In 2012 defending champion Tony Stewart will face tougher competition than ever before as he seeks to take a third Sprint Cup championship. The first owner-driver to take the title since Alan Kulwicki in 1992, Stewart sealed the deal with a scintillating run of 5 wins in 10 races to edge his season-long rival Carl Edwards by the narrowest of margins – the tie was decided by Stewart's superior win tally. If Stewart can translate his scintillating form from the end of last season, he will without doubt be the man to beat out of the blocks. Yet, until he hit his stride at September's GEICO 400 at Chicago, 'Smoke' had not won a race all season – he only made it into the Chase by the narrowest of margins. His Stewart-Haas Racing team-mate Ryan Newman is still amazed at Stewart's turn around in form, going from also-ran to the fastest man week in week out in the Chase.
“It’s still mind-boggling, the success they had with the troubles they were having,” Newman said. “I don’t know. Some things, you don’t totally understand.”
Stewart's poor start to last year makes getting off to a good start with new crew chief Steve Addington, who replaces Darian Grubb, more important than ever. However his chances of taking back-to-back titles have been significantly boosted by the arrival of Greg Zipadelli, his former crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing, to the team as director of competition during the off-season. In the 10 years they spent together before Stewart moved on to pastures new in 2009, Zipadelli and Stewart had one of the best partnerships going, accumulating 33 wins and two championships. Zipadelli will also work with Danica Patrick in her limited Cup Series schedule.
“First off its great to have Greg Zipadelli back, it's like having my big brother back with the family,” Stewart said at last week's Media Day. “We keep joking around saying he's back with team black sheep now.”
Stewart was optimistic about his prospects for a title defence, but said it was too early yet to know for certain.
“I don’t think you really know until you get two or three races into the year, to see what the results are from the winter and the hard work,” said Stewart, who finished a close second in the Budweiser Shootout. “The hard thing is you have to improve through the winter and all the teams will improve.”
“It’s just a matter of if we get five per cent better and someone else gets seven per cent better – is that enough to put them ahead of us? I don’t think we know until the start.”
The Challengers: Roush-Fenway Racing
One thing that Stewart can be certain of is that his chief title rival from last year will be back hungrier than ever in 2012 for his first title. Carl Edwards may only have won once last year, but his incredible consistency – never finishing lower than 11th during the Chase – meant he was always in the hunt. For 2012, the #99 Roush-Fenway Ford driver is cutting back on his Nationwide Series schedule to spend more time with his Cup team and work more closely on setup, which he feels proved his downfall last year.
“There isn't much we could have done different,” Edwards said. “We could have maybe practised a little better at Kansas and Martinsville – we had terrible, terrible setups at those places and that's Bob's [Osborne, crew chief] and my fault for hoping things would work out that did not.”
“We played a little bit safe at Phoenix; we could have short-pitted with Kasey [Kahne] and maybe had a shot at the win there, but we looked at it like we were leading the points, so lets go and do everything we can to keep leading.”
“We did not want to loose the championship, and we didn't – we made Tony go out and win it. If we can perform like that every year, we don't think that somebody can come and do what Tony did.”
Edwards, who will start the Daytona 500 from pole, forms part of a reduced three car line-up at Roush after the sponsorship to keep David Ragan in the #6 could not be found. Edwards' team-mate Matt Kenseth, the 2003 champion who finished 4th last season, is confident that the loss of a full-time fourth car (although Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will drive the #6 in a one-off appearance at the Daytona 500) will not have a detrimental effect on the team.
“I don't think it's really gonna be much different,” said the 2009 Daytona 500 winner, who won the second Gatorade Duel on Thursday. “We don't know yet because we haven't really done it, but I don't think it'll be much different because you still have both RPM [Richard Petty Motorsports] cars that are in all of our meetings and share everything, so you've still got five teams there. I think that's plenty.”
“The only downfall of downsizing that I can think of is that you lose some personnel and when you lose personnel they obviously go to different teams and they know what you've been doing. If you do have any kind of an advantage, you probably lose a little bit of that.”
One man who will certainly be hoping that will be the case is Greg Biffle, who was the only one of Roush's quartet not to win a race last year. A repeat of last year's 16th place ranking, the first time he failed to make the Chase since 2007, will not be acceptable, so look out for 'the Biff,' who starts alongside Edwards on the front row for the 500, to make a fight back this year.
