COMMENTARY | Next month is the 56th running of the Daytona 500, and thus the beginning of another Sprint Cup season that promises more competition between racing teams and manufacturers due to a variety of rule changes, including adjustments in aerodynamics, radiator size, and car height .
Although Jimmie Johnson has reclaimed the Cup throne after two straight Chase falters, the rest of the field has obviously made gains on the 6-time champ, and this season could very possibly be the beginning of the end of Hendrick Motorsports -- specifically Jimmie Johnson -- domination. The leading threat emerging, based off last season's tremendous success, is clearly Joe Gibbs Racing.
Here are the reasons why Joe Gibbs Racing is primed to overtake Hendrick as the premier organization in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series:
Matt Kenseth is an instant force in the #20
It took Matt Kenseth only 3 races to win in his new ride, working with a new crew, and a new manufacturer (Toyota). On top of that, he won a season-high 7 races in 2013, and had career performances at tracks he has historically been mediocre to poor, including Darlington and Martinsville.
Arguably, Kenseth's rookie season at JGR was the best of his career, winning more races than he had during his last 3 seasons at Roush Fenway Racing combined. At age 41, the senior driver in the talented J.G.R. stable has potential to compete for victories and championships for years to come.
Kyle Busch is maturing, producing championship consistency
Rowdy wins races every season, at every type of track. However, what has plagued him throughout his career has been his all-or-nothing attitude that averages out his wins with DNFs (did not finish). Whether it's age and experience, or the lessons learned as a team owner, perhaps both, Busch managed to stay calm (for the most part) last season and work with his crew to make the best of bad race days, instead of over-driving or quitting as he used to do in the past.
This change includes the Chase races, where he has traditionally plummeted in the past. After beginning the 2013 Chase reset in 3rd place, for the first time in his career, Busch consistently finished in the top 5 throughout the 10-race span, finishing outside the top 15 only once. This persistence earned him a 4th-place finish in the standings, a drastic improvement over his previous Chase finishes.
With this progress, Busch is learning to position himself to stay atop the standings, and shifting from wins and DNFs to wins and decent finishes will make him a legitimate contender and eventual Sprint Cup champion.
Denny Hamlin returns healthy and hungry
Denny Hamlin will be looking to make the statement that he's back and more than capable of competing at the top level. The injury that forced him to miss 4 races during the 2013 season ruined his chance at making the chase and relegated his team to a field-filler with substitute drivers during that time. When Hamlin returned, the team still struggled off-key during the remainder of races.
With a new season before them, Hamlin and crew will be more than motivated to prove they can achieve what their teammates did last year -- an effort likely to succeed given Hamlin's record. In 2010, he matched Busch's 2008 record 8-win season, and nearly won the Sprint Cup that year going into the finale only to finish 2nd in the standings. Hamlin will be a man on a mission, rounding out the highly ambitious and capable JGR stable heading into Daytona.
Changing of the Guard?
Jimmie Johnson will be aiming to advance his place in the history books when he begins pursuit of his 7th Sprint Cup title next month, but he will have to prevail amid the strongest competition yet.
With Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch besting Johnson's 3 Hendrick teammates in the final standings, it's clear that all 3 J.G.R. drivers will contend for the Sprint Cup in 2014. If the engine woes have been corrected as much as the teams, and the teams execute at their highest potential, Joe Gibbs Racing may very well have a recipe for a new dynasty.
Sean Vasquez is a Yahoo contributor, freelance writer, and fan of NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, Nationwide Series, and Camping World Truck Series.
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