Thursday, February 23, 2012

2012 Season Preview: 1st-6th

This is the final part of a series of articles by Brad Morgan previewing the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.


5. Kyle Busch

Kyle Busch seems to have conquered nearly every hurdle a professional driver faces except for one, his maturity.

Last year, the driver many fans call “Rowdy” once again failed to control his temper.  The most notable incident was a Camping World Truck Series run-in with Ron Hornaday at Texas which cost Busch a start in the crucial Sprint Cup Chase race at the venue, ending his hopes of a championship.

As a result, the Las Vegas, Nevada native finished the season ranked 12th in the standings, last amongst the Chasers.  After participating in 35 of 36 races, Busch had compiled four wins, 14 top-5s, and 18 top-10s.

Over the years, NASCAR’s fines and sanctions have done little to change the driver’s on-track mentality, although Busch now sports a more understanding attitude during interviews.

While considered one of the most talented drivers on the circuit, the 2005 Rookie of the Year has encountered poor Chase results similar to last season’s fiasco throughout his career. He has been in the top three in points entering the Chase in each of his last three playoff births only to falter in one way or another down the stretch.

Winning races isn’t an issue for Busch.  The 26-year-old has found victory lane 23 times over the course of his eight year Cup Series career.  But, when will he take the next step towards winning a title?

The problem isn’t with the equipment or team.  Crew chief Dave Rogers kept the No. 18 car at the front of the pack in 2011 (Busch led 1455 laps, the most of any driver); and with three owner’s championships in the series, Joe Gibbs Racing is considered one of Sprint Cup’s premiere organizations.

The Answer lies with Busch himself.  Can he refrain from letting his emotions get the best of him during the seasons most crucial moments?  Only time will tell.


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4. Kevin Harvick

Ask a NASCAR fan who they believe the best closer in the sport is.  Similar to a closer in baseball, racing’s usage of the term is applied to the driver who seemingly appears out of nowhere in the final laps of a race to achieve victory.

Kevin Harvick made a strong statement for being the best driver during the closing laps in 2011.  During races at Fontana (March 27), Martinsville (April 3) and Charlotte (May 29), he took the lead away with four laps remaining or less in order to win.  In all, he scored four wins last year to go along with nine top-5s and 19 top-10s.

How close was Harvick to winning the Sprint Cup last season?

He finished 3rd in the standings for the second time in a row, this year behind Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards.  Normally a driver would be able to live with that sort of result.  Harvick on the other hand became tired of coming up short in the title hunt and talked with team owner Richard Childress about making a change after the Kobalt Tools 500 (Nov. 13).

As a result, Gil Martin will be moved to director of team operations for Richard Childress Racing (RCR), and Shane Wilson will step in as the new crew chief of the No. 29 team beginning in 2012.  Wilson was the crew chief for Harvick during the driver’s 2006 Nationwide Series championship run.

The aforementioned downsizing operation (see Jeff Burton and Paul Menard) that took place at RCR over the winter may also have a positive affect on the 2001 Rookie of the Year’s chances this season.

All of the pieces are in place for the Bakersfield, California native to make another serious run at the Sprint Cup championship.  If Harvick can continue his closing laps heroics, he’ll likely have a shot to grab the title.


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3. Matt Kenseth

Matt Kenseth is a driver who has built a solid career from his ability to stay consistently fast and avoid trouble at most tracks.

In 2003, Kenseth took home the championship while managing only one victory.

Last season, wins weren’t a problem for the Cambridge, Wisconsin native.  He won three races (his highest total since 2006) while collecting 12 top-5s and 20 top-10s.

On paper Kenseth’s 4th place finish in points doesn’t look bad.  But, it’s a wonder that he was able to finish that high after adding in several misfortunes that the driver encountered during the Chase.  At Chicago (Sept. 19), he ran out of fuel on the final lap before coasting to a 21st place finish.  During the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville, Kenseth had run-ins with Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers, eventually finishing 31st.  Later at Phoenix (Nov. 13), he suffered a DNF after another incident with Vickers.  Outside of this series of mishaps, his playoff run looks similar to that of teammate Carl Edwards.

