2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Preview, Part Four

This is the final part of a series of articles previewing the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season. Here I unveil the final five drivers. This article will also appear on Puttyracing.com and hopefully Jayski.com. The entire series will also be posted on bleacherreport.com as one article.

 

 

5. Kyle Busch

 

Kyle Busch seems to have conquered nearly every hurdle a professional driver faces except for one, his maturity.

Last year, the driver many fans call “Rowdy” once again failed to control his temper. The most notable incident was a Camping World Truck Series run-in with Ron Hornaday at Texas which cost Busch a start in the crucial Sprint Cup Chase race at the venue, ending his hopes of a championship.

As a result, the Las Vegas, Nev. native finished the season ranked 12th in the standings, last amongst the Chasers. After participating in 35 of 36 races, Busch had compiled four wins, 14 top-5s, and 18 top-10s.

Over the years, NASCAR’s fines and sanctions have done little to change the driver’s on-track mentality, although Busch now sports a more understanding attitude during interviews.

While considered one of the most talented drivers on the circuit, the 2005 Rookie of the Year has encountered poor Chase results similar to last season’s fiasco throughout his career. He has been in the top three in points entering the Chase in each of his last three playoff births only to falter in one way or another down the stretch.

Winning races isn’t an issue for Busch. The 26-year-old has found victory lane 23 times over the course of his eight year Cup Series career. But, when will he take the next step towards winning a title?

The problem isn’t with the equipment or team. Crew chief Dave Rogers kept the No. 18 car at the front of the pack in 2011 (Busch led 1455 laps, the most of any driver); and with three owner’s championships in the series, Joe Gibbs Racing is considered one of Sprint Cup’s premiere organizations.

The Answer lies with Busch himself. Can he refrain from letting his emotions get the best of him during the seasons most crucial moments? Only time will tell.

 

 

4. Kevin Harvick

 

Ask a NASCAR fan who they believe the best closer in the sport is. Similar to a closer in baseball, racing’s usage of the term is applied to the driver who seemingly appears out of nowhere in the final laps of a race to achieve victory.

Kevin Harvick made a strong statement for being the best driver during the closing laps in 2011. During races at Fontana (March 27), Martinsville (April 3) and Charlotte (May 29), he took the lead away with four laps remaining or less in order to win. In all, he scored four wins last year to go along with nine top-5s and 19 top-10s.

How close was Harvick to winning the Sprint Cup last season?

He finished 3rd in the standings for the second time in a row, this year behind Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. Normally a driver would be able to live with that sort of result. Harvick on the other hand became tired of coming up short in the title hunt and talked with team owner Richard Childress about making a change after the Kobalt Tools 500 (Nov. 13).

As a result, Gil Martin will be moved to director of team operations for Richard Childress Racing (RCR), and Shane Wilson will step in as the new crew chief of the No. 29 team beginning in 2012. Wilson was the crew chief for Harvick during the driver’s 2006 Nationwide Series championship run.

The aforementioned downsizing operation (see Jeff Burton and Paul Menard) that took place at RCR over the winter may also have a positive affect on the 2001 Rookie of the Year’s chances this season.

All of the pieces are in place for the Bakersfield, California native to make another serious run at the Sprint Cup championship. If Harvick can continue his closing laps heroics, he’ll likely have a shot to grab the title.

 

 

3. Matt Kenseth

 

Matt Kenseth is a driver who has built a solid career from his ability to stay consistently fast and avoid trouble at most tracks.

In 2003, Kenseth took home the championship while managing only one victory.

Last season, wins weren’t a problem for the Cambridge, Wis. native. He won three races (his highest total since 2006) while collecting 12 top-5s and 20 top-10s.

On paper Kenseth’s 4th place finish in points doesn’t look bad. But, it’s a wonder that he was able to finish that high after adding in several misfortunes that the driver encountered during the Chase. At Chicago (Sept. 19), he ran out of fuel on the final lap before coasting to a 21st place finish. During the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville, Kenseth had run-ins with Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers, eventually finishing 31st. Later at Phoenix (Nov. 13), he suffered a DNF after another incident with Vickers. Outside of this series of mishaps, his playoff run looks similar to that of teammate Carl Edwards.