Rick Hendrick's team are never far away from the limelight, and will be eager to ensure that last year's failure to take the title – the first time they had missed out since Stewart won for Gibbs in 2005 – does not happen again. 36 year old Jimmie Johnson won five titles on the trot between 2006 and 2010, a feat which is unlikely ever to be repeated. But that won't stop Johnson trying, and he, along with crew chief Chad Knaus, are forever pushing boundaries, looking for that extra edge over the competition. Although this may at times land the pair in trouble – last week Knaus was pinged for illegal C-Posts before practice – Johnson knows that evolution is necessary to keep up with the pack.
“I didn’t realise that over the five years or six years that we didn’t change as much maybe as we needed to and evolve,” he said.
“It’s tough to leave a successful road map and Chad and the team and I have been good at reinventing ourselves each year. But until the streak was broken, looking back at this off season what we have been through and trying to rebuild the team and make sure we are looking at everything we can, we have a different depth.
Johnson also cites the competitiveness of his team-mates as another reason why he was limited to only 2 wins all season in 2012.
“At the same time the garage area has been extremely focused on everything the #48 car has done over the last six years, so maybe years three or four a lot of guys came our direction and really paid attention to what we were doing and they caught us and we got beat. We have to reinvent ourselves in some ways this year and we are ready for it.”
Arguably Johnson's biggest challenger in the Hendrick stable is Jeff Gordon, a Sprint Cup champion in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001 and three-time winner of the Daytona 500. Gordon ended his drought stretching back to Texas in April 2009 with a win at Phoenix, and is as hungry as ever to add to his tally of 85 wins, the third highest in NASCAR history. Although his aggressive approach backfired spectacularly in the Budweiser Shootout, flipping dramatically out of the race after contact with Kyle Busch, 'Big Daddy' will not be deterred.
If you are a Liverpool or Chelsea fan bemoaning the long wait for an Andy Carroll or Fernando Torres goal, spare a thought for fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr. who have been waiting since June 2008 at Michigan for Junior to add to his win tally. Junior Nation thought they were on to a winner when Earnhardt scored a win first time out for Hendrick Bud Shootout 2008, but proved a false dawn, despite that further win at Michigan. 129 races on and counting, showing signs of improvement (Earnhardt made the Chase for the first time in three years in 2011) is no longer enough – even for the ever loyal Junior Nation.
“I remember how potentially close we were in a lot of races, and how well we ran, and I want to go to the track as soon as I can so I can prevent missing a beat,” Earnhardt says. “I want to pick up where we left off. I’m ready to go see if we’re competitive again, see if we’ve gotten better, and I want to race.”
With Steve Letarte at his side, things are looking up for Junior, who came within a lap of winning the Coke 600 when he ran out of gas, and also came close at Martinsville and Kansas.
“I’d always kind of gotten my way and done it how I wanted to do it,” he added. “I knew last year that if it doesn’t work with Steve, the excuse basket is kind of getting empty.”
New arrival Kasey Kahne has a huge opportunity to win some races in Hendrick's #5, with stability for the first time in years. Resuming his long-standing relationship with crew-chief Kenny Francis, the 2004 Rookie of the Year is a dark horse to make the Chase.
After a breakthrough year in 2011 which saw him become a regular winner, Brad Keselowski will be looking to hit the ground running and mount a consistent title challenge in 2012. For many onlookers, Keselowski was the surprise package of last season, having won only once previously, and proved largely disappointing in his first year in the top machinery in 2010. Last year however, 'Special K' proved he could do more than talk the talk with a beautifully-judged win on fuel strategy at Kansas, before showing his tenacity with a win at Pocono with a broken ankle. His summer hot streak continued with a second at Watkins Glen, a third at Michigan, and a stylish win at Bristol, which catapulted him into Chase contention and merited a new contract to drive the 'Blue Deuce' until 2015. Team-owner Roger Penske foresees a bright 2012 for his number one driver.
“I feel good about it,” Penske said. “We’ve got new cars – they’re light – and I think we have more engine power. Certainly we understand the handling of these cars better than we did a year ago.”
Keselowski will be joined at Penske by AJ Allmendinger, after Kurt Busch caused one stir too many for 'The Captain's' liking. For the 30 year old Californian, this constitutes his best chance yet at breaking into the winner's circle for the first time, a feat achieved last season by Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose, David Ragan, Regan Smith and Trevor Bayne.
