Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sprint Cup 2013: NASCAR's 6th Generation Ready to Erupt

The 2013 Sprint Cup Season is ready to fire up the engines and begin sports longest season from Daytona in February to Homestead in November. The upcoming season brings forth certainly the most extensive changes to the sport since the “Chase for the Championship” format was incorporated in 2004. The most anticipation surrounds the new Generation 6 race car which finally looks like a real showroom car again, a feature than has increasingly vanish into complete oblivion by the introduction of the 2008 Car of Tomorrow. Aside from its more street-like appearance the car is lighter and promises to be more nimble putting the driver more in control of his results on the race track.  Finally, once again, Fords look like Fords; Chevys look like Chevys; and Toyotas look like Toyotas. Larger roof flaps and improved aerodynamics are also designed to make even safer cars than the COT. Note – Dodge is not in the mix. With Penske’s departure to Ford, no more MOPAR.

The method for determining the starting field eliminates the automatic status for teams in the top 35 in owners’ points, a system that has been in use since 2005. Instead, the top 36 positions will be determined by qualifying position. The next six positions will be provisional starts based on owners’ points with no limit on how many provisionals a team may accrue. The 43rd position is reserved should a past champion not make the field and need a fall-back for a starting position; otherwise, that spot would go to the next in line in owners’ points.

Whether this process reduces the onerous “start and park” entries that have grown out of control with upto eight teams pulling out of contention in 2012 remains to be seen, but it certainly makes all teams take qualifying more seriously.

Qualifying order will be established by random draw not practice speeds; however, practice speeds will be used to determine the field. Provisionals will be determined in the first three races based on last year’s owner points.

The rookie of the year battle will be between Chevrolet and Ford, woman and man, with romantic involvement as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will race the #17 Ford for Roush-Fenway and Danica Patrick will race the #10 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing.  The most noteworthy team change finds Matt Kenseth leaving Roush-Fenway for Joe Gibbs Racing’s #20 car pushing Joey Logano to Penske’s #22 ride as the full-time replacement for A.J. Allmendinger, who departed last season for a drug infraction. Penske’s teams, including the defending champion, switches from Dodge, who will no longer compete in NASCAR’s top series, to Ford.

Hendricks Motor Sports (Chevrolet)
#5 Kasey Kahne
#24 Jeff Gordon,
#48 Jimmie Johnson
#88 Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Much will be expected from the series premier team as late season accidents pushed five time champ, Jimmie Johnson, from winning his 6th championship with his three teammates all making the chase. 2012 was a dreadful year for Jeff Gordon, were it not for his win in the August Pocono race and the final race at Homestead to brighten an otherwise dreadful year. Dale Earnhardt Jr. working with Steve Letarte broke his long winless streak with a win at Michigan in June looking to find the formula to maintain consistency for a driver whose career has been all too subject to ups and downs. Despite a rough start, Kasey Kahne’s fortune grew better as the year progressed as he and crew chief, Kenny Francis became more integrated and at home in the Hendricks stable side-by-side Jeff Gordon.

The #5 car picks up limited sponsorship from Time-Warner cable for four races and Great Clips for three. Missing from the #24 car will be its familiar Dupont sponsorship as the product was sold to new ownership, Axalta Coating Systems, on board for 14 races. #48 and #88 will go into action with no major team changes. Johnson will aim for his 6th championship while Earnhardt will attempt to continue the improvement so evident last year.

Roush-Fenway (Ford)
Greg Biffle #16
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. #17
Carl Edwards #99

The 2012 season had to be a nightmare for Jack Roush. From Matt Kenseth winning the Daytona 500, it would seem like everything there after was bad news not the least of which was Kenseth’s early announcement he was leaving the team for 2013 later to be announced to be Joe Gibbs Racing. Carl Edwards who had a close to being champion in 2011 without winning did not even make the chase in 2012. Greg Biffle was the team’s hottest driver who never could quite budge into position to compete for the cup. With Kenseth’s departure, there is no longer a Sprint Cup champion in house; however, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. brings two Nationwide trophies as powerful experience to run for Rookie of the Year versus his girlfriend, Danica Patrick.

Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota)
#11 Denny Hamlin
#18 Kyle Busch
#20 Matt Kenseth

All eyes will be on former champ, Matt Kenseth, joining the Gibbs operation adding maturity and experience to a team who has not scored a championship since Tony Stewart’s departure.

2012 was a disappointing year for the team as Denny Hamlin never caught fire in the chase and Kyle Busch was outside looking in after a year of multiple mishaps and hardware failures.

The pressure is on for marked improvement in 2013. While Matt Kenseth’s authority will help the competitive frame of mind, the mechanical issues must also improve if a JGR team will be battling for the trophy in November. 

Richard Childress Racing (Chevrolet)
#27 Paul Menard
#29 Kevin Harvick
#31 Jeff Burton

2012 was an absolute disaster for the hardworking Childress garage with only Kevin Harvick making a token appearance in the Chase. There was nothing worth noting in the past season adding insult to injury including Kevin Harvick announcing 2013 would be his last year with RCR. He’ll run with crew chief, Gil Martin, this year to hope re-establish his winning ways while Drew Luke Lambert will support Jeff Burton’s attempt to return to form. On a related note, the shared engine program with Earnhardt/Ganassi Racing was terminated as Chip Ganassi’s shop decided to move the Hendricks horsepower, a possible reflection on RCR quality. Meanwhile, eyes will be to the future as Austin Dillion will no doubt be eyeing the rookie hot seat for 2014 possibly in a #3 car?

Penske Racing (Ford)
#2 Brad Keselowski
#22 Joey Logano
(?) #12 Sam Hornish Jr.

The team celebrating its first championship on the Sprint Cup level is now a “Blue Oval” team racing Fords with Roush-Yates engines. Joey Logano pilots the #22 with crew chief, Todd Gordon. While the “Blue Deuce” works to secure a second title, a change of scenery and Roger Penske’s guidance should help Joey Logano re-ignite his young career.

Stewart-Haas Racing (Chevrolet)
#10 Danica Patrick
#14 Tony Stewart
#39 Ryan Newman

No team has gotten more publicity in the off-season than that of Stewart-Haas racing. Speculation runs wild on how Danica Patrick will handle her first year of full-time racing on the Sprint Cup level with added attention focusing on plans for next year when Kevin Harvick joins. Tony Gibson will head the #1 racing team while Matt Borland joins to run the #39 pit. While much attention will focus on Danica Patrick’s run for Rookie of the Year, Tony Stewart will be aiming for the rare status of a 4th championship, a feat only four other drivers have accomplished. Pressure’s on Ryan Newman after a disappointing 2012 campaign. With Harvick joining next year, there is no guarantee Stewart-Haas will be poised to field four teams.

Richard Petty Motorsports (Ford)
#9 Marcos Ambrose
#43 Aric Almirola

Drew Blickensderfer takes command of the #9 crew while veteran crew chief, Todd Parrot will run the #43 operation as Richard Petty’s team looks to find more victories than what the Tasmanian Devil, Ambrose, achieves on the Watkins Glen road course. Marcos Ambrose will try to prove he can win on ovals not just road courses having become much more competitive last season.  Aric Almirola will strive to move up in the standings from 20th position last year having only one top five and four top 10’s.

Michael Waltrip Racing (Toyota)
#15 Clint Bowyer
#55 Mark Martin, Brian Vickers, Michael Waltrip
#56 Martin Truex Jr.

2012 marked the year MWR finally arrived in Sprint Cup racing with two drivers in The Chase and Clint Bowyer battling his way to 2nd in the standings with his hard-nosed driving in the last race of the year at Homestead. NASCAR’s original Toyota team will try to consolidate its gains for 2012, win more races, and attempt to fight for the 2013 championship by November.

Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing (Chevrolet)
#1 Jamie McMurray
#41 Juan Pablo Montoya

The highlight for EGR came early in 2012. During a rain delay yellow flag in the Daytona 500, Juan Pablo Montoya provided one of the most replayed video clips of the entire season losing control of his race car and crashing into a fully fueled jet dryer that exploded on impact.  That seemed to set the tone for the rest of the year. Thus, 2013 would be a year for change despite retaining both drivers. EGR will no longer partner with Richard Childress to supply its engines. Instead Engines will be supplied by Hendrick Motor Sports. Cessna/Textron will sponsor the #10 car for 10 races.

JTG Daugherty Racing (Toyota)
#47 Bobby Labonte

Brian Burns takes over as crew chief as the one time champion driver attempts to find a winning formula again after almost a decade in obscurity. Having achieved only two top 10’s last year, there’s much room for improvement.

BK (Burger King) Racing (Toyota)
#83 David Reutimann
#93 Travis Kvapil

David Reutimann with Pat Tryson take over the #83 car in an attempt to make the BK team a more viable presence in 2013 after inheriting the remnants of the defunct Red Bull team to start last season.

Front Row Racing Motorsports (Ford)
#34 David Ragan
#35 Josh Wise
#38 David Gilliland

Coming to life as an operation out of the merger mania which saw Robert Yates Racing being absorbed into Richard Petty Motorsports in 2010, the three car operation continues to attempt to find competitive legitimacy running on limited funds with Roush/Yates horsepower. David Ragan, unable to stay with Roush/Fenway due to lack of sponsorship joined last season bringing a legitimate up and coming presence to the team but only managed one top five and no additional top tens only good enough for 27th in points.

Furniture Row Racing (Chevrolet)
#78 Kurt Busch

One of the most powerful small independent teams, Furniture Row racing gained notoriety in 2011 winning the Darlington Southern 500 in 2011 with Regan Smith at the helm. With engines and technical support from Richard Childress, the Denver, Colorado based team now has mercurial former champ Kurt Busch and crew chief, Todd Berrier, to attempt to further their fortunes with talk of possibly adding a second team if funding can be arranged.

Wood Brothers (Ford)
#21 Trevor Bayne

Despite their part-time status, the “legendary” Wood Brothers are always a factor when participating in Sprint Cup events re-igniting their legacy with Trevor Bayne’s bold Daytona 500 win in 2011. They’re always a threat to snag a poll or slip into the top five any time they compete.

All the Rest

There’s not much sense in publicizing the rest of the field other than to note it appears unlikely the #51 Phoenix racing team will continue in operation beyond Regan Smith’s presence in the Daytona 500.  A handful of teams might attempt to compete at some level in NASCAR’s premier season but most of the remainder would do the sport a favor by closing up shop and getting out of the way. No recognition or discussion is warranted for “start and park” teams who represent a sick embarrassment to a sport seeking full major league status.

We shall not be so bold as to attempt to handicap the field; however, it's hard to imagine  a team that has not made "The Chase" before would have a breakthrough season this year though perhaps some different car numbers or drivers might. The only real possible breakthrough would be if one of the Richard Petty teams would excel. Likewise, much improvement must be forthcoming for Earnhardt-Ganassi to be in the hunt. Meanwhile, Hendricks, Roush-Fenway, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress, Stewart-Haas, and Michael Waltrip all look like strong candidates to provide teams to be in the final hunt for the 2013 championship. For the remaining teams not mentioned, will any of them show significant growth toward being a contender in the future. For some, it's long past time to hang in up. We shall see if what 2012 showed so clearly remains just as obvious, the starting field for Sprint Cup competition might be too large. NASCAR wisely reduced the Nationwide starting field down to 40 entries which was certainly a step in the right direcion but almost certainly not bold enough. 

Fire 'em up. The Harley Earle Trophy is polished up and ready for the celebration. 35 more awards remain before the most valuable one of all, the Sprint Cup for 2013 will be awarded in November at Homestead, Florida.

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