Jim Utter’s predictions for 2014 NASCAR campaigns

jutter@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 20, 2014 

— The 2014 NASCAR season kicks off this weekend at Daytona International Speedway. Here are picks for the best and worst to come.

Sprint Cup champion

When Jimmie Johnson was in the midst of winning five championships in a row, I decided I would continue to pick him until someone showed he could be beaten. Tony Stewart did that in 2011. Now that Johnson won his sixth title last season, I’ll return to my rule. Johnson will join Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt as the only NASCAR drivers to win seven Cup championships.

Nationwide champion

Ty Dillon came within a whisker of winning the Truck series title last season and has run strong in a limited Nationwide schedule. Richard Childress Racing’s No. 3 team won the 2013 Nationwide title with Ty’s brother, Austin. Look for another Dillon celebrating a title.

Truck champion

Ryan Blaney has proven to be a winner in both the Truck and Nationwide series. This season might be his best chance to add a championship to his resume, as he begins his second full season driving for Brad Keselowski Racing.

Daytona 500 winner

While Richard Childress Racing teams dominated 500 qualifying, and Denny Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited, Kevin Harvick – a former Daytona 500 winner – seems awfully enthusiastic about his new start at Stewart-Haas Racing. What better way to begin a new journey than with a victory.

Race fans will love …

It might take some time, but fans will discover the new Chase format will produce an exciting and tense battle for the championship. The format also will direct the most focus to the teams that win races, which is the entire point of racing after all.

Race fans will hate …

If somehow Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s title chances are snuffed out and it can – or will – be attributed to the new Chase format, then all bets are off.

Biggest surprise to make the Chase …

Aric Almirola has been making steady improvement at Richard Petty Motorsports and the organization seems to have kicked it up a notch. Expect to see Almirola make his Chase debut in 2014.

Most anticipated race

The fall race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway – always one of the biggest wild cards in the Chase – becomes the final race in an elimination round. The only possible accurate prediction: mayhem.

Most over-hyped story

Last year’s winner is this year’s winner, too. After a boatload of preseason press filled with high expectations ended with Danica Patrick wrapping up her 2013 rookie season with one top-10 finish, the attempt already is underway to salvage another season of press with the idea a driver who finished 27th in points somehow can challenge to make the Chase.

Comeback of the year

Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Cup series champion, missed the 2013 Chase but will be in the thick of the hunt for another title.

Rookie of the year

Austin Dillon already has the pole for the Daytona 500 and Kyle Larson will test him greatly, but Dillon will walk away with top honors in NASCAR’s biggest rookie class in years.

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

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