The 14-year veteran will have a new look for 2012 after Crown Royal parted ways with the team. The No. 17 Ford Fusion will be sponsored by a variety of companies including: Best Buy, Valvoline, Zest Soap, and Ford EcoBoost.

Qualifying has never been Kenseth’s strength, but in 2011 the tides began to turn as he posted a 14.2 average starting mark, which is the best of his career. He has always been a driver who can gain and maintain position after the green flag drops, but if his qualifying speeds continue to trend upwards, the driver’s job will be much easier.

Crew chief Jimmy Fennig could be a major reason behind his driver’s recent upsurge. After taking over for Todd Parrott halfway through the 2010 season, Kenseth has once again been amongst the series best drivers on a constant basis.

If this driver-crew chief duo picks up where they left off in 2011, Kenseth will be a major contender for the Sprint Cup.

 

 

2. Jimmie Johnson

 

Did “Superman” Jimmie Johnson finally lose his cape?

It’s easy to be skeptical of Johnson after 2011. The five-time champion had the worst season since his rookie year in 2002.

For a driver who’s grown accustomed to sitting onstage at the NASCAR Drivers Banquet, two wins, 14 top-5s, and 21 top-10s is way off pace. The statistics weren’t the only thing missing from a lackluster campaign.

Johnson finished 6th in points also a career worst. Usually, the Chase is the No. 48 team’s stomping grounds (Johnson has 20 career wins during the Chase). But last season, the talented driver had no such luck during the final ten races. His hopes of an unprecedented sixth championship were dashed after a hard crash ended his night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

What did Hendrick Motorsports do to correct last season’s letdown? Besides altering the color of the car to a dark blue and white pinstriped design, they didn’t change very much.

The pairing of the driver Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus is perhaps the most potent matchup in the sport today on a regular basis. The two have been together since the beginning of Johnson’s career, and the offseason has given them some needed time apart.

The best thing that the 2010 Driver of the Year could have possibly done over the offseason is to learn to forget. But, the pressure of being a defending champion has now been lifted from his shoulders, meaning Johnson should be at his best.

He also has a new reason to be motivated. After failing to capture a sixth championship, the driver now wants to prove that he can win again as a driver for what is possibly Sprint Cup’s best organization.

Johnson’s first goal will be to knock off the rust that halted his run during the second half of last year’s Chase. His second goal will be to recapture the title and climb a step closer to Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt on the all-time championships list.

 

 

 

1. Carl Edwards

 

One point is the only thing that separated Carl Edwards from being crowned the 2011 Sprint Cup champion.

Because he finished runner-up to Tony Stewart by the closest margin ever, Edwards should simply continue to take the same approach when preparing for races in 2012. After all, it couldn’t happen again right?

The 19 top-5s and 26 top-10s that the 2007 Nationwide Series champion collected are easily good enough to have won the championship any other year. Perhaps the only thing holding the No. 99 team back was its inability to win. In 2012, Edwards should attempt to be more aggressive in order to improve upon the single victory he had last season.

Winning more races wouldn’t hurt his chances, and the driver’s most successful seasons have come when he is able to take the car to victory lane more often.

From an organizational standpoint, the biggest change from last season is the downsizing operation that took place over the winter.

While there a positives to a smaller organization, a move like this also carries potentially negative consequences. RFR lost at least 100 workers, some of which have been hired by other NASCAR teams. These former employees carried the knowledge they learned about RFR to their new organizations. This leak of information could hurt Edwards during the new campaign.

Otherwise, few changes were made over the offseason, making a repeat performance from last year all the more likely for the Missouri native.

The driver’s Roush Fenway Racing (RFR) Ford will once again feature a bevy or sponsors including: Fastenal, Best Buy, UPS, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Cheez-It, Aflac, and Subway; the resulting designs will give the car a different look almost every week. Bob Osbourne will return as the crew chief for the Fusion for the ninth consecutive year.

No matter the situation at RFR, Edwards has proven that he can drive well at virtually every track. This versatility should help him in the quest for his first Cup Series championship.