The 14-year veteran will have a new look for 2012 after Crown Royal parted ways with the team.  The No. 17 Ford Fusion will be sponsored by a variety of companies including: Best Buy, Valvoline, Zest Soap, and Ford EcoBoost.

Qualifying has never been Kenseth’s strength, but in 2011 the tides began to turn as he posted a 14.2 average starting mark, which is the best of his career.  He has always been a driver who can gain and maintain position after the green flag drops, but if his qualifying speeds continue to trend upwards, the driver’s job will be much easier.

Crew chief Jimmy Fennig could be a major reason behind his driver’s recent upsurge.  After taking over for Todd Parrott halfway through the 2010 season, Kenseth has once again been amongst the series best drivers on a constant basis.

If this driver-crew chief duo picks up where they left off in 2011, Kenseth will be a major contender for the Sprint Cup.


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2. Jimmie Johnson

Did "Superman" Jimmie Johnson finally lose his cape?

It’s easy to be skeptical of Johnson after 2011.  The five-time champion had the worst season since his rookie year in 2002.

For a driver who’s grown accustomed to sitting onstage at the NASCAR Drivers Banquet, two wins, 14 top-5s, and 21 top-10s is way off pace.  The statistics weren’t the only thing missing from a lackluster campaign.

Johnson finished 6th in points also a career worst.  Usually, the Chase is the No. 48 team’s stomping grounds (Johnson has 20 career wins during the Chase).  But last season, the talented driver had no such luck during the final ten races.  His hopes of an unprecedented sixth championship were dashed after a hard crash ended his night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

What did Hendrick Motorsports do to correct last season’s letdown?  Besides altering the color of the car to a dark blue and white pinstriped design, they didn’t change very much.

The pairing of the driver Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus is perhaps the most potent matchup in the sport today on a regular basis.  The two have been together since the beginning of Johnson’s career, and the offseason has given them some needed time apart.

The best thing that the 2010 Driver of the Year could have possibly done over the offseason is to learn to forget.  But, the pressure of being a defending champion has now been lifted from his shoulders, meaning Johnson should be at his best.

He also has a new reason to be motivated.  After failing to capture a sixth championship, the driver now wants to prove that he can win again as a driver for what is possibly Sprint Cup’s best organization.

Johnson’s first goal will be to knock off the rust that halted his run during the second half of last year’s Chase.  His second goal will be to recapture the title and climb a step closer to Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt on the all-time championships list.



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1. Carl Edwards

One point is the only thing that separated Carl Edwards from being crowned the 2011 Sprint Cup champion.

Because he finished runner-up to Tony Stewart by the closest margin ever, Edwards should simply continue to take the same approach when preparing for races in 2012.  After all, it couldn’t happen again right?

The 19 top-5s and 26 top-10s that the 2007 Nationwide Series champion collected are easily good enough to have won the championship any other year.  Perhaps the only thing holding the No. 99 team back was its inability to win.  In 2012, Edwards should attempt to be more aggressive in order to improve upon the single victory he had last season.

Winning more races wouldn’t hurt his chances, and the driver’s most successful seasons have come when he is able to take the car to victory lane more often.

From an organizational standpoint, the biggest change from last season is the downsizing operation that took place over the winter.

While there a positives to a smaller organization, a move like this also carries potentially negative consequences.  RFR lost at least 100 workers, some of which have been hired by other NASCAR teams.  These former employees carried the knowledge they learned about RFR to their new organizations.  This leak of information could hurt Edwards during the new campaign.

Otherwise, few changes were made over the offseason, making a repeat performance from last year all the more likely for the Columbia, Missouri native.

The driver’s Roush Fenway Racing (RFR) Ford will once again feature a bevy or sponsors including: Fastenal, Best Buy, UPS, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Cheez-It, Aflac, and Subway; the resulting designs will give the car a different look almost every week.  Bob Osbourne will return as the crew chief for the Fusion for the ninth consecutive year.

No matter the situation at RFR, Edwards has proven that he can drive well at virtually every track.  This versatility should help him in the quest for his first Cup Series championship.



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