Prediction time: Harvick, Johnson will highlight 2014 Chase field
Regardless of how one feels about the new Chase format, there promises to be a great deal of intrigue over the first 26 races as drivers battle to be a part of the 16-man championship field.
Oh, the usual suspects will certainly be there. Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick will lead the way in wins and ultimately be among the four-man title fight at Homestead in November. As for the rest of the 16-man field, some big names are liable to be left in the cold, replaced by the unlikeliest of championship challengers who manage to score in NASCAR's "win-and-you're-in" scenario. I expect road course victories by Marcos Ambrose (Sonoma Raceway) and A.J. Allmendinger (Watkins Glen International) to put their teams in the playoff, while Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski will have plenty of points but no regular season wins and be left on the sidelines.
Below are the 16 men I think will head to Chicagoland Speedway on September 14 with a shot at the championship, listed in numerical order.
Kevin Harvick (No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet) Much the same as in 2010, Harvick will dominate the regular season in points scored and will also lead in victories. He will make NASCAR's "Final Four."
Kasey Kahne (No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet) Kahne will win at least once in the regular season, but will not be a serious factor in the championship fight.
Marcos Ambrose (No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford) Ambrose will avenge his embarrassing 2010 loss at Sonoma with a victory that boosts him into a Chase spot, though he will go out in the first round of eliminations.
Denny Hamlin (No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota) Bouncing back from an awful 2013, Hamiln will win more than once in the regular season and will join Harvick in the "Final Four."
Tony Stewart (No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet) Stewart will win at least once and make the Chase in his return from his sprint car injuries, but he will fall short of his fourth championship.
Clint Bowyer (No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota) Bowyer will win the regular-season finale at Richmond, bringing the disasters at the end of 2013 full circle, but he will not ve a serious title threat.
Greg Biffle (No. 16 Roush-Fenway Racing Ford) Biffle will win at least once on one of the high-speed downforce tracks, though his bid to become the first man to sweep NASCAR's top-three championships will have to wait at least another year.
Kyle Busch (No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota) Busch will pick finally win a Cup race at Charlotte, taking the Coca-Cola 600, and join Hamlin in the "Final Four" as he tries to grab his very first Sprint Cup championship.
Matt Kenseth (No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota) After nearly beating all comers in 2013, Kenseth will regress slightly. He will still make the Chase easily and will be fifth at Phoenix, the last man eliminated from contention.
Joey Logano (No. 22 Team Penske Ford) After a breakout 2013, Logano will again make the Chase and show a great deal of speed. He will be among those eliminated at Phoenix.
Ryan Newman (No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet) Newman will win at Loudon and - fittingly, given his constant presence outside the track's infield hospital - be part of the second round of eliminations at Talladega.
Kurt Busch (No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet) Busch will finally win a restrictor-plate race, claiming the May Talladega race along with a Bristol victory. A great building season for he and his new team will end in the second or third round of the Chase.
A.J. Allmendinger (No. 47 JTG-Daugherty Racing Chevrolet) Allmendinger will shock the world by winning the Watkins Glen race for his first Sprint Cup win, launching him into the Chase. Like Ambrose, he will "go home" after round one.
Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet) To no one's surprise, Johnson will win multiple races and be a part of the "Final Four" at Homestead, a track where he has never won.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet) Earnhardt will win at Martinsville in April and enjoy a solid final season with crew chief Steve Letarte. Like Kenseth, Kurt Busch, and Logano he will be eliminated at Phoenix.
Carl Edwards (No. 99 Roush-Fenway Racing Ford) Edwards will win at least once, but like teammate Biffle will not come close to a championship in what proves to be his final year with Roush-Fenway Racing.
So who will win the 2014 Sprint Cup Series crown? Follow me here to find out.