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Follow me on Twitter: @BradThinking

 

2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Preview, Part Three

This part three of a four part series previewing the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.  In this article, drivers 6-10 are unveiled.  This article is also available on Puttyracing.com and may eventually appear on Jayski.com.


10. Kasey Kahne

Expectations have never been higher for Kasey Kahne.  The driver who finished 2011 with one win, five top-5s and seven top-10s over the final eight races is making the much anticipated move to Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) after a delay of almost two years.

It has been a long time coming for Kahne; in April of 2010, the announcement was made that he would be joining HMS after Mark Martin parted ways with the organization following the 2011 season.

At the time, the Enumclaw, Wash. native drove for Richard Petty Motorsports, where he spent the majority of the 2010 season before being released and promptly signed by Red Bull Racing (RBR) following the Bank of America 500.  After racing for RBR during the 2011 season, the time has finally arrived for the journeyman driver to take Martin’s place in the No. 5 Impala fielded by HMS.

Over the past two seasons, Kahne has compiled a total of one win, 15 top-5s and 25 top-10s.  While somewhat impressive, this level of efficiency won’t cut it at HMS where drivers must produce at a high level in order to keep their rides.

Kahne has shown flashes of the driver that won six races in 2006, but has also struggled with consistency while managing two Chase appearances in eight seasons.

The 2004 Rookie of the Year now drives for a team that’s built to succeed.  His car will feature Farmers Insurance, Quaker State Oil, and Hendrickcars.com as the primary sponsors, giving the Impala a new look.  In a positive move, Kenny Francis will continue his duties as crew chief for Kahne after following him to HMS.

Kahne will need to closely mirror his incredible run during the 2011 Chase in order to stay off the hot seat at an organization with 10 drivers’ championships and tons of pressure.

9. Brad Keselowski

After 2011, it’s hard not to anoint Brad Keselowski as the next big thing.  Roger Penske seems to think along those same lines; the team owner offered his driver a new two-year contract extension following a season with three wins, 10 top-5s and 14 top-10s.

Following a win at Kansas Speedway on June 5, “Bad Brad” was nothing less than elite.  The 2010 Nationwide Champion showed the ability to dominate at almost every track on Cup schedule during his hot streak.  He caught fire over the summer months and clinched the eleventh Chase spot because of wins, after rallying from 25th in points at the beginning of June.  Keselowski would go on to finish 5th in the final standings, a career best.

After making the Chase, Keselowski seemed primed to make a run at the championship.  He came up just short, rising as high as 3rd in the standings before slowing down over the final four races.

Despite finishing 17th or worse in each of the last four races, Keselowski continued to turn heads during the Chase.  The conclusion of 2011 gives the driver something positive to build on entering the new campaign.

Can Keselowski build on his most successful season?

The answer may be out of his control.  While there’s little doubt that the driver has the skill to compete at the next level, it remains unclear whether the “Blue Deuce” can also make that move.  While Penske cars haven’t suffered widespread mechanical malfunctions in recent years, they also haven’t been as consistently fast as the championship winning teams’ entries.  Last year, both Keselowski and former teammate Kurt Busch finished worse than 16th in seven races.  But, the organization still managed to have its best season since 2005 by helping both drivers make the Chase.

If Penske Racing can continue to make positive strides, and Keselowski capitalizes on last season, the sky is the limit.

8. Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon enters 2012 hoping that he can conclude the latest version of the “Drive for Five” campaign with the Sprint Cup Trophy in hand.

2011 resulted in three wins, 13 top-5s and 18 top-10s for the past champion, but the 8th place finish in points that resulted isn’t enough to please a driver of Gordon’s caliber.  Even though he has come up short of a championship in each of the past 10 years, the four-time Cup winner showed signs of a return to form last year.

