Thursday, February 2, 2012

2012 Season Preview: 16th-20th

Note:  To countdown the start of the 2012 season, Brad Morgan will tell you what this year's top 20 drivers will look like after the checkered flag in Homestead.  In this four part series, we start off with looking at the 16th-20th spots and will have 11th-15th next week.


20. Paul Menard

In many ways, 2011 was a career year for Paul Menard. After signing with Richard Childress Racing following the 2010 season, he finished 17th in points. He also won his first Sprint Cup Series race at the Brickyard.

Last year showed that Menard was able to run with the leaders at several tracks and he ended the season with highs in average starting position (12.0) and average finish (18.0).

Richard Childress drivers aren’t strangers to success at Daytona and Talladega, and Menard was no exception. He led all drivers with a 10th place average finish in restrictor plate races.

Menard was also able to take advantage of his new equipment on flat tracks such as Indianapolis and Pocono, a surface type that Childress cars have had success on in recent years.

Despite a solid campaign in 2011, some of his on track performance would suggest that Menard will have a hard time improving on what he did last year. While he showed potential on short tracks last season (5th at Bristol), he has traditionally struggled in this area over the course of his career. He also has mediocre average finishes at the road courses Infineon (23.5) and Watkins Glen (24.9).

Despite his downfalls, he flirted with the Chase contenders for most of the 2011 season before finally fading.

Shifts within RCR may help him improve even more in 2012. Over the off season, Childress cut ties with Clint Bowyer and announced that the #33 team will no longer run a full-time schedule. This is beneficial to Menard because Childress teams have traditionally improved after the organization has made the move from four cars down to three. This move should give No. 27 team even more attention and resources.

If an upswing occurs at RCR and Menard can improve upon his average finishing position, a spot in the Chase isn’t out of the question.

19. Martin Truex Jr.


2012 is a contract year for Martin Truex Jr., a driver whose career has had all of the highs and lows of a rollercoaster ride.  


In his second year with Michael Waltrip Racing, he was able to make positive strides in the form of three top-5s and 12 top-10s on the way to a 18th place finish in points.  Despite failing to pick up a second career win, last year was, statistically speaking, the driver’s best season since his 2007 campaign with Dale Earnhardt Incorporated.


The two-time Nationwide champ ended the year on a high note, posting top-10 finishes in four of the final five races.

In 2012, Chad Johnston will return as crew chief for the No. 56 Camry after partnering with Truex for 19 races last season. The driver performed marginally better after Johnston replaced Pat Tryson following the June 5 race at Kansas Speedway.

NAPA is returning to the car as the primary sponsor and will be entering its final year with the team under the current contract. Needless to say, this will be a make or break year for the New Jersey native.

The arrival of Clint Bowyer is a double edged sword for the inconsistent Truex. Bowyer proved to be an excellent drafter during his time at RCR and could benefit Truex at tracks like Talladega and Daytona, where the NAPA driver has seen mixed results.  On the flip side, he could be under more pressure with a driver of Bowyer’s skill level now a member of the organization.

After being signed by MWR following the 2009 season, Truex has been largely unable to live up to the expectations that made him a top free agent.  However, with two new teammates in Bowyer and the respected veteran Mark Martin, things could improve in a hurry.

18. Marcos Ambrose
Marcos Ambrose was no stranger to victory lane in his time as a competitor in V8 Supercars Australia, so it came as a surprise when the Aussie was unable to take first in a race during his first two full seasons of Sprint Cup action. Last August, however, he was finally able to enjoy a win after getting past Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski with two laps remaining at Watkins Glen. Ambrose went on to post career marks in both top-5s (5) and top-10s(12) before finishing 19th in the final point standings.

Todd Parrot is expected to be back on top of the box for the No. 9 Ford Fusion in 2012.

Stanley Black & Decker will also return as a primary sponsor following his best year in Sprint cup, which could make things for the driver feel largely unchanged. Only this season, the Richard Petty Motorsports stable consists of Ambrose and Aric Almirola following the departure of A.J. Allmendinger to Penske Racing.

In order to be a threat for the top-12 in 2012, Ambrose must show that he is capable of being a lead driver at RPM while becoming more consistent overall.

Ambrose, already an accomplished driver on road courses, showed improvement on ovals as well. Despite finishing worse than 20th in 15 races last year, his stats have been gradually trending upwards on tracks that make up the majority of the schedule. He showed he is capable of improving upon those numbers by finishing 11th at Texas and posting top-10 finishes at Dover, Kansas, Charlotte, and Phoenix all during the Chase.

If he is able to duplicate those types of finishes consistently in 2012, it’s likely that he will be in the hunt for a Chase spot going into September.

17. Kurt Busch

Kurt Busch finds himself driving for Phoenix Racing in 2012 after being released from No. 22 Penske ride. His new, unexpected, ride comes after a series of outbursts with the media, competitors, and even his own team became too much for the organization.

Phoenix Racing’s single car team is definitely a low profile operation when compared to what’s going on at his former home. However, James Finch’s car should give the 2004 Sprint Cup champion a fighting chance at some tracks. Last season Finch entered his car in all 36 races and averaged a 26th place finish thanks to drivers Landon Cassil, Mike Bliss, Boris Said, and Bill Elliott.

Reliability shouldn’t be huge concern for Busch in this new partnership. Despite being a one car team, Phoenix Racing buys its engines from Hendrick Motorsports and finished 33 of 36 races last year. Meanwhile, Busch has completed all but five races over the past two seasons.

With a championship and six previous Chase births under his belt, Busch will bring valuable experience to a team that has only one win in its history (Brad Keselowski at Talladega in 2009).

His resume makes it seem possible that Busch could finish in the top-20 in points, despite the fact Finch's team has yet to do so. If he can get a win at a restrictor plate track or a road course, all places that have treated him well, he could be in line to clinch one of the final two spots in the Chase.

Busch’s one year deal might serve as a springboard back to more elite organizations if the driver
puts together some impressive finishes and controls his temper.

16. Jeff Burton

Jeff Burton’s experience during the 2011 season was anything but stellar. The veteran posted his worst numbers since 1995 with two top-5s and five top-10s, on the way to a 20th place finish in points.
 
Burton hasn’t looked like his typical self for the past three seasons after making the Chase three years in a row from 2006-2008. His recent history suggests that he will have a hard time rounding back into form.  His age could also become a factor. Burton turns 45 in June and many drivers see a decline in ability during their late 40’s.  

On a positive note, he saw more consistent results after Lucas Lambert replaced Todd Barrier following a stretch of sub-20th place finishes midseason. In 2012, Drew Blickensderfer will call the shots for Burton. Blickensderfer is known for winning the first two races of the 2009 season as the crew chief for Matt Kenseth.  

Few drivers ended 2011 with more momentum than Burton. Of his five top-10s, four came during the seasons last five races. That sort of success could propel him to a fast start in 2012, which is what he lacked last year. 

Like his teammate Menard, Burton may also benefit from the downsizing that took place at Richard Childress Racing over the off season.  

Since Burton joined RCR in 2005, his worst finishes in the final standings have been in 2005 (18th), 2009 (17th), and 2011 (20th). Burton made the Chase in each of his other seasons as a driver for the organization.
In 2009 and 2011 an argument could be made that his struggles were because resources and personnel were over stretched due to an expansion from three to four cars (in 2010 RCR returned to three cars). 

To achieve a 5th career Chase birth, Burton will need to pick up right where he left off last season.


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