NASCAR?changing for the better

Entering the 2013 NASCAR season, the car was the main focus of changes.

These changes proved to be subtle, yet correct. NASCAR went even further in 2014, having the guts to call out Chase for the Championship faults and making much needed corrections.

Sixteen drivers (up from 12) will qualify for Stock Car’s 10-race playoff. Moreover, the format will eliminate the lowest four drivers after each of the following three groups of races: race 27-29 (challenger round), race 30-32 (contender round), race 33-35 (eliminator round)

The last four drivers remaining will battle it out at the season’s final race. Simply put, whoever finishes the highest at Homestead wins the Sprint Cup title. Bonus points will not be awarded in the finale. Below are the 16 Chase driver projections:

1. Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Already with an unprecedented five straight crowns, Johnson edged Dale Earnhardt Sr. by being the first to win six in eight years. One more and he ties Sr. and “The King,” Richard Petty, for seven overall.

2. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Gibbs Racing Toyota. Led over 1,000 laps for the second straight season. Tied for series lead with 16 Top 5s in 2013. If he can overcome maturity issue, the sky’s the limit.

3. Matt Kenseth – No. 20 Gibbs Racing Toyota. Handled the move to Gibbs in style in 2013 with a Series-best seven wins. Is anyone more consistent?

4. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. Decided to test the free-agent market after 13 years with Childress Racing. Strong addition to Stewart-Haas has finished third in the final standings three of the last four years.

5. Kurt Busch – No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. Put one-car Furniture Row team on his back and took them all the way to the Chase in 2013. Will possible volatile combo of Stewart, Harvick and Busch erupt Mount Stewart-Haas?

6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. – No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. He broke Bill Elliott’s record of 10 straight Most Popular Driver Awards in 2013. Career best 22 Top 10s in 2013 and closed the year with a 5.56 average finish. Could this be the year?

7. Jeff Gordon – No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Is this the curtain call year to his Hall of Fame career? If so, bring back the Rainbow Warrior DuPont paint scheme.

8. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Gibbs Racing Toyota. Back injury forced him out of his ride for four races last season. One of the few drivers who can win at any style track.

9. Clint Bowyer – No. 15 Waltrip Racing Toyota. Move to Waltrip Racing in 2012 has bolstered his career. Tied career high with 10 Top 5s in ’13.

10. Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Penske Racing Ford. He missed 2013 Chase due to Ford being woefully behind the car changes. Bounce back year in the cards.

11. Carl Edwards No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. Once perennial power has been reduced to single digit Top 5s four of the last five years. Strength is consistency.

12. Kasey Kahne – No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Model of inconsistency. Eleven top 5s, fourth in laps led, second in fastest laps, 16.2 average finish, only 14 Top 10s in 2013.

13. Tony Stewart – No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. Low ranking due to uncertainty coming off severe leg injury. “Smoke” is the man to prove doubters wrong.

14. Joey Logano – No. 22 Penske Racing Ford. First year with Penske produced career highs in Top 5s, Top 10s, average finish.

15. Greg Biffle – No. 16 Roush Fenway Ford. The “Biff” slipped into Chase despite just four Top 5s last season. Moreover, four or fewer Top 5s in two of last three seasons.

16. Ryan Newman – No. 31 Childress Racing Chevrolet. Bad breakup with Stewart-Haas. Loves Chase extending to 16 drivers with 15.1 average finish and not finishing outside Top 15 last five seasons.

As for today, after finishing runner-up three out of the last four years, Earnhardt Jr. enters the 200th and final lap in the lead and holds on to win the 56th running of the Daytona 500.

Chase champion: Jeff Gordon

Craig Andros of Altoona is an occasional contributor. His commentary is split between two of his passions: the Steelers and NASCAR.