Welcome to From the Marbles' 2014 season previews. Here's how we think the Chase will shake out in this first year of 16 drivers and eliminations. Will we be right? Unlikely, but it's fun to think about our soothsaying possibilities until the green flag waves for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 23.
Driver: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2013 Finish: 5th
2013 Highlight: Nine top-15 Chase finishes is a recipe for success, right? Two of those top-15s were race wins in the "Jimmie Johnson excluded" category at Dover and Texas, while Junior also won that category in the Daytona 500.
Yeah, there wasn't an outright race win, but the gains in speed that Junior and crew chief Steve Letarte have made over the past three seasons are obvious. Instead of being simply a candidate for the Chase, Junior has transformed himself into a championship contender. Of course, there's now a question looming over that last sentence, but we'll get to that in a moment.
2013 Lowlight: Before those nine top-15s, there was the blown engine at Chicago, which stifled Junior's Chase chances. Most other Chases, Junior would be in a position to be in the top three. Instead, because of that 35th place finish, he was relegated to fifth despite the strong nine races that immediately ensued.
Why is Junior here? Because of what we said earlier; he's now a championship contender. And now it's time to ask the question: Is this Junior's last best chance for a championship?
It may seem like an awful lot of pressure for the final year of the Letarte-Earnhardt pairing before the crew chief heads to NBC Sports, but it's a worthy wonder. The chemistry that the two have together is obvious both on and off the track. In Junior's first three years at Hendrick, he had 29 top 10 finishes. In his last three, all with Letarte, he's had 54. Almost double.
It's entirely possible that whoever succeeds Letarte will immediately mesh with Junior. It's also entirely possible that it'll take some time. But Junior turns 40 this year. Only two drivers have won their first Cup title at over 40-years-old – Bobby Allison and Dale Jarrett.
How could Junior not be here? He's going to have to break the winning every-four-years cycle. Well, he doesn't have to – odds are, a few drivers will make the Chase via points – but Junior shouldn't risk it. A down year and another winless season could leave him on the outside looking in at Chicago.
Best Winter Olympic event: We envision Junior as someone more content to sit back and soak the Olympics in rather than participate, especially in an extreme sport. He'd probably fit in well as the pusher on a four-man bobsled team. Blend in, go fast and have fun.
Worst Winter Olympic event: Any freestyle skiing event.
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