The 2014 NASCAR season promises to be a season of many firsts, and it will culminate with a trio of first-time champions in the sport's top-three divisions. It will also mark the first time since 2001 that a single manufacturer swept the three national driving championships, with Toyota's very first Sprint Cup driver's title coming on the heels of a second Nationwide championship (Kyle Busch in 2009) and a fifth Camping World Truck Series championship (Todd Bodine in 2006 and 2010, Johnny Benson in 2008, and Matt Crafton last season).
Camping World Truck Series champion: Johnny Sauter (No. 98 Thorsport Racing Toyota Tundra)
A year after finally claiming their first championship with Crafton at the wheel of the flagship No. 88 Tundra, Duke and Rhonda Thorson will double-up as Sauter scores his own long-awaited first national series championship. Once touted as one of the top prospects for the Sprint Cup Series, the Wisconsin short track ace bounced back and forth between Cup and the Nationwide Series (where he won three times, last in 2005) before finding a home with Thorsport in 2009. The nine-time race winner finished second to Austin Dillon in the 2011 championship race and has three other points finishes in the top half-dozen (his worst result in five full seasons of truck racing is ninth in 2012). Coming off a three-win 2013 season (including a sweep at Dayona and Talladega), Sauter will finally overcome the bad luck that kept him from challenging teammate Crafton on his way to his first championship since taking the ASA crown in 2001.
Runner-up: Ryan Blaney
Nationwide Series champion: Elliott Sadler (No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota)
It was no surprise that Joe Gibbs Racing won 14 Nationwide Series events in 2013. What was a bit surprising was that not a single one of them came courtesy of Elliott Sadler and his No. 11 team. After the best year of his NASCAR career in 2012 (four wins, 15 top-fives, and a second-straight runner-up points finish), Sadler left Richard Childress Racing for the GIbbs outfit. The regression, win total aside, wasn't a complete free-fall, as he finished fourth in points with 20 top-10 finishes. With the departure of Austin Dillon to Sprint Cup (along with Justin Allgaier, with whom Sadler tied in points) and Sam Hornish Jr's loss of a full-time ride, only Regan Smith remains in the division among those who beat Sadler in 2013. With a year under his belt with crew chief Chris Gayle and the resources of Joe Gibbs Racing behind him, Sadler will be back wih a vengeance in 2014 as he races to his first national title.
Runner-up: Regan Smith
Sprint Cup Series champion: Denny Hamlin (No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota)
Note: I had planned all along to pick Kevin Harvick for this spot, but given NASCAR's new Chase rules, I was led to pick Hamlin for the crown.
For most of the 2013 campaign, the idea that Denny Hamlin would win a championship in 2014 would have been met with laughter and scorn. He closed the season decently though, highlighted of course by a Ford 400 victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway that kept his streak of winning a race in every season of his Sprint Cup career alive (a claim that can only be made by two other men, fellows named Johnson and Stewart). Decent obviously doesn't win Sprint Cup championships, but it signaled that whatever Hamlin appeared to have lost as he struggled through a nightmare season after his back injury had been found. When healthy and with a team that is firing on all cylinders behind him, Hamlin can be as tough to beat as anyone. He should have won the 2010 Sprint Cup title and very well could have won in 2012 as well, but both were lost thanks to issues with his team. The lessons learned in those years combined with Hamlin's prowess at the championship-deciding Miami venue will culminate in a comeback story for the ages as he brings Joe Gibbs Racing its fourth Sprint Cup championship.
Runner-up: Jimmie Johnson (Harvick and Kyle Busch will also be a part of the "Final Four").