Every offseason race fans see driver shakeups and new storylines to look forward to in the upcoming year. Typically, just one or two are of significance but 2014 will be quite different. In 2012, Danica Patrick was making the full-time move from INDYCAR to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with Stewart-Haas Racing. This past season, the prominent news was Matt Kenseth parting ways with Roush-Fenway Racing after 13 full-time seasons and a Cup title to Joe Gibbs Racing and the snubbed Joey Logano bouncing over to Penske Racing alongside defending Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski.
For 2014, the changes and excitement for impending drama has come in bulk. The upcoming NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season will see more than its share of shakeups, led by moves from veterans Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch to Stewart-Haas Racing. What’s even more exciting is that the headlining drama isn’t just left to NASCAR this year. Juan Pablo Montoya will leave Chip Ganassi Racing and the Sprint Cup Series for a return to INDYCAR, where he finds a new home with Ganassi’s biggest rival, Team Penske.
In NASCAR, the most recent drama came after Harvick announced he would leave Richard Childress Racing, a place he has called home since he made his Nationwide Series (then the Busch Series) debut on October 23, 1999. Much was kept quiet on Harvick’s reason for the departure, but it boiled over with a heated interview following a Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway in late October. It was then that Harvick passionately explained his disdain for the future plans at RCR, specifically Richard Childress’ grandsons Austin and Ty Dillon.
“(Ty Dillon) just dumped me,” Harvick said after wrecking in Martinsville. “Exactly the reason why I’m leaving RCR because you’ve got those kids coming up, and they’ve got no respect for what they do in this sport and they’ve had everything fed to them with a spoon.”
Joining Harvick at Stewart-Haas is recovering bad boy Kurt Busch, who has been attempting to rebuild his reputation following his contract termination with Penske at the end of the 2011 season. Following stints with the small racing outfits Phoenix Racing and Furniture Row Racing, Busch’s new ride is his first opportunity with another big team. What makes this move even more intriguing is the past relationship between Harvick and Busch.
“It’s funny how things change and how things evolve,” Harvick said. “For us as competitors, we’re both very aggressive and want to win races, but I think as you mature you understand that you have to have good people around you to be successful. You have to have a successful organization, which includes good drivers, good crew chiefs, owners, everything.”
Stewart-Haas has undoubtedly set themselves up for success with the additions of Harvick and Busch, but what remains to be seen is how the trifecta of outspoken and fiery drivers (Stewart, Harvick and Busch) will coexist.
Room was needed for Stewart-Haas’ additions and with no plans to part ways with the marketing machine of Patrick, veteran Ryan Newman, despite making the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup this season, was the odd driver out. Tabbed back in September, Newman will replace Jeff Burton in the No. 31 Chevrolet with Richard Childress Racing. Newman hasn’t had quite the same career success as Harvick and Busch, but having qualified for the Chase three of the last five seasons, Newman should continue to keep RCR competitive on the Sprint Cup circuit.
No official announcement has been made as yet, but speculation is abound that Austin Dillon will join Newman in the Sprint Cup Series with RCR. Dillon, the reigning NASCAR Nationwide Series champion, would be competing in his first fulltime season in the Cup series and many assume that he may bring the legendary No. 3 that he has run in the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series.
Until that announcement happens, all is left for speculation, but it hasn’t kept Dillon from talking about it as he understands the sensitivity.
“As far as (the fans) gravitating to me, I think there’s going to be some lovers, some haters, there’s going to be a little bit of everything,” Dillon said. ‘I really enjoy the support from our fans. It’ll be interesting to see. Every time we got the lead in that 3 car (in the NASCAR Nationwide Series), people were standing up in the stands.”
In the wake of the most controversial incident for NASCAR in recent years with the Michael Waltrip Racing scandal at Richmond, Martin Truex Jr. was left looking for a job next year. The incident ultimately left Truex Jr. unemployed next season as NAPA pulled its sponsorship from Michael Waltrip Racing. In a stroke of good luck, Truex Jr. didn’t have to wait long.
With Busch leaving Furniture Row Racing, the No. 78 Chevrolet needed a new driver for a team coming off its career-best season that included their first berth in the Chase. The perfectly timed marriage partnered a successful single-car team with another Chase-caliber driver.
“A few weeks ago, when the dominos started to fall, I wasn’t sure where I would end up,” Truex Jr. said when the deal was officially announced Nov. 1 at Texas Motor Speedway. “As unlucky as I got at Richmond, I got just as lucky when this deal turned up.”
Even with all of these exciting moves in NASCAR, the move that could carry the most drama and excitement into 2014 is that of Montoya moving to the IndyCar Series.
Amidst another lackluster NASCAR season, it was announced in August that Montoya’s contract with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing would not be renewed. Since joining the team in 2007 after successful stints in CART and Formula One, Montoya recorded only two seasons where he finished among the top 20 in points and one Chase appearance. With five different crew chiefs over seven seasons, Montoya never really developed chemistry.
“I decided to come here and do it with Chip (Ganassi) and we knew from Day 1, he told me it was going to be an uphill battle and it was,” said Montoya, who competed for Ganassi in CART where he won a series crown and Indy 500 title. “We worked as hard as we could. If you look at all the years of Ganassi, the only guy who made the Chase was me. From that point of view, I’m happy. I think the hardest thing over the years was the amount of changes. There was just no consistency.”
Not only is Montoya returning to open-wheel racing that gave him an Indianapolis 500 win (2000), CART championship (1999), and seven Formula One wins, but he will be doing it in the cockpit of Ganassi’s biggest IndyCar Series rival, Roger Penske.
“I didn’t choose to leave him to go drive for another team,” Montoya said. “He chose to let me go and then I found another job.”
Montoya’s arrival should only fuel the fire between the Ganassi and Penske teams that saw late-season controversy between Penske’s Will Power and IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon of Ganassi.
“It’s certainly going to open up the field for some banter back and forth at particular times,” Ganassi said. “I’m sure that there will be some situations maybe that neither of us has come across before in our relationship.”
Other changes for the IndyCar Series in 2014 include reigning Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan leaving KV Racing Technology and joining Ganassi, rising star Carlos Munoz securing his first full-time seat with Andretti Autosport as they switch over from Chevrolet to Honda powerplants in 2014, and the impending replacement of Dario Franchitti at Ganassi. Ryan Briscoe and Alex Tagliani appear as the two frontrunners for the open seat of Franchitti, the four-time series champion and three-time Indy 500 winner who was forced to retire following his accident during the Houston street race in October.
It’s tough to predict how all of these changes will play out across NASCAR and INDYCAR, but what is certain is that changes bring drama and storylines. In 2014, there should undoubtedly be plenty to talk about.