Feature Story

10 Storylines To Watch In 2004

1. The Chase For The Championship
Brian France won't call it a "playoff," but I will. Ten races at the end of the season to determine the 2004 champion. The gap between each position will be tightened with only 50 points separating first from tenth. Victories mean a little more this season, but the ten race stretch run will still come down to which driver is the most consistent. The system still rewards consistency moreso than a race win. In a three race span, a driver recording three 8th place finishes will still be better than a driver scoring two victories and a below-30th finish. The TV ratings for the final ten races will be studied, analyzed, and dissected by the gang from Daytona Beach. The fate of the 2005 championship likely rests in those ratings.

2. Spoilers and Tires
Reducing the spoilers and a softer Goodyear tire in 2004 should put an even greater demand on the driver in terms of finishing position. Reducing the spoiler puts a premium on handling. The softer tire should allow the smoother driver to save their tires over the course of a run. Whereas in 2003 drivers were able to win races by short pitting (or not pitting) toward the end of the race, in 2004 the softer tire is expected to wear out quicker than the 2003 harder tire. Instead of "staying out" during a late race caution flag, the issue in the coming year is expected to be two tires or four tires.... but definitely tires.

2. The Rookie Class
Brian Vickers, driving the #25 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is the favorite to capture the Rookie Of The Year award. His main competition will likely come from Scott Riggs in the #10 Valvoline Chevrolet and Johnny Sauter in the #30 AOL Chevrolet. Kasey Kahne and Brendan Gaughan round out the talented rookie class.

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr
Besides his usual victories at Talladega, Earnhardt Jr scored a win at Phoenix in 2003. A third place points finish was the highest of his career. One area his team has focused on is consistency on pit road-- something that was lacking in 2003. NASCAR's most popular driver should be one of the leading challengers in the final ten race championship playoff. The expectations for Driver #8 are high in 2004. Maybe too high.

4. Jeff Gordon/Hendrick Motorsports
2004 marks the 20th anniversary season for Hendrick Motorsports. After 20 years, the organization is one of the largest in NASCAR... and as strong as ever.
Considering his performance in the mid-late 90's, Gordon has had a relatively quiet two seasons on the NASCAR circuit. A combined total of six wins in the past two years is solid, but inconsistency hindered his title hopes. His performances in October and November have been strong the past two seasons as he quietly put together strong conclusions to the 2002 and 2003 seasons. It's safe to assume he'll be one of the top ten drivers eligible for the final playoff in 2004. Building momentum before the stretch run begins will be vital to his chances.
If the playoff system had been in effect for 2003, Jimmie Johnson would have won the championship. Johnson backed up an impressive rookie season in 2002 with a runner-up finish in the 2003 points standings. Johnson has a knack of knowing when to run aggressively and when to back off and run for the points. Second year drivers aren't supposed to know how to do that. Then again, JJ isn't your ordinary second year driver. His third team might produce his first championship.
Terry Labonte finished 2003 in the top ten in the points standings. With a memorable victory in the 2003 Southern 500, Labonte enters 2004 with renewed optimism and a long term contract. Though his championship days might be in the rear view mirror, Labonte can sneak into the top ten. Don't count him out just yet.
Brian Vickers had several solid qualifying efforts at the end of 2003 and seemed to gel with crew chief Peter Sospenzo. It would be unfair to expect Vickers to challenge for the Nextel Cup trophy in his rookie season, but if there's one longshot who might seem like a crazy gamble before the season starts, it's Vickers.

5. Ryan Newman
He had a breakthrough season in 2003 with 8 victories and 11 pole positions. Can he improve upon that effort in 2004? But more importantly, he has to run up front when it counts-- in the final ten weeks of the season. Newman has proven he can run up front. But his equipment hasn't been the most reliable. Blown engines hurt his title hopes in 2003, not to mention spectacular crashes at Daytona and Talladega. The 2003 season was an 'all or nothing' year for Newman. He might win 10 races in 2004; but winning a championship will require greater consistency.

6. Matt Kenseth
The playoff system might actually favor a consistent driver like Matt Kenseth rather than a hard charger like Ryan Newman. Wins are important, but top ten finishes will likely prove to be the difference in the 2004 title chase. Kenseth had more top ten finishes than anyone else in 2003. If he can do that again in the final ten race stretch in 2004, there could be back-to-back titles in the DeWalt camp. Though, with increased media attention and off-track demands on his time, Kenseth might struggle to find the proper balance in 2004. After all, he's in uncharted territory.

7. Tony Stewart
The spotlight was on him throughout 2003 as the defending series champion. He enters 2004 under the radar screen. The big news in the off season was a re-organization at the top of Joe Gibbs Racing. Very quietly, Tony had a good finish to the 2003 season. He'll definitely be one of the ten drivers eligible for the ten race playoff in 2004. There's more than a few tracks in those final ten races where Tony has had success. He's scored victories at Loudon, Dover, Martinsville, Charlotte, Atlanta, Phoenix, and Homestead. That final ten race stretch seems made for a Hoosier battle of epic proportions-- Stewart vs Gordon with a title on the line. Truly a made-for-TV event.

8. Yates/Roush Partnership
Two owners who have been fiercely independent over the years and joined forces in the engine department. Roush engines have always been a hit-or-miss endeavor. Yates is known for producing some of the most powerful engines in the garage area. This can either work really well, or really bad. There's no in between. There are several teams in both organizations looking for redemption in 2004: Dale Jarrett, Elliott Sadler, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, and Ricky Rudd all had uncharacteristic poor seasons in 2003.

9. Nextel/Sponsor Issues
In the coming year you're probably going to get sick of Nextel. There can only be so many new commercials each year. By race #10 of seeing the same Nextel promotional commercials, the die hard race fans might be ready to switch to Verizon Wireless. Though, all things considered, the infusion of new cash from Nextel into the sport should provide worthwhile for fans and drivers alike. On the downside of things, the number of full-time Nextel Cup teams is under 40 for the season. Jeff Burton, a perennial winner on the NASCAR circuit, begins 2004 without a major sponsor. Jimmy Spencer is without a primary sponsor on the #7 car. Bill Elliott's limited schedule might be even more limited without a major sponsor. NASCAR might still be the fastest growing spectator sport in the United States, but it's obvious that advertisers aren't getting the proper return on their investment. There is trouble on the horizon.

10. Richard Childress Racing
Another driver likely to be in the ten race playoff is Kevin Harvick. After suffering a meltdown in 2002, Harvick bounced back with a number of strong efforts in 2003. Though he has yet to show the week-to-week consistency necessary to win a championship, a short ten race run might be better suited for Harvick to win his first Nextel Cup crown. His teammate Robby Gordon swept the road course races in 2003 and seems on the verge of cracking the top ten in points. Robby excels on the road courses and short tracks. Consistent performances on the 1.5-mile tracks will determine whether he steps up to the elite level in Nextel Cup, or continues to languish in the 11th-20th region.

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