DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - It's Daytona 500 week and defending champion Jimmie Johnson, along with recent title contenders Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch are among the favorites for the 2014 Sprint Cup title as NASCAR prepares for the green flag.
This year, however, the powers behind the stock car racing world believe a new format will inject the excitement of a Final Four and drama of a Game 7 into their championship-crowning event in November.
NASCAR believes it's discovered a recipe for drama and suspense leading up to and including the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But what nobody's figured out is how to stop the combination of Johnson, who started 2013 by winning the Daytona 500 and finished with the Sprint Cup Series title, and crew chief Chad Knaus from managing the system to perfection as they seek a record-tying seventh Sprint Cup title, all of them earned in the 11 years since the Chase for the Cup was introduced.
"No matter the format, Jimmie's the favorite," said Brad Keselowski, who edged Johnson and Clint Bowyer for the title in 2012.
"Jimmie's an animal," said Kyle Busch, who has won 28 Sprint Cup races and finished fourth in the standings last year. "I don't know any better way to put it. It's just amazing what he and the 48 team have been able to accomplish."
Besides the favorites, there are at least five other drivers who envision 2014 as a year of redemption:
DALE EARNHARDT JR.Earnhardt has won just once in his last 199 Sprint Cup starts -- dominating at the 2012 Quicken Loans 400 in Michigan -- but he has made significant competitive strides, qualifying for the Chase each of the last three years.
"I feel I am on the verge of breaking through and having one of my best seasons," said Earnhardt, who matched his best points showing since 2005 by finishing fifth in points last season. "With the trajectory that our team has had, I feel we are peaking at the right time to battle for a championship."
Even with two poles, a career-best 22 top-10 finishes and a career-high $7.15 million in winnings in 2013, his inability to claim more than 19 career checkered flags gnaws at Earnhardt.
"You see videos of the last year in review," he said. "You see everybody else in those videos holding trophies and celebrating wins and you're not. All the shots of you are just walking around on pit road or doing something not in victory lane. That's very motivating. Trust me, nobody wants to win more than me and Steve [crew chief Letarte]."
Letarte said he's seen Earnhardt mature, on and off the track.
"I think Dale's management of the races on Sunday has become very impressive. He's come to realize that to win a Cup race, you have to be around for the last restart. You can't win one in the first 450 miles, but there are a lot of opportunities to lose one."
The 2012 Sprint Cup champ failed to qualify for the Chase in 2013. "It definitely wasn't good. But that was last year," Keselowski said. "We missed a few things and had some bad breaks. Much like what I did in 2012 didn't count for much in 2013, what you do in 2013 doesn't count for much in 2014."
Keselowski did win seven of his 13 Nationwide Series starts last year. But after winning five Sprint Cup races in 2012 with an average finishing position of 10.1, Keselowski won just once in 2013 as a series of mishaps negated his improved qualifying (from an average starting spot of 16.2 to 11.8 last season).
After finishing second in the Chase to Keselowski in 2012, Bowyer seemed to be on an unstoppable path to stardom, providing a golden meal ticket for Michael Waltrip Racing.
Angrily chasing Jeff Gordon through the garage area at Phoenix after Gordon mathematically ended his title bid in the next-to-last race, only seemed to enhance his celebrity as the hard-charging, take-no-garbage, fun-loving character from Kansas.
Though he finished seventh in points last season, Bowyer's image took a severe hit at Richmond when he spun his Toyota, ensuring that teammate Martin Truex Jr. would qualify for the Chase. An ensuing investigation cost MWR much more than $300,000 in penalties.
"It's part of history," driver Ryan Newman said. "Everybody makes mistakes. Sometimes you have to forgive and forget, but it's still on the record. I can't say I was fine with it. [But] I was fine with him admitting the mistake. I'm past it."
DENNY HAMLINHamlin's 2013 was a season to forget. But for a driver who had won five times in 2012 and finished in the top 10 of Sprint Cup points for five consecutive seasons, there was a lesson.
"I took for granted just making the Chase every single year and winning multiple races every year," said Hamlin, who could not overcome a compressed vertebra that sidelined him for four races.
His rivalry with former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano led to a crash at Fontana, Calif., and the back injury that shelved Hamlin and relegated him to 23rd place in the final standings.
"The only thing that's keeping me up at night, right now, is the anticipation," Hamlin said. "I'm one of the few drivers who couldn't get this offseason over quick enough. From what I've seen from testing, I believe we're going to be one of the guys that comes out pretty strong, pretty early."
That prediction seems right on. Not only did he manage his only win of 2013 in the finale at Homestead, holding off Matt Kenseth and Earnhardt, he came out smoking in 2014, winning last Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited.
A driver on the rise with Penske Racing when he was suspended from NASCAR after a positive test for amphetamines in July 2012, Allmendinger said he had unknowingly taken Adderall and successfully completed NASCAR's Road to Recovery program.
He landed a temporary ride with Phoenix Racing and was welcomed back to Team Penske as an IndyCar test driver. Winning both Camping World Truck Series races in which he drove for Team Penske in 2013 didn't hurt his marketability. The positive reference from respected owner Roger Penske went a long way toward JTG Daugherty offering Allmendinger a three-year deal.
"When it's not there in front of you anymore, you realize how much you love it," Allmendinger said. "I'm very fortunate and I know that."