Battle of the big egos? SHR tops list of things to watch in ’14

Former rivals Tony Stewart (left) and Kurt Busch (right) are now teammates at Stewart-Haas Racing.

John Harrelson

Happy New Year, race fans! Next week, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams begin testing at Daytona International Speedway, with the start to the 2014 season little more than six weeks away.

Here are the top 10 storylines for 2014:

1. HOW WILL SHR FARE? — All eyes will be on Stewart-Haas Racing, which is expanding to four cars with the addition of Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch and the departure of Ryan Newman. This could be a championship team, or it could struggle mightily managing the expansion and the high-octane personalities on the squad. Will owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas be on the same page? Stay tuned.

2. CAN JJ BE STOPPED? — Last year, Ford signed Penske Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing hired Matt Kenseth, two moves made to try and win a championship. But Jimmie Johnson dusted them again and everyone else, too. This year, Johnson will have no shortage of challengers as he seeks a record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Expect the JGR squad to be stout again.

3. THE 3 IS BACK — For the first time in 13 years, there will be a No. 3 car in the Sprint Cup Series. Austin Dillon moves up to NASCAR’s top division and brings the iconic number back with him to one of grandfather Richard Childress’ Chevrolets. How he runs, and how fans react to seeing the No. 3 again will be a huge storyline.

4. WILL SMOKE BE BACK UP TO SPEED? — Last August, Tony Stewart suffered a horrifying double compound fracture of his right leg in a sprint car crash. He hasn’t raced since and, at age 42, isn’t getting any younger. But encouraging reports suggest Stewart is healing well and should be back by Daytona. How will he race over the course of the year?

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5. NEXT STEP FOR JUNIOR? — In 2013, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had his best season since joining Hendrick Motorsports. The one thing he didn’t do, though, is win races, and if he wants to ever win a championship, he’ll first have to find his way to Victory Lane. He just might do that in 2014.

6. CAN KESELOWSKI CHALLENGE? — One of the biggest surprises of last season was that 2012 Sprint Cup champ Brad Keselowski failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Keselowski will be looking to have a big rebound this year and his Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano will try to build on a successful 2013.

7. IS ROUSH READY? — Although Carl Edwards led the points at the end of the regular season, he and Greg Biffle were well off the pace in the Chase, never seriously contending for a championship. Can the team find the speed it lacked last year at crunch time?

8. CAN DANICA IMPROVE? — By any objective performance measure, Danica Patrick’s rookie season was a disappointment. She needs to make a meaningful improvement this year or else risk becoming nothing more than a novelty.

9. WHO TAKES ROTY HONORS? — This is a deep and talented Sprint Cup rookie class led by Dillon and the highly touted Kyle Larson. Add into the mix Michael Annett, Parker Kligerman, Cole Whitt and Justin Allgaier, and it should be a fascinating rookie battle.

10. WILL MWR RECOVER? — The Spingate fiasco at Richmond cost Michael Waltrip Racing a sponsor, which in turn caused it to cut back to two full-time teams and one part-time team. How MWR responds to its cutbacks and reorganization will be critical to the team’s future.