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Story Lines: Quantity Exceeds Quality In Cup ’14

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 9 2014

Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson will be chasing NASCAR super royalty this year. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Rusty Jarrett)

A year ago, there were two big, huge, major story lines dominating the scene (a.k.a., trending) as the Sprint Cup teams headed into the January test session known as Preseason Thunder.

Those story lines were Danica Patrick moving full time to Cup and the introduction of the mighty Gen 6 car.

On their own, both were supposedly capable of reversing the decreasing interest level (a.k.a., downward trending) of the sport. Taken together? Forget about it. However, despite non-stop hammering by the media, neither story line panned out.

This year, there are no mega, stand-alone, series-saving story lines as testing gets under way at Daytona International Speedway today. Just lots of fairly interesting little jobbers. So the thought is, perhaps abundance in 2014 will do what narrow-focus hype failed to do in 2013.

In no particular order, here are some story lines to consider during Preseason Thunder…

– Jimmie Johnson looks to join Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty as a seven-time champion. This is a considerable story. Pre-Danica, everybody would have been jumping on it and tearing it to the bone. Perhaps mid-summer it will be mega if Johnson is showing that familiar domination again. But right now for, well, pick-a-reason, few seem to be front-paging this story.

– The return of the No. 3. The number made iconic by Dale Earnhardt but “owned” by his former boss, Richard Childress, will be on the door of the car driven by rookie Austin Dillon – RC’s grandson. Look for some hoopla around the return – especially if Dillon starts taking it to Victory Lane – but most know that it was the man which was important, not the number.

– Danica, Year Two. Year One, despite what a couple of adoring TV analysts were saying up to and through Homestead, was a major flop. Patrick was lost behind the wheel. The word being broadcast was that the second time around for her at Cup tracks would rock the series. Nope. This year, the word will be her second time through the 36-race schedule will rock the series. And perhaps it will, just don’t jump to conclusions – either way – after the season-opening 500.

– Tony Stewart returns to driver’s seat. A wreck in a sprint car race last season took the three-time champion out of his Cup seat late season last year. He is back in the No. 14 car this week and a lot of eyes will be on him. New guy Chad Johnston will be his crew chief. For an injury to take Stewart out of a race car, it absolutely had to be serious. Many will be wondering how that injury affected a person who is arguably the best wheel man in the biz, mentally and physically and both. He was limping noticeably at DIS on Thursday morning.

– Stewart-Haas Racing. Three of the four drivers in SHR cars this weekend were not in those cars at Homestead last December. Stewart, as was just mentioned, and newcomers Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick. It’s going to be very interesting to see how former champion Busch and Harvick, one of the best drivers in the series who has not won a championship, do as individuals in Hendrick/SHR equipment. And it will be even more interesting to see how three (four, with Danica) of the most temperamental drivers in all of racing co-exist as a group.

– Re-arranged Furniture. Kurt Busch, after an amazing 2013 season in which he guided the one-car, Colorado-based team into the Chase, moves to Stewart’s team. In his place in the FRR Chevy will be Martin Truex Jr., a former Chaser and multiple-race winner.  Will the Truex-led team continue FRR’s drive to the top shelf, or was it all a product of Busch’s fire and huge driving talents?

– Sliced Bread II. Young Kyle Larson breaks into the big time as he takes the seat of the No. 42 Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. It was almost eerie watching Larson drive last year when, at age 20, he won a Camping World race and had nine top-five finishes in Nationwide. He was so good that Chip Ganassi plucked him up and set him down in the seat that has belonged to won of the best drivers in the world – Juan Pablo Montoya.

– Gen 6.5. New rules will take effect in Cup in the 2014 series. Included are modifications to side skirts, rear-fascia areas and splitters. The moves, were made during the offseason for competition on non-restricted tracks, where Cup teams will also be working for the first time without front-end ride height rules. Raising the spoiler height from 4 inches to 4.5 inches for this week’s test as well as next month’s Speedweeks events at Daytona. The hope, of course, is that the result will be better racing – that is, races in which the lead car does not use clean air to run off and hide.

– Can Ford come up with a better idea? 2013 was not a very good year for Fords. Three Ford drivers – Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle of Roush Fenway Racing, Joey Logano of Penske Racing – did make the Chase, but after that, the stats turned sour. Ford won just six of 36 races. Chevrolets led three times as many laps as Fords and Toyotas almost three times as many. The thought heading into 2013 was that with Penske opting to change to Fords, better days were ahead for the guys in Dearborn.

– ESPN’s swan song. The network will sign off on NASCAR following the upcoming season. It’s going to be interesting to see how ESPN treats the sport and its stories this year and not just in the second half of the season – the half of the season in which it covers live racing.  Will its lame duck status as a “broadcast partner” manifest itself by taking the gloves off (which could be a good thing)? Or, by ignoring the sport, by squeezing as much money as possible out of it (which would not be good things for fans)?

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 9 2014
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