Panel of experts debates the hot topics in NASCAR 1. Now that the season has been completed, what do you think? What stands out about 2014? Alan Cavanna: The Chase and everything surrounding the Chase. It worked out better than expected and I think it's sent the sport in a good direction. Kenny Bruce: It's definitely a long list, some good and some not-so-good. Dale Earnhardt Jr . winning the Daytona 500 , Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger winning for the first time and making the Chase, the excitement of the new format and the intensity that it generated. You had must-win situations for Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick , and they came through. The whole situation surrounding Tony Stewart late in the season will be memorable for all the wrong reasons, unfortunately. But it's become a part of what the '14 season was all about. Zack Albert: So many storylines to choose from and not just with the new-look Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Five guys -- and there for a while, a sixth -- rose to fantastic heights: Kevin Harvick , Brad Keselowski , Joey Logano , Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr . all either enjoyed resurgences or breakout years. The sixth slight nod goes to Jimmie Johnson , who was hot as a firecracker heading into the summer, but wasn't quite up to his usual Chase standards. Cavanna: As a storyteller, I loved the emergence of Brad K. as the "black hat" to some. The only way to really earn that is through great performances. Fans love having someone to hate, and Brad gave them plenty of wins to hate on. Bruce: The more you think about it, the more things slide back into focus, Zack. The Johnson hot streak you mentioned, the post-race altercations at Charlotte and Texas that Alan alluded to. And we haven't even touched Nationwide or Trucks, which had incredible moments as well. A rookie wins the NNS title? The first back-to-back champ in the Truck Series? Albert: I distinctly remember sitting in the Atlanta Motor Speedway media center watching Ryan Blaney and German Quiroga duke it out on the final lap of the trucks' visit to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park . The whole room stopped what they were doing to watch. Between that and the whole aura of Eldora for the second straight year, many great Truck Series memories. Cavanna: I really believe people will be talking about this first Chase, and first championship race, for a long, long time. To have three contenders with three laps to go still racing for a title was unreal. Bruce: Safe to say the season gave us plenty to talk about. But you're probably correct Alan. When it was all over, the new format and the final race seemed to stand above the rest. Albert: Very true. It all played out with a great finish and all four drivers putting in a championship-worthy performance. And whether you love the new Chase or are one of its critics, the bottom line is: Was the racing good? At Homestead and many other tracks week-in and week-out, the answer was yes. Bruce: Now the question is how do they top that, Zack? Albert: Always room for an encore, methinks. 2. Kevin Harvick semi-joked that the Chase format could shorten his career because of the intensity it generated. OK, maybe or maybe not. But will the format adversely impact opportunities for a team to win multiple titles? Will we see more guys in the hunt or domination by those who figure out the best approach? Expect Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus to be better in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup next year, now that they have one year of experience under the format. Cavanna: It's so hard to say because we're dealing with such a small sample size. We all made predictions before knowing how this Chase would work, and we were generally all wrong. Bruce: Generally? How about specifically, Alan? I think I had four different winners in four different Chase brackets and "might" have picked Harvick in one of them. Cavanna: In the end, the most dominant car won. But we also saw how it all came down to one race, and really the final pit stop. That could easily swing a championship, and prevent repeat titles. Albert: The degree of difficulty certainly went up in 2014. But you also have to have the common denominator of performance, year over year, to form a dynasty. Does Harvick have a repeat in him? Absolutely, but some of the new format's nuances can make it tough sledding. It will be interesting to see how teams learn from this first go-round and what the strategies will be for the next Chase episode. Bruce: Listening to post-race comments, Zack, I think you're right. We didn't know what to expect and neither did the teams. I imagine they're already determining what they could have or should have done differently for next year. Albert: Let's hope they can enjoy a little bit of offseason down time before they start number crunching on Chase scenarios. Cavanna: With one Chase to study, I can easily see the No. 48 team planning its strategy for next year. I think teams will take a different approach to ensuring their spot in the final four. Bruce: As far as whether the format favors someone dominating in terms of winning titles, I doubt it. With the elimination races in place, we saw what can happen to even those that were perceived to be the "best" teams. Still, anyone not figuring on Harvick being an early-season favorite should turn in his or her hard card. Cavanna: Once teams "figure it out," I think we could see some teams get good at it. Bruce: Given the format, do we see more " Mark Martin " scenarios? Great drivers who never win a title? Cavanna: That's very possible, Kenny. I feel like every year we'll have a driver who has a Logano-like year, but then just miss it in Homestead. Albert: Not to mention making room for an underdog, a la Newman, in the Championship 4. Bruce: I guess it's a glass half-full or half-empty scenario. Maybe more guys having great seasons that don't win a title, or perhaps the opportunity for more drivers to win it. Albert: Alan's still waiting on his opportunity in a third Penske car. Talk about your Chase bracket buster … Cavanna: My pit crew is stellar! Put me in the race, Captain! 