“For me, it’s simple; win races and make the Chase,” Allmendinger said of his goals for the season. “The reason I made the change this year was to go out there and raise my game to the next level, become one of those drivers who contend for race wins every weekend.
For Allmendinger, who has struggled to find regularly competitive machinery since his move to stock-cars from Champ Car in 2006, joining a team with Penske's pedigree was simply too good an opportunity to turn down.
“When you get an opportunity like this with the Penske organization, to be a driver for Mr. Penske, for me to walk into the shop, you just see all the pictures from Mark Donohue on down to Rick Mears and continuing, that to me is exciting.”
Richard Childress Racing
Will 2012 be the year that the stars align for Kevin Harvick? 'The Closer' had a stunning first half of 2011, with back to back wins at Fontana and Martinsville, a memorable last lap pass on Earnhardt at the Coke 600 and a win to round off the first 26 rounds at Richmond. However once again, the RCR driver's early season form was not translated into the Chase and his win tally remained at 4, ending up in third overall for the second year in a row.
“We were very consistent in ’10, we were very inconsistent in ’11,” Harvick said. “We had speed in ’10, but we didn’t have that speed in ’11. You’ve got to have the capabilities in your car of speed like Stewart had last year, so you can have a couple bad races … You can overcome consistency with wins.”
Harvick's commitment to realising his dream and taking home his long-overdue first title was demonstrated over the off-season by his decision to close down his successful race team, Kevin Harvick Inc, which last year won the Truck Series Owners championship and came very close to taking the Nationwide title with Elliott Sadler (who returns to the Cup Series in the RCR #33 at Daytona). Harvick, who links up once again with crew chief Shane Wilson (with whom he dominated the 2006 Nationwide championship), says that transferring his business to Childress has released him of a huge burden and frees him up to focus more on the big prize.
“I think for me I’ve already been able to spend more time at RCR than I probably have combined the last few years,” Harvick said.
“At the end of the day there’s no way you’re not thinking about it, wondering ‘how am I going to be paying my employees? Where is the sponsorship coming from?’” his RCR team-mate Jeff Burton adds. “To be able to focus on just driving, I think that’s going to be easier for him.”
With little expected of Paul Menard, it was expected that the experienced Burton would step up to the plate. However, the 44 year old Virginia native endured a frustrating 2011, running winless (despite winning the Gatorade Duel) and failing to match Harvick over the course of the year, something he hopes will change with the addition of Ragan's former crew chief, the ever reliable Drew Blickensderfer.
Joe Gibbs Racing
Denny Hamlin possibly had more reason to be disappointed about 2011 than anyone. After taking Jimmie Johnson down to the wire in 2010, a season in which he won 8 times, Hamlin's 2011 was distinctly underwhelming, taking only a solitary win at Michigan and finishing down in 9th in the Chase. But calling the shots for Hamlin in 2012 will be Darian Grubb, Tony Stewart's title winning crew chief from last season. At the very least, Hamlin should be looking to add to his tally of winning at least one race every season since 2006 – at his best, Hamlin is a match for anyone.
The same could be said of his team-mate Kyle Busch, who will be looking to banish memories of his controversial clash in the truck series with championship contender Ron Hornaday at Texas and take his first title. Rowdy's 2011 season was one filled with brilliance and controversy in equal measure, and it is largely a question of which Kyle will turn up at the start of the season; the man who swept the Truck Series, Nationwide, and Sprint Cup races at Bristol in August 2010, or the AWOL hothead who wrecked Hornaday under caution? He got off to the best possible start with an improbable victory in the Budweiser Shootout last weekend, but Busch can still be prone to the odd hot streak. Still, Busch is one to watch.
Joey Logano remains an enigma. The sport's youngest ever winner, at the tender age of 19 years and 35 days, has found consistency hard to come by, finishing 20th in 2009 to take the Rookie of the Year title, improving to 16th in 2010, before plummeting back to 24th last year. After holding onto his ride by the skin of his teeth, now is the time for Logano to finally deliver on his potential.
And yet more questions remain to be answered. Will Kurt Busch's new partnership with Phoenix Racing yield results? Can Danica Patrick mix it with the big boys? Will Chip Ganassi Racing recover after a disastrous 2012? And will Red Bull refugee Brian Vickers make it onto the grid at some stage? In NASCAR, such things are never clear cut.