Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: What will the story of the offseason be?
Brant James, ESPN.com: The egghead has his day. With testing severely limited this year -- Goodyear tests, 12 one-day sessions and one extended race weekend -- teams will rely even more this offseason on those smart chaps with the laptops to dissect a new rules package for 2015. Granted, every team will still arrive at Daytona in February hoping fervently that it ventured in the proper direction this winter, but those with the best set of best and brightest are likely to begin the season at the front of the pack.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: If you're out here in the real world, then it could end up being the Kurt Busch watch. If you're in the race shops, it's the scramble to get everything ready for the season on short notice. There's a lot of disgruntlement (is that a word?) among teams right now about the lateness with which they received the new rules and a lot of wondering aloud why those rules are being implemented at all.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: It's got to be the way that teams are adapting to the brave new virtual world of little or no on-track testing. The engineering effort in NASCAR has become increasingly more modern in the last 10 to 15 years, and teams with the ability to run extensive computer simulation programs should be in the best position. A team that starts out a long way off -- like Roush Fenway Racing did in 2014 -- may find it even tougher to rebound. Another story to watch is the resolution of the domestic assault allegations that have been levied against Kurt Busch by his ex-girlfriend.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s acclimation to new crew chief Greg Ives. Ives will be under tremendous pressure from outside the 488 walls. Inside the walls, they know full well how capable he is intellectually. And Dale Jr. believes in him, and Rick Hendrick has the most uncanny people-matching skills in sports. But what Junior and Steve Letarte did in 2014 made Ives' transition daunting. By raising Junior from the doldrums of mediocrity and irrelevance, Letarte forever etched his surname in the annals of Junior Nation lore. That makes for one hell of a tough follow for Ives. Letarte is among the most outgoing, gregarious, disarming personalities NASCAR has ever seen. Ives is far more reserved. His attitudinal approach is different. He is just brilliant and very capable. But this is a people business. And it may take some time for he and Junior to find that balance.
Turn 2: Joe Gibbs Racing shook up its crew chief alignment. Which driver benefits the most and which benefits least?
James: Matt Kenseth benefits most, maintaining a productive relationship with Jason Ratcliff. Kenseth was winless last season after leading the series with seven in 2013, but he still advanced two rounds into the Chase. Accustomed to lengthy partnerships like the one he enjoyed for eight seasons at Roush Fenway with Robbie Reiser, he figures to enter his third season with Ratcliff basking in welcome continuity. Perhaps Busch took the brunt of the move. Though Adam Stevens has won 31 Nationwide races -- 19 with Busch -- in just four years, he's stepping into a pressurized situation with a combustible driver. His handling of all facets of the job will be intriguing.
McGee: I like all the moves, but Carl Edwards walks in the door and gets Darian Grubb?! "Hey man, here's the crew chief that denied you the Cup via tiebreaker." Winner!
Oreovicz: Kyle Busch has the potential to benefit the most. He's had a ton of success with Adam Stevens on the Nationwide level, and if that duo can work the same magic on a Cup Camry, the younger Busch brother might finally develop into a championship contender. You could say that maintaining the status quo with Jason Ratcliff would benefit Kenseth the least, but keeping one combination together will help JGR maintain a link to what has worked in the past. Put Kenseth at No. 3, with Denny Hamlin/Dave Rogers at No. 4 and the Carl Edwards/Darian Grubb combo at No. 2.
Smith: There is no least. None. Personality-wise, JGR nailed every one of these moves. Carl Edwards will thrive with Darian Grubb. As a crew chief, Grubb has had two world-class drivers -- Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin. He led one to a championship and the other to the brink of a championship. He and Edwards will be very fast, provided the Toyota Racing Development engines stand up to the Hendrick and Yates engines. (The engine debate is a whole different story entirely). Adam Stevens and Kyle Busch mesh well, and it was time that Busch and Dave Rogers parted ways. Rogers won't know what to do with Hamlin. He and Busch have very different in-race approaches as it pertains to communication. This is a win-win-win for JGR.
Turn 3: A.J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose were identified as likely Chase wild-card candidates at the beginning of 2014, and Allmendinger delivered. Who are your early dark-horse picks for 2015?
James: Understanding that Kyle Larson doesn't count, let's go with Clint Bowyer as a semi-dark horse who must get back to Victory Lane after going winless since 2012. He qualified for Chase Version 2.1 in 2013 without benefit of a trophy but couldn't make the cut, even as it expanded, last season. A truer dark horse is in Sam Hornish Jr. Motivated in making his full-time return to Cup after a four-year absence and replacing a successful-ish Marcos Ambrose program at Richard Petty Motorsports, the 2013 Nationwide runner-up could be perfectly positioned to exploit a Cup car with a new package that might make it feel more like a Nationwide car.
McGee: I think Sam Hornish Jr. is a different animal now than he was when he (and justifiably so) earned a rep with fans for wrecking a lot of stuff. Ambrose was never able to push those Petty cars to edge on ovals like his teammate Aric Almirola did. Hornish can certainly do that.
Oreovicz: I think Austin Dillon has a shot at making it in on points or even with a win. But the driver I'll be watching is Sam Hornish Jr. He's getting a heck of a second chance at the Cup level, and he's developed into one of the best stock car road racers. The car he is stepping into was well-sorted by Ambrose, putting Hornish and Richard Petty Motorsports into position to spring a surprise at Sonoma or Watkins Glen.
Smith: Maybe Austin Dillon. Maybe Brian Vickers. Maybe Martin Truex Jr. But I don't think there will be just one candidate in 2015. I consider a dark horse someone who surprises you, so Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer and Kyle Larson, to me, don't count. No one would be surprised by any of them making the Chase. If all three of those drivers make it, they displace the dark horses. I think 2015 is going to be a wild west throwdown.
Turn 4: Which was stronger, the Sprint Cup final four or the college football final four?
James: Kevin Harvick = Alabama (best overall, but needed to rally to make finals); Joey Logano = Florida State (maintained high level of performance most of the season); Denny Hamlin = Oregon (damned Arizona); Ryan Newman = Ohio State (how did that happen?). For star power and luster, go with the college final.
McGee: We just talked about this comparison on the Marty & McGee podcast. I say college football wins when it comes to putting big names on the big stage. To put in Twitter terms: Bama/Oregon/FSU/Buckeyes > Harvick/Newman/Hamlin/Logano. But the CFB Playoff will be hard-pressed to match the drama of the closing laps at Homestead. Stay tuned ...
Oreovicz: The elimination-style Chase and the College Football Playoff are both fundamental departures from the traditional method of determining championships. Key difference: While the college football fan base practically demanded a playoff for the national championship, many NASCAR fans remain resistant to the basic concept of a split season with a Chase. It was a bigger overall change for the sport of college football, so I'd give it the nod in terms of significance. Good thing the Chase is not as inclusive as the overall college football bowl game system, because it would feature something like 24 drivers.
Smith: The Sprint Cup final four was epic. For all four teams to perform like they did -- and for it to legitimately require victory to win the Cup -- was one of the landmark moments of my 17 years in the garage. (I'm getting old). If the college football final four proves to be half as gut-wrenching-edge-of-your-seat-balls-to-the-wall-no-tomorrow-whatever-cliche-you-want-to-add-here as NASCAR's final four was -- play at the team's optimum ability -- then the inaugural College Football Playoff will stop time. But that's one awfully tall order. NASCAR's final four was just plain ol' awesome.