Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Changes abound in NASCAR's 2014 season

Credit: Katy Lindamood/Skirts and Scuffs
The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season will likely remembered as much, if not more, for what happened before the first race than for anything that goes on in the 36-race schedule. Not a single car has hit the track in competition, yet the NASCAR history book has added at least another chapter.

From the Budweiser Duels running under the lights for the first time to the four-driver, winner-take-all finale in Homestead, this season's radical changes make last season's introduction of the Gen-6 car look modest by comparison. Sort of like comparing putting slipcovers on the living room furniture and changing the drapes to tearing out the drywall, ripping up the carpet and starting over.

Since last we met at the Championship Banquet, the NASCAR Powers That Be went on a remodeling tear unrivaled in the history of the sport. They started in the foyer, revamping qualifying for every race except the Daytona 500, moved on to the family room with a complete overhaul of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, then took on the master bedroom with "enhancements to its penalty structure and appeals process," to quote the official press release.

On top of all the structural changes, a mind-boggling number of drivers played musical chairs, substituting seats for chairs, of course. While Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidates Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett, Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon, Parker Kligerman, Kyle Larson, Ryan Truex and Cole Whitt found seats, when the music stopped, some veteran drivers were left standing.

Credit: Lisa Janine Cloud/Skirts and Scuffs
The 1991 Busch Series and 2000 Winston Cup champion, Bobby Labonte turns 50 this May and his seat went in the early rounds. In late 2013, JTG Daugherty brought in AJ Allmendinger for a few races to give some fresh perspective to the struggling team. Then B-Lab broke some ribs in a cycling accident and couldn't drive, so the The Dinger filled in for him.

In the 2014 season, Allmendinger takes over full time and Labonte finds himself hoping that the newly christened HScott Motorsports, rising from the ashes of Phoenix Racing, can find sponsorship to field him in the No. 52 Chevy in a few more races.

Labonte won 21 races between 1995 and 2003, but hasn't been to victory lane since. He once was a threat at every speedway on the schedule; his only short-track win came at Martinsville in 2002. His prowess at Atlanta led to some legendary finishes. In 1996, '97, '98 and '99 he defeated Dale Jarrett, in 2001 Sterling Marlin, and 2003 Jeff Gordon - a total of six wins. But he also finished second on three occasions, the most famous of which was in the 2000 Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500, when Dale Earnhardt flashed across the finish line 0.010 seconds in front of Labonte.

Many fans new to the sport view Bobby in much the same manner as they do his older brother and Terry, who earned his nickname the Iceman for being cool under pressure. Texas-friendly and polite, the now mild-mannered Bobby was fire to his older brother's ice.

Credit: Charlotte Bray/Skirts and Scuffs
Another 21-race winner bowed out before the end of the 2013 season. Jeff Burton showed he's the consummate team player - even if meant the team would no longer be his - by announcing that he'd step aside to allow team owner Richard Childress to bring in another driver with the potential to win races. RCR faced the grim reality that without Kevin Harvick, the team's hopes would be hanging on the young shoulders of rookie Austin Dillon. While Burton may be the Mayor of the Garage, he hadn't been a visitor to victory lane since 2008 and had only finished in the top five on six occasions between 2010 and 2013.

Burton will be behind the wheel of the No. 66 for Michael Waltrip racing for a handful of races in 2014; he'll do testing and consulting for the team. Mainly, though, he'll be marking time until he joins NBC in the broadcast booth when the network takes over midway through the 2015 season.

Credit: Charlotte Bray/Skirts and Scuffs
NASCAR's most successful retiree, Mark Martin, may actually retire from competitive driving this season. He announced early in 2013 that he would not return to the Michael Waltrip Racing No. 55. He wanted crew chief Rodney Childers to have the opportunity to make a run for the Driver's Championship, which Childers couldn't do by juggling a rotating roster.

Martin spent the last part of the season filling in for the injured Tony Stewart and will do testing and consulting for Stewart Haas Racing this season. In one of those odd twists of NASCAR fate, Childers will get that chance to run for the championship like Martin wanted - but he'll also be at SHR, paired with Kevin Harvick.

Ken Schrader, the pride of Fenton, Mo., retired from Sprint Cup racing. He ran 10 races in 2013 for Frankie Stoddard, but will no longer compete at the Cup level. Schrader is expected to run at least the Eldora race in the Camping World Truck Series, some ARCA races and of course his dirt modified car. The 58-year old Schrader, known for his love of racing and beer, won four races in his 29-season Cup career, driving for the likes of Junie Donleavy, the Wood Brothers and Rick Hendrick.

Finally, the former Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, rechristened Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates,
let Juan Pablo Montoya know mid-season that he was free to pursue other opportunities. Montoya got a seat before the music stopped - but not in NASCAR. JPM returns to open-wheel racing behind the wheel of Team Penske's No. 2 Chevy.

Credit: Debbie Ross/Skirts and Scuffs
Penske's getting a driver with an impressive pedigree. In 1999, Montoya won Rookie of the Year and the CART championship driving for Target-Chip Ganassi. Also on his resume: two Sprint Cup, one Nationwide and 10 CART wins. He's won the Indy 500, and has seven F1 victories including the Grand Prix of Monaco, along with three wins in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.

Penske hasn't ruled out fielding a car for Montoya in a Sprint Cup race or two. The IndyCar season runs from March 30 through Aug. 30, so that leaves plenty of NASCAR races open.

The cars take to the track this Friday, Feb. 14, for practice. Coverage of the Sprint Unlimited starts Saturday night, Feb. 15, at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Then, as my mama used to say, we shall see what we shall see.

Stay tuned!

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