While the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season was one of the most thrilling in recent memory – maybe the best ever – the upcoming 2012 campaign brings with it a staggering number of questions and a wholesale realignment of drivers, crew chiefs, teams and sponsors.
Think of it: Tony Stewart, the reigning Sprint Cup champion, fired his crew chief in the off-season. So did Kevin Harvick, who has finished third in each of the last two seasons, and Denny Hamlin, the 2010 runner-up. Penske Racing kicked 2004 champion Kurt Busch to the curb and a ride with Phoenix Racing, a team known more for its reputation for hard partying than its success on the track.
Roush Fenway Racing has shed nearly one-third of its workforce and will field just three full-time Sprint Cup teams for the first time since 1996, for Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. Richard Childress Racing, too, is down to three teams again, for Harvick, Jeff Burton and Paul Menard. And then there are big names in unfamiliar places – the elder Busch, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer, David Ragan and AJ Allmendinger will all drive for new teams.
And, by the way, Greg Zipadelli is reunited with Tony Stewart for the first time since 2008. But while Zippy now works at Stewart-Haas Racing, he won't be atop Stewart's pit box, a job he held during Stewart's first two championships. Instead, he'll be turning the wrenches for NASCAR's only full-time female Cup racer, Danica Patrick. Stewart's new chief is Steve Addington, who cut his teeth during 15 years in the Nationwide Series before four years of purgatory as crew chief for both Busch brothers at the Cup level.
And just in case you were worried about complacency, the teams will have to deal with a new variable in the form of electronic fuel injection, plus an all-new 2013 Cup car to test and tweak. At Daytona and Talladega, NASCAR has taken draconian steps to break up the two-car tandem draft — a.k.a. the Two-Car Tango or the Beast with Two Backs.
Yet, for all the utter chaos this past off-season – and there has been more tumult and bombast than a Republican primary debate – there is a certain element of plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose about the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
Here's who to look for in the top 10 at the end of the year:
1. KEVIN HARVICK The planets are lining up for a serious championship run by Harvick, the two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series title holder. For one thing, Happy's finished third in points two years in a row, so his Richard Childress Racing team is clearly pretty close already. And with Clint Bowyer shipped off to the perpetually mid-pack Michael Waltrip Racing squad, Harvick clearly is the lead dog at RCR, at least until Childress' grandson, Austin Dillon, moves up to Cup full time in 2013.
But the secret weapon for Harvick is new crew chief Shane Wilson (with Harvick, LEFT). With Wilson at the helm, Harvick won the 2006 NNS championship by a staggering 864 points, a record that almost certainly will never be broken. Harvick and Wilson are talented, confident and ready to get it done. In all likelihood, this is their year.
2. KASEY KAHNE This just in: Kasey Kahne is in a stable situation for the first time since Ray Evernham decided to sell his team to now-discredited sports-maven-wanna-be George Gillett. Kahne, of course, moves to the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports squad this year along with his brilliantly talented crew chief Kenny Francis. Together, Kahne and Francis only have to be cogs in the Hendrick machine and not the whole show. Kahne unquestionably will thrive in the Hendrick system and should be an immediate championship contender, with anything other than a top-three points finish a disappointment.
3. JIMMIE JOHNSON Last year, Johnson literally had the worst year of his decade-long Sprint Cup career, finishing sixth in points and winning just twice, both personal worsts, albeit worsts that a lot of drivers never reach. And, as his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon can attest, once you quit winning Cup championships, it's awfully hard to regain title form. Then again, Johnson is the greatest driver of his era and his crew chief Chad Knaus the best pit boss, too. Underestimate Johnson's talent and resolve at your own peril. It's hard to imagine Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 not being firmly in the mix again this year.
BRAD KESELOWSKI On the plus side: “Special K” is now the unquestioned Big Man on Campus at Penske Racing and the absence of former teammate Kurt Busch's volcanic personality should be a welcome relief for the entire Penske team. On the other hand, Keselowski won't be able to fly under the radar again this year: After finishing fifth in points, expectations will be high to not just make the Chase but take a true run at the championship. Whether driver and/or team are ready to make that run is one of the year's biggest questions (see story starting page 38).
CARL EDWARDS If it's true that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, Edwards ought to be extremely stout this season. After all, he did tie Stewart for the most points last year and he gave Jimmie Johnson a pretty good run for his money in 2008 as well. Edwards is one of the sport's marquee names and Roush Fenway Racing certainly is a capable team, but the loss of 125 employees in the off-season could hurt the team depth-wise.
DENNY HAMLIN Here's one of several true wild cards in the title hunt. Hamlin, who in the best of circumstances is something of an erratic personality, well and truly melted down in 2011 after snatching defeat from the jaws of victory at the close of the 2010 championship. Hamlin even started seeing a sports psychologist last year to cope with the agony of defeat (See January RACER).
Since then, he's also prevailed in an internal political battle at Joe Gibbs Racing. Over the winter, he succeeded in getting Mike Ford, the only crew chief he ever worked with at Sprint Cup level, fired. This after Hamlin insisted he didn't like the technical direction his cars were going in.
With new crew chief Darian Grubb – reigning champion crew chief, no less! – Hamlin likely will either be brilliant or fall on his backside entirely. Think back not too far and guys like Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace were brilliant drivers but lousy at trying to be the in-car crew chiefs at the same time.
TONY STEWART Last year's stretch run will go down in NASCAR history as one of the epic performances of all time. That said, repeating again this year is going to be awfully difficult for Stewart, despite his immense talent and Hendrick equipment. As good as he is – and he's one of the very best – no one has ever caught lightning in a bottle the way Smoke did last year and it's unlikely anyone else will this year, either.
KYLE BUSCH Does Busch have a phenomenal amount of driving talent? No question whatsoever about that point. He's supremely talented. But in NASCAR, you are what your record says you are. In the case of the Shrub, he's spent seven full seasons in the Cup level. His best points finish in that time is fifth and in four seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, only once has Busch finished better than 10th in points. Busch has competed in 69 races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Of those 69, he's only won one. If he's going to make a serious title run, he needs to overcome his lack of performance in the Chase.
So what does Stewart, the defending champion, think of the year ahead?
“I don't think you can predict anybody right now,” he says. “Everybody's hit the reset button and we're all starting at zero again. We go down to Daytona and start at Day 1, just like everyone else.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, you'll need the March 2012 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.