3. OK, we know how 2014 shook out. What’s the outlook for 2015? And by the way, the Daytona 500 is less than 100 days away. Our experts think Kyle Larson makes the postseason next year -- and he may even be a title contender. Albert: Wow. Let me dust off my dart set and start throwing. Bruce: Daytona's rising. That much we know. As for anything else? Lawn Darts, Zack. Go big or go home. Cavanna: The emergence of Kyle Larson will be fun to watch. As long as his team continues to improve, I think he's a lock for the Chase, and a deep run. Albert: A very safe bet that he'll visit Victory Lane on the Sprint Cup side in 2015, probably more than once. Bruce: At least he still has his crew chief, which is more than his teammate can say. Cavanna: I also think some drivers will look at Larson's 2014 season and be even more motivated to get that win. Remember, if Larson had just one regular-season win, it could've been him taking a title in Homestead. No driver will want to be saying "what if" after having a great Chase but not being in it. Bruce: Actually, I think the crew chief movement will play a bigger role in '15. A lot of guys on the box seem to be on the move -- McMurray and Earnhardt Jr. will have new guys in place, we're still waiting to see what unfolds over at Joe Gibbs Racing. Kahne and Kenny Francis are no longer together. Maybe the season-opening question should be, can change top the tried-and-true? Cavanna: Kenseth switched teams and won seven races (in '13); Harvick switched and won a championship. What's next for Carl Edwards ? Albert: Plenty of movement, even though this silly season seems to be sprinkled with less hilarity. I'll be very interested to see if Team Penske can keep it up after a banner season, and how Hendrick Motorsports regroups after going 0-for-4 on title-eligible drivers at Homestead last weekend. Will also be watching to see if Chase Elliott takes those first steps into Sprint Cup, as hinted. Cavanna: We haven't even mentioned the 2015 rules package. The no-ride height made for a big change this season. Next year will be another adjustment, hopefully for the better. Bruce: If that's the case, Alan, then we should probably play close attention to next month's anticipated test at Charlotte. I seem to recall one team being ahead of everyone at that point a year ago ... and look where they ended up. Albert: Who knew that simulated races in December would mean so much? Cavanna: I'm filling out my Chase bracket based on next month's test. 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Kahne also picks up new primary sponsor for three races in 2015 RELATED: Play NASCAR Fantasy Live " Sign up for RaceView today MORE: Rodden to step in as No. 5 crew chief Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday morning that it has signed driver Kasey Kahne to a three-year contract extension, keeping him in the fold through 2018 . "I've found a home at Hendrick Motorsports," said Kahne in a team release. "We have incredible people and partners supporting us, and I couldn’t be more excited about the direction we're headed as a team and a company. It's the right place for me, and I'm looking forward to being here for a long time." The news comes one day after a major shakeup with Hendrick's No. 5 Chevrolet team in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, with Keith Rodden accepting a crew chief role and Kenny Francis, atop Kahne's pit box since the 2005 season finale, shifting to the position of vehicle technical director. Kahne, an 11-year veteran and 17-time winner in NASCAR's premier series, and Francis joined the Hendrick organization in 2012. "It's extremely gratifying to work with a driver like Kasey," said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports said in a team release. "I think the world of him both as a driver with championship-level talent and an overall terrific young man. Our whole organization has a great deal of respect for how hard he works, the professionalism he displays with our partners and the way he carries himself every day. We're committed to winning races and competing for titles with him for many years to come." In addition, Kahne will have LiftMaster on board as a primary sponsor for three races in the 2015 Sprint Cup season as well as an associate sponsor for the rest of the races. The agreement will be for the next three seasons (2015 to 2017). LiftMaster will be the primary sponsor for Kahne on May 24 (Charlotte), July 11 (Kentucky) and October 18 (Kansas). "It means a lot to have support from a great company like LiftMaster," Kahne said in a release. "The No. 5 team has high expectations for 2015, and they'll be with us as the primary sponsor at three tracks where we're traditionally very fast. All of us are looking forward to representing them throughout the season and developing a successful long-term relationship." We’re excited to join @KaseyKahne & @TeamHendrick starting in 2015! http://t.co/kZJdDPiroS pic.twitter.com/2aP8Oy7CJr — LiftMaster (@LiftMaster) November 20, 2014 The 34-year-old driver has won five times in Hendrick equipment and notched his best-ever finish in the season standings -- fourth -- in his first year with the team. Last season was a struggle, however, with Kahne posting just three top-five finishes and winding up 15th in the final standings. Kahne qualified for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs with a Labor Day weekend victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the next-to-last race of the regular season. Kahne survived the first round of eliminations in the new-look Chase, but was ousted in the Contender Round, the second three-race leg of the postseason. Kahne agreed to join Hendrick in April 2010, replacing veteran driver Mark Martin . After signing the multiyear agreement, Kahne finished out most of the season in Richard Petty Motorsports' Fords, then spent the last five races of 2010 and all of 2011 driving Red Bull Racing's Toyotas before finally landing in the No. 5 Chevy. Re-signing Kahne, whose contract was set to expire after the 2015 season, helps solidify the Hendrick driver lineup. Team cornerstone Jeff Gordon , a four-time series champion, signed a lifetime contract with Hendrick in 1999. Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson is also under contract through 2015, and Dale Earnhardt Jr ., the sport's most popular driver, is signed through 2017. With Hendrick at the NASCAR-mandated maximum of four teams and the unlikelihood of Johnson departing after 2015, speculation will likely rise about the future of 18-year-old prodigy Chase Elliott , the reigning NASCAR Nationwide Series champion who is under contract to Hendrick and drives for the affiliated JR Motorsports team with co-owner Earnhardt. Team owner Rick Hendrick said Nov. 8 after Elliott became the series' youngest champion that the young driver's career arc will likely include a handful of Sprint Cup races next season, but that there is no accelerated timetable to place him in NASCAR's premier series on a full-time basis. Elliott will return next year to defend his title in what will be known as the NASCAR XFINITY Series, driving JRM equipment. "Another year of seasoning here will be good for him, and we're not in any hurry," Hendrick said. "He's 18 years old." MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
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