The time is now: Excitement building ahead of Daytona

The return of the famous No. 3 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is just one story that is generating excitement ahead of the 2014 season.

Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images

As always, we’ve had a short off-season in NASCAR and it’s now behind us as things crank back up at Daytona this week. There are a lot of changes. They include new drivers with new teams. The same is also true with crew chiefs. We also have some tweaking of the rules package by NASCAR. So there are a lot of things for fans to be excited about.

Now I go back to last year at this time and there was an excitement in the air that I honestly hadn’t felt in our sport for a long time. It all centered mainly around the new Generation 6 car. Everyone from the competitors, to the fans, to us on the TV side of things, to the folks running NASCAR were excited about it. I think it is safe to say for the most part it did not let us down.

We had a season where we had 17 different race winners. Despite Matt Kenseth winning seven races and Jimmie Johnson winning six races, there never seemed to be a feeling that one manufacturer or driver had a strangle hold on the championship. That was good for our sport because it was very unpredictable what the outcome would be week to week to week.

This year there is that same sense of excitement going into this 2014 season. As I mentioned there are only minor tweaks to the car this year, but there is also so much more to be excited about. Even though the Daytona 500 is race No. 1 of a 36-race season, it even takes on more importance than ever before.

The reason I say that is because if you think about it, now with the new format rules for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, if the winner of the Daytona 500 is a full-time driver in 2014, he or she can feel pretty good in February knowing they will be in the Chase in November.

The other storylines are also just as big. Can Jimmie Johnson, with six championships under his belt, reach the level that only two other drivers have ever reached in the history of NASCAR? Naturally I am talking about Jimmie joining only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. with seven NASCAR Sprint Cup championships.

In addition to that, we have eight young rookies joining the NASCAR Sprint Cup ranks. You’ve heard me mention it a couple times that this is the first true Rookie of the Year battle we’ve had in a very long time. As I mentioned last week, the two front-runners in that rookie class are Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson. The leg up they have on the competition is they are in really good equipment and can be competitive on the race track right out of the gate.

The other major storyline actually is tied to Austin Dillon. For the first time since that crushingly sad day in February 2001, the No. 3 is returning to the Sprint Cup series with Austin behind the wheel. That’s a really big deal for our sport that everyone will be following, honestly, all year long.

The other thing, despite the fact that Daytona is a restrictor-plate race and not really a true indication of how your season is going to be, coming out of there with a great finish will continue to always set the tone for your season. Trust me on this one because I saw for 18 years as a crew chief and for 13 years in the TV booth as a broadcaster. If you can come out of Daytona with a great finish, then your season is normally off and running. If you come out of Daytona behind, then it just seems like you are playing catch-up for such a long time.

The time is now. Daytona is upon us and I think we are all ready to get the 2014 NASCAR season started in all three of NASCAR’€™s major touring series.