch will be Alex Bowman and Ryan Truex at BK Racing. It'll be interesting to see how these two young guys progress during the season.
Stewart Will Bounce Back
Mark it down. Tony Stewart will rebound with a vengeance after missing a big part of last year with a leg injury. The driver many of you fans affectionately refer to as "Smoke" will rise in a big way this year. Look for him to win at least four times and be a factor for the season championship.
12 Drivers Will Win
Winning now matters more, a whole lot more in fact, with NASCAR's new Chase For The Championship Format. If a driver wins an event during the first 26 races of the season, they are automatically qualified for the Chase as long as they remain within the top 30 of the points standings after the 26th race of the season.
I predict that 12 drivers will lock themselves into the Chase with race victories, meaning that the final four Chase slots would be filled by the highest-ranked drivers in the points standings.
So who will those race winners most likely be? I'd look for the usual frontrunners such as Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch in addition to one or two surprises.
At the same time, don't discount the chances of teams that do not typically run up front each week. With the potential reward of making the Chase, I expect to see some of these teams put a stronger emphasis on a select number of races in an attempt to get to victory lane.
Look For Big Things From Chase Elliott
The 18-year old son of former NASCAR champion Bill Elliott continues to advance in his racing career this year, driving the No. 9 in the NASCAR Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports.
Fans who enjoyed watching "Awesome Bill" race the No. 9 car will have lots to cheer about. I predict that Chase will win a Nationwide Series race and finish in the top five in the points standings.
If you enjoy cheering for Georgians in NASCAR, 2014 is an exciting time with Chase moving up to the NASCAR Nationwide Series. He is also yet another NASCAR product of the Thursday Thunder Legends and Bandolero racing series at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Any time a driver rises up the NASCAR ladder from this program, it's always exciting to see!
Team Penske Will Have A Big Year
Joey Logano had a breakout year in 2013 by the Chase and picking up a victory. I'd look for him and the No. 22 team to build on that and have a strong season.
As for Brad Keselowski, he and his team will rebound in a big way and have a say in determining the season champion. Look, this is the same team that raced for and won the championship in 2012, and beat Jimmie Johnson in doing so. That, race fans, takes some doing.
The No. 2 team has not forgotten how to run well and race for a championship. They will return to that form this year and win multiple races.
Harvick, Busch and Johnson Are The Favorites
The formula to be a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion is pretty simple with the new format to the Chase. A driver has to be among the top four in the points standings going into the season finale and finish the highest among those drivers in the final race of the season. It's a system that will richly reward drivers to be strong throughout the season, but also put forth their best efforts during the final stretch of the season.
The drivers that this format favors most are Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson, of course, has won the championship six-times in the 10-race Chase format. All he has to do is the same all over again in a system with a very small margin for error.
Matt Kenseth and the No. 20 team showed that it had what it took to run very well week after week at various types of tracks.
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are two drivers that have been championship factors in portions of the Chase in the past, but have not been able to do so over the full 10 races. Needing only to be in the top four in the points standings may very well play right into their hands.
The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Will Come From Joe Gibbs Racing
That's right! You heard it here first. Between Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, one of them will bring the season championship to Joe Gibbs Racing.
Within the past few years, Hamlin and Kenseth have come very close to breaking through and beating out Jimmie Johnson to win the season championship, and Kyle Busch was a huge factor early on in the Chase last year.
All three teams at JGR know how to put themselves into position to win a title, and the new Chase format plays very well to the strength of all three drivers.
Of course, I did predict Kasey Kahne would win the championship last year, and we all saw how that worked out!
The 2014 NASCAR season is almost here, and we'll find out real soon how right or wrong these predictions are.
I hope to see you at the track soon!