Monday, February 13, 2012

2012 Season Preview: 11th-15th

Brad Morgan previews the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season in part two of a four part series.


15. Clint Bowyer

NASCAR’s “king of consistency” is on the move for the first time in his seven-year Sprint Cup Series career.  Clint Bowyer was not re-signed by Richard Childress Racing (RCR) over the offseason, a move that eventually resulted in a new three-year deal with Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) for the driver.

Childress turned down a potential sponsorship from 5-hour Energy secured by Bowyer last summer.  As a result, the Emporia, Kansas native brings his newfound sponsor to MWR and the No. 15 Toyota Camry for 2012.

The change of scenery for Bowyer will create three full-time teams at MWR, a first for an organization entering its eleventh season of Sprint Cup competition. The deal will also make him the highest profile full-time driver at MWR.

The three-time Chase driver accumulated one win, four top-5s, and 16 top-10s last season, but narrowly missed the playoffs because of late-season struggles at Bristol, Atlanta, and Richmond.

Bowyer has never been with another team, so it is hard to predict how he will perform this year.

Despite a new environment, the 2008 Nationwide Series champion will need to continue to run well at tracks where he has traditionally had strong results (restrictor plate tracks, road courses, and short tracks).  But if the past is any indication, he may be forced to up his performance because MWR cars have had a reputation for being less reliable than those at RCR over the last few years.

Bowyer will also need to bond with new crew chief Brian Pattie and a freshly assembled pit crew that has never competed together as a unit.

MWR has only two victories in its Sprint Cup history (both recorded by David Reutimann) and no Chase births.  If Bowyer can find victory lane and/or make the Chase in his first year with the No. 15 team, it would go a long way towards improving the relationship with his new boss.



14. A.J. Allmendinger

To "the Dinger" go the spoils.  A.J. Allmendinger signed a one-year deal with Penske Racing over the offseason and will drive the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Dodge Charger in 2012.  He fills the void left by Kurt Busch, whose antics led to the 2004 champion’s eventual departure from the team.

Allmendinger was chosen for the ride by team owner Roger Penske over other drivers, including David Ragan and Brian Vickers.  He will transition from the No. 43 at Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM), a position held since 2009.

The former open-wheel driver has seen continued success in the Sprint Cup Series following his rookie year in 2007.  He has progressively improved his average finishing position (22.4, 17.8, and 16.1) and final points rank (24, 19, and 15) in each of his first three full seasons.

Last year, Allmendinger recorded a very pedestrian one top-5, but maintained a consistent average finish in a car that many consider to be inferior when compared to his new gig at Penske.

Numbers like these suggest that Allmendinger now has an opportunity to take his career to the next level and make a serious run at the Chase.  He will also be after his first victory in NASCAR, which has eluded him up to now.

Driving for a stable of this caliber also means that an increased level of expectation will be placed on the driver.  He isn’t the only new member of the team that will be forced to cope with the pressure that comes with driving for an owner like Penske.

Todd Gordon will be Allmendinger’s crew chief for the new campaign.  Gordon was also on the move over the offseason.  Last year, he played the same role for Penske driver Brad Keselowski in the Nationwide Series (a tandem that collected five wins).

If Allmendinger manages to impress Penske, he could be looking at a long-term contract offer with an organization that appears to be on the upswing.



13. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Is it possible that Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggled through his best year since joining Hendrick Motorsports (HMS)?

He raced his way into the Chase, and by the end of the schedule found himself 7th in points.  On April 17, and from June 5 through June 19, Junior was 3rd in the standings, his highest marks since being 2nd following the Daytona 500 in 2010.

All of this was done while leading a total of fifty-two laps over the course of the season.  This output was by far the driver’s lowest total since joining Sprint Cup full-time in 2000 and ranked him 22nd in that category.

Earnhardt’s failure to run up front led to the continuation of a familiar problem for the veteran, as he was unable to break his 129-race winless streak.

When will the streak end?

That’s hard to say, but the Kannapolis, North Carolina native’s chances to reach victory lane could be determined by how he begins the season.  Junior’s best seasons with HMS have come when he gets off to a fast start.  For instance, last year he was 8th in the standings following the April 3 race at Martinsville and never fell below 10th afterwards.  Meanwhile, his worst seasons have occurred when he gets off to a slow start and never recovers.

Perhaps the inclusion of Steve Letarte was a reason behind a more consistent Earnhardt.  Letarte replaced Lance McGrew as crew chief for the No. 88 following a sub-par year in 2010.

Diet Mountain Dew will replace AMP Energy Drink and appear alongside Army National Guard as a primary sponsor on the HMS machine.

Earnhardt will push for a win early in 2012, but he can’t get stressed if it doesn’t happen.  The key for Junior this season is to replicate the sort of cool consistency he displayed last year.



12. Ryan Newman

Newman was a model of consistency in 2011.  He was able to run with the leaders and compete for wins on the way to a 10th place finish in points.  The veteran was able to finish in the top-20 in 27 races and finished worse then 25th only twice.

As in past seasons, the “Rocket Man” was extremely fast in qualifying.  He won the Coors Light Pole Award on three separate occasions, while collecting one win, nine top-5s, and 17 top-10s.

Because the 2002 Rookie of the Year was so reliable over the course of the season, his slight dip in production during the Chase was only noticeable after a second look.  He encountered five sub-16th place finishes during a seven race stretch from Loudon (Sept. 25) to Fort Worth (Nov. 6) that ended his chances for a championship.

He has usually been dependable on short tracks and at venues such as New Hampshire, Phoenix, and Pocono, but last season Newman was also able to avoid any major letdowns on tracks deemed “cookie cutters”.  In order for the South Bend, Indiana native to see the same type of success in 2012, the driver will need to avoid mistakes and intelligently manage fuel mileage on the intermediate tracks that make up the bulk of the Sprint Cup schedule.

Newman’s chances this season will also depend on his team, which remains largely unchanged.  Tony Gibson will return as the crew chief for the No. 39, in addition to many of the primary sponsors from last year.

The only major alteration that could have an impact on Newman is the addition of former championship crew chief Greg Zipadelli as Competition Director for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).

2012 is a contract year for Newman, who will need to impress after SHR celebrated its first ever championship last season.



11. Greg Biffle

Greg Biffle suffered through a disappointing season in 2011.  For a driver who is used to competing for wins and a Chase birth, three top-5s and ten top-10s isn’t cutting it.  To make matters worse, Biffle finished 16th in points and missed the Chase for the first time since 2007.

The driver’s misfortune arguably stretched from a crash in the Daytona 500 all they way through a blown engine in the final race at Homestead.  The 2002 Busch Series champion never reached the top-10 in points.

Perhaps the only bright spot for Biffle was a career high three Coors Light Pole Awards.

The Roush Fenway driver could however benefit from the organization downsizing to three cars over the winter.  This might bring about a return to form for a veteran, who has always shown a certain level of regularity in results.

Although the Vancouver, Washington native didn’t win in 2011, he has been to victory lane on 16 different occasions over the span of his career.  At a time when many of the sports top flight teams are on the rise, Biffle might to scrape together a few wins to insure a spot in the 2012 Chase.

His best shots will come at short tracks and flat tracks, types of venues where he has been highly competitive over the years.

The return of crew chief Matt Puccia may assist Biffle in making a return to the front of the pack.  Strangely, the driver collected all three of his poles after Puccia took over following Greg Erwin’s departure after the July 9 race at Kentucky.  Other then that, there were no major changes for the No. 16 team over the offseason.

Biffle’s new contract could take pressure off the driver as he prepares for another run at the Chase.

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