Three victories is Gordon’s highest win total since accumulating six in 2007, a year the driver finished 2nd in points.  The arrival of crew chief Alan Gustafson prior to the 2011 season might have accounted for the improvement.  Gustafson’s experience dealing with talented drivers at Hendrick Motorsports (Kyle Busch and Mark Martin) showed at times as Gordon looked strong for long stints during races at Atlanta (Sept. 6), Bristol (Aug. 27), Indianapolis (July 31), Loudon (Sept. 25), Martinsville (Oct. 30), Phoenix (Feb. 27), and Pocono (Aug. 7).

But, this new driver/crew chief tandem will need to continue to improve their race day chemistry in order to keep Gordon at his peak performance level consistently.

The 20-year veteran will be more successful this year if he can maintain the same intensity over the summer months that landed him in the Chase last season.  His worst finishes occurred at the beginning of the year and near its conclusion.  Including the Daytona 500, Gordon had four sub-20th place finishes over a two-month period that contributed to a slow start.  At the end of the season, he encountered a similar stretch of finishes during a nine race span from Chicago (Sept. 19) to Phoenix (Nov. 13).

This is an important season for Gordon because it will show whether he is capable of winning the Sprint Cup, or if he’ll be stuck at four championships for the foreseeable future.

7. Denny Hamlin

Expectations were high for Denny Hamlin entering 2011 after the driver finished runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in the 2010 Chase.

Unfortunately, “Hambone” struggled to find his stride last year despite finishing 9th in points.

If you discount Hamlin’s final position in the standings, 2011 was arguably his worst season.  While managing one victory, he set career lows with only five top-5s and 14 top-10s.  He concluded the season with a career worst 16th place average finish and led only 450 laps, less than half of his 2010 total (1184).

Hamlin finished the year with five top-12 finishes over the final 10 races, somewhat salvaging an otherwise disappointing season.

As a result, Mike Ford is out as crew chief of the No. 11 car after seven seasons with the team.  He will be replaced by Darian Grubb, who takes over after parting ways with three-time champion Tony Stewart following the season.  Grubb has encountered a great deal of success while working with elite drivers like Stewart and Jimmie Johnson.  He helped fuel “Smoke” during a magical run in the Chase, and enters 2012 on a crew chief hot streak of sorts.

Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) has formed a partnership with Toyota Racing Development (TRD) in conjunction with its engine shop.  With the switch to TRD motors, Hamlin potentially benefits from gained reliability on race day.  Last season, TRD supplied engines for Micheal Waltrip Racing, Red Bull Racing, and JTG Daugherty Racing.  Those teams suffered three blown engines combined in 2011 compared to JGR’s six (Hamlin accounted for one).

Everything Darian Grubb touches seems to turn to gold.  If the crew chief can work his magic on Hamlin, the driver will have a chance to rise to the high-water mark he set in 2010.

6. Tony Stewart

No driver had ever won five races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup until Tony Stewart accomplished the feat last year in route to his third championship as a driver, and first as an owner.

Already considered a top tier talent, he was able to take his skill to another level during the season finale at Homestead-Miami, coming from behind to upset pole-sitter and title runner-up Carl Edwards.

Entering the Chase, it was hard to imagine that Stewart would be in contention for the championship given that he never created the impression that he was capable of doing so.  The Columbus, Indiana native didn’t lead a single lap during the final six contests before the opening race of the Chase at Chicagoland Speedway (his first victory of the year).

He finished the year with five wins, nine top-5s and 19 top-10s.

So how will “Smoke” respond during his 2012 title defense?

The answer likely lies with the freshly formed relationship between Stewart and crew chief Steve Addington.  The experienced crew chief should have no problems getting along with the three-time champion (he’s the former crew chief for both Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch), but he will need to assist in igniting the type of success that Darian Grubb helped generate in last year’s playoffs.  Addington has developed a reputation for having trouble during the Chase because of past collapses while leading both Busch brothers.

Stewart will also need to challenge himself to stay sharp this season.  Following his previous championships, the driver/owner has answered with some of his most disappointing seasons.  He finished 7th in 2003 following his title the prior year, and 11th in 2006 despite collecting five wins.

If Stewart can avoid a semi-usual slow start, he could cement a Chase spot earlier than usual, putting himself into a position to repeat last year’s clutch performance.

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Follow me on Twitter: @bradthinking