Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota
Hamlin, 34, and Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards are the best drivers in the sport not to have won a Sprint Cup championship. Hamlin has come tantalizingly close, finishing second in 2010 and third last year, when he went to Homestead-Miami as one of the four finalists. Might this be the year?
Carl Edwards, No. 19 Toyota
Brad Keselowski already has anointed Edwards of Columbia as the best driver in the series, and Joe Gibbs Racing signed him away from Roush Fenway Racing in an attempt to win its first championship in 10 years. Edwards, 35, was series runner-up in 2008 and 2011, and he hopes a change of scenery will result in a celebratory back flip at Homestead.
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Clint Bowyer, No. 15 Toyota
Bowyer, from Emporia, Kan., became a new father and received a new contract last season, but he hasn’t won a Sprint Cup race in 77 starts, dating to the end of the controversial finish to the 2013 season. Bowyer, 35, is the featured driver for Michael Waltrip Racing, and he can ill-afford to miss the Chase for the second straight year.
Danica Patrick, No. 10 Chevrolet
Patrick, 32, brings attention to the sport and sponsorship dollars to Stewart Haas Racing, but she hasn’t come close to winning in two full seasons of Sprint Cup racing. Patrick is in the final year of her contract, and if she doesn’t run in the front sometime soon, Stewart-Haas will have to decide if the exposure she brings the team is worth disappointing results.
Tony Stewart, No. 14 Chevrolet
Stewart, 43, has been through a driver’s worst nightmare, having struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. during a sprint-car race last August in upstate New York. Stewart sat out three races to mourn and a grand jury eventually exonerated him of any criminal charges. Stewart, also still feeling the effects of a broken right leg suffered in a sprint-car crash in 2013, failed to win a race last year for the first time in his 16-year career.