Five drivers who could join the Chase in 2014
January 25, 2014, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com
A champion isn't the only thing the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup produces. Each year since the format's inception in 2004, drivers have had breakthrough seasons and continued to shake up the postseason field. Change is constant, whether it's a relative unknown charging toward championship contention or a field of drivers totally different from the previous year.
Since 2005, an average of 4.4 drivers each season qualified for the Chase after not making it the previous year. In seven of those nine seasons, a driver has finished in the top three of the final standings after failing to make the Chase the previous year.
So not only does the Chase field get shuffled every year, those who are reintroduced to the postseason consistently compete for championships.
Here are five drivers -- broken down by category -- most likely to join the 2014 Chase field after missing out last year.
The rookie: Austin Dillon
The 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion joins a three-car Richard Childress Racing stable that should produce a competitive ride early. Dillon ran more Cup races last season than any other Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender, making 11 starts for three different teams. He was running third when the white flag dropped at the fall Talladega race, but was involved in a last-lap wreck while making a move for the win.
Considering that performance, an 11th-place run in June's Michigan race and a session-leading speed at Preseason Thunder testing in January, Dillon seems advanced enough on the big tracks to be in contention for a victory or two. That would put him in position to join Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards as the only drivers to make the Chase in their rookie seasons.
The first-timer: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The last time we saw Ricky Stenhouse Jr. teamed with crew chief Mike Kelley, the two were obliterating the Nationwide Series field en route to consecutive championships in 2011 and 2012. Kelley stayed with Roush Fenway Racing's No. 6 Nationwide Series program when Stenhouse got the call to drive the 17 Cup car last year, but the two are back together in 2014.
Having that familiarity in the garage and at the shop benefits Stenhouse, but it's only part of the puzzle. Something clicked for the 2013 Sunoco Rookie of the Year late last season. In Stenhouse's first 25 starts, his average finish was 19.7. That improved to 16.9 over the final 11 races. Stenhouse earned his lone top-five and each of his three top-10s in the final 11 races as well, his season reaching a crescendo with a third-place run in October at Talladega.
A driver can be dangerous when he's more comfortable both on the track and in the garage, all of which points to the possibility of a breakthrough for the 26-year-old.
The fresh start: Martin Truex Jr.
Truex was on the cusp of qualifying for his second consecutive Chase before being mired in a race scandal at the regular-season finale at Richmond. The eventual penalties handed down to Michael Waltrip Racing were so severe that not only did Truex lose his postseason spot, the sponsor of his No. 56 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota pulled its support, eventually costing the driver his ride with the team.
Truex, now with Furniture Row Racing, earned his second career victory in 2013 and ended the season with an average finish of 15.1, the second-best of his career. His average finish on the two road courses was 2.0 -- with a win at Sonoma -- and Truex had three top-fives and six top-10s in the six races at 1.5-mile tracks prior to the Chase field being set.
The 33-year-old knows how to perform, and so does his Furniture Row team, which made the Chase for the first time in team history last season.
The recovered: Denny Hamlin
A broken vertebra in his lower back sidelined Hamlin for the better part of five races last year and robbed him of valuable track time in the new Generation-6 vehicle. That injury combined with the specter of his feud with Joey Logano contributed to a malaise that never lifted. The result: Hamlin missed the Chase for the first time in his career, while Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch enjoyed career years.
Hamlin's outlook is more hopeful than another driver returning from injury, Tony Stewart. Stewart shattered his right leg in an August sprint car crash, and until 'Smoke' climbs into his No. 14 Chevrolet and circles the high-banks of Daytona, it is hard to know if he'll be racing at 100 percent for the season-opening Daytona 500.
Hamlin, meanwhile, earned his only victory of 2013 at Homestead in the season finale. The previous time he won at Homestead was in 2009, and Hamlin followed that up with a championship run the next season.
The veteran: Brad Keselowski
In 2013, Keselowski became the second champion under the Chase format to not qualify for the postseason one year after winning the title. Tony Stewart missed out in 2006, but drove in the postseason for the next six seasons -- and won another title. There's no reason to think Keselowski won't enjoy a similar resurgence.
The 2013 season feels like an aberration, one in which the outspoken champ was forced to overcome bad break after bad break. Keselowski opened the year with four consecutive top-fives, driving some battered cars across the start/finish line in the process that would have sent most drivers toward the middle of the pack. He was undone by a rare midseason slump that saw the Team Penske driver finish outside the top 10 nine times during a 10-race stretch, as well as garnering 31 points worth of penalties after two failed inspections.
More than anything, Keselowski has come off as cool and confident during his postseason interviews. Perhaps being out of the spotlight over the winter has refreshed and renewed the driver. If Keselowski's not doubting himself, why should we?