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.


Follow me on Twitter: @bradthinking


About Brad Morgan
I have a BA in Journalism from the University of Alabama. Currently, I'm pursuing a career as a sports writer. You can contact me at bmorgan279@yahoo.com.

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