This is an extended version of a story that appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 3 Analytics Issue. Subscribe today!
WELCOME TO NASCAR 2014, aka Chase for the Sprint Cup 4.0, when 16 teams will qualify for the postseason -- by winning races. What does that change? For the superpowers, not a lot, except that winning as many races as possible might keep a rival out. For the mom-and-pops, though, win-and-in could mean their first real shot at an invite to the party. So how will it all shake out? Here's our best guess in The Mag's annual garage preview, racing team by team from the biggest dog to the littlest ankle biter.
Jimmie Johnson (2013 points rank: 1st): Now just one Cup shy of tying Richard Petty's and Dale Earnhardt's holy mark of seven.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (5th): His first three seasons at HMS, his average points finish was 19.3. The last three, it's been eighth -- all three in the Chase.
Jeff Gordon (6th): The winner of the 2012 Heisman Humanitarian Award continues to stiff-arm questions about retirement.
Kasey Kahne (12th): The good news? He posted his fourth multi-win season. The bad news? He once again vanished during autumn.
After two years off, HMS returned to the head table at the Champion's dinner with Johnson's sixth Cup in eight years. But nearly as important to team owner Rick Hendrick was that all four of his cars made the Chase field and three were legit late-season contenders. Some claim the new Chase format was designed to target Johnson (he disagrees), but when the 2013 season was run through the 2014 postseason format, the Cup champ would have been Earnhardt, despite a lack of race wins. We're guessing that Junior Nation wouldn't have had any problem overlooking that little detail.
Matt Kenseth (2nd): With all due respect to his '03 championship campaign, his seven-win 2013 performance was his best season.
Kyle Busch (4th): Five victories would boost him into the top 20 of NASCAR's career wins list. He's still just 28 years old.
Denny Hamlin (23rd): The broken lower-back vertebra he suffered last March at Fontana sidelined him for four races but is finally all healed.
If not for one bad pit stop at the season's next-to-last race, Coach Gibbs might be celebrating his fourth Cup title (with three different drivers). But there's plenty to be excited about in 2014. Hamlin's win in the '13 season finale sent the message he's back to old form. And Busch finally did what people were beginning to believe he wasn't capable of: carry the momentum of spring and summer into a deep Chase run. Many believe that was the final hurdle for Shrub to graduate from merely a race winner to a true title threat.