Examining the heavyweights of racing
As the 2013 NASCAR season prepares to get underway, Athlon Sports ranks the top teams to hit the track.
1. Hendrick Motorsports
An elephant is probably one of the few things Rick Hendrick doesn’t own. But for what the owner faces in 2013, you need look no further than the American version, otherwise known as the Republican Party.
Just like the presidential election, Hendrick endured a narrow loss in the championship fight with prized candidate Jimmie Johnson, who, like Mitt Romney, has been there, done that — successful many times over, but now a loser for a second straight cycle. So does HMS stick with the status quo, armed with the knowledge that without a broken rear gear (like Romney’s great swing-state disaster of Florida), Johnson may very well be your series champ? Hendrick had a hand in six straight Cup titles with Johnson and Tony Stewart, so at some point, the law of averages was going to catch up.
Or does the car owner think a “Republican revolution” on the inside is what’s needed? Other challengers to the throne are restless, including the Ron Paul of this group, Jeff Gordon, who’s been increasingly marginalized during J.J.’s prime. His time for a fifth title, and his patience, are running short. (See: the Clint Bowyer brawl that likely ended his ability to guest-host for “Live with Kelly & Michael.”) Kasey Kahne, the Marco Rubio of his organization, flexed some muscle last season and has time — at age 32 — plus a line of companies willing to shell out millions on his side. Heck, even Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s most popular driver, can’t get big money anymore with multiple races open in late December. (It’s assumed they will be filled by Fortune 500 companies — Jeb Bush, a “supposed” early favorite for 2016, can relate.) Are we at a point with Earnhardt that, without a major change in attitude, laps led, or victory total, the men that make decisions (or in the Republicans’ case, millions of voters) are no longer willing to give this famous last name a second look?
All fair and good points, but the honest answer is that Hendrick Motorsports remains the most well-funded, successful and resourced team in the sport. One, if not more, of Rick’s boys will have a say in the 2013 championship. After all, the last time NASCAR changed race cars, in 2007, HMS was so far out front it was like he was given a copy of the rulebook six months in advance. Or maybe he was; after all, John Middlebrook sure came over for dinner a lot that offseason.
2. Joe Gibbs Racing
What part hasn’t broken on a Joe Gibbs Racing car during the Chase? We don’t have the answer, but never fear — you’ll find out this September. When it comes to finding the “F” in DNF, JGR always saves the best for last, as spectacular failures derailed an otherwise strong 2012 for Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota. The problem for Hamlin, an expectant father in 2013, is the growing number of “Mark Martin” therapeutic tragedies on his résumé. They say you need to lose one before you can win one, but when you lose two, three, four, or more … then you start to believe it’ll never happen.
To help get over the hump, Hamlin lobbied openly for former champ Matt Kenseth to earn Joey Logano’s former spot at the No. 20 Toyota. The tragicomedy is that through that process, he’s forgetting how easily this new hire can beat him. One other caveat: The soon-to-be 40-year-old Kenseth can’t fix a broken master switch — only the crew and head wrench can be held responsible. Kenseth’s veteran leadership should help with the chemistry, though, within an organization that hasn’t had a guiding hand since Tony Stewart left the team in 2008.
Notice how we haven’t mentioned Kyle Busch. J.D. Gibbs’ strategy appears to be somewhat similar, hoping that by holding a new contract up towards the ceiling, he can get Busch to jump higher, like a puppy dog learning new tricks in order to get the treat. He drove like a man possessed after missing the Chase, lending credence to the method. But know that there are plenty of opportunities elsewhere beyond 2013. Busch was burned by Hendrick for the cold, hard cash Dale Earnhardt Jr. brought in 2007 and knows that loyalty in this business is only a contract-by-contract proposition. That means that this team, more than any other, faces the widest range of possibilities: All three teams could make the Chase, all three could be chasing each other’s tails, or a few parts failures at the wrong times could lead to some internal explosions.
And Kenseth was supposed to end this soap opera…
3. Penske Racing
Oddsmakers have already labeled Brad Keselowski as the underdog to win two straight titles. And that’s just fine with him. Filling the role of David is just how one of the sport’s most outspoken drivers likes to operate. Vegas has a right to be concerned, though, about the number of obstacles in the way: A switch from Dodge to Ford. Penske’s abandoning its own engine program for someone else’s. The fact only three drivers since 1990 have pulled the repeat (Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson). A new teammate, Joey Logano, who could be labeled at best a work in progress.
Perhaps the biggest question, though unspoken, is how much longer Mr. Penske wants to run around in circles, since he turns 76 in 2013. He’s quietly been affected by health issues — though none overly serious — in the recent past, and at some point, one has to wonder if there’s some sort of succession process in place. In some ways, he’s already stepped back, allowing Keselowski to leave his touch on the organization with important changes that clearly resulted in a championship. But the driver can’t do it all, as he’s already adding the role of “teacher” to his list in 2013 for Logano, a key cog as Shell/Pennzoil badly needs to start seeing some success.
Keselowski possesses as much mental strength as anyone in the Cup Series garage, so it wouldn’t be surprising for him to will his way to another title. It’s just that the burden he has to carry in 2013 grows ever larger.
4. Stewart-Hass Racing
Most teams are spending the winter working on testing for 2013. Stewart-Haas Racing is busy working overtime in another department: building race cars. Not only does it need a third set for Danica Patrick’s full-time entry in the No. 10, but it’s also working on a fourth for when she’s done crashing that fleet. OK, so it may not be that bad, but it is the type of unrated content GoDaddy didn’t want released but becomes public knowledge weekly beginning with this year’s Daytona 500.
You know it’s a bad sign when people are predicting that a “best-case scenario” is simply finishing the race in one piece, right? Patrick’s push to the front will be hot and heavy, though, as the GoDaddy sponsorship will be up for renewal at season’s end. Money has been hard to come by for this organization of late, with Old Spice, Office Depot and the U.S. Army just some of the major backers jumping ship over the last two years. And that’s with Tony Stewart winning a championship! Reports are that Ryan Newman had to take a sizeable pay cut, forced back into that “other tax bracket” in order to stay employed. With patchwork deals on the No. 39, plus Kevin Harvick on the way in 2014, it’s easy to find the guy on the hot seat here.
That means that for Stewart, 2013 will be a real test of just how independent one car can be within a multi-car team. Brad Keselowski had that problem last year but still streaked to a title. Can Stewart, faced with Distraction Central and the monumental task of getting Eldora NASCAR ready, do the same?
5. Michael Waltrip Racing
From laughingstock to lovable to lauded, the transformation of this program is nothing short of amazing. Suddenly, fans know Martin Truex Jr. for more than an annoying commercial karaoke sequence. Sponsor 5-Hour Energy, after years of being more crumpled than an empty soda can when shown on television in the Nationwide Series, can trumpet the effects of its product through Clint Bowyer’s track and field Phoenix sprint. And then there’s the ageless Mark Martin, 54 in 2013, who can still whip a 27-year-old’s tail on the track.
But just like any organization that has made a worst-to-first-type ascension, the battle to shed the label of “one-year wonder” won’t be easy. The last time Truex won, Barack Obama had just started his first term — as the U.S. Senator from Illinois. Hendrick Motorsports, as payback for what Bowyer did to Gordon, let him finish second in the standings, through a parts failure at Homestead, to inherit the role of “runner-up jinx.” The last driver to finish in the top 5 in points, let alone contend for a championship the following year after winding up second? Matt Kenseth, in 2006-07. Ever since, teams have gone winless, missed Chases, flipped into the catchfence at Talladega … you know the deal.
Then there’s Martin, facing the inevitable transition from first-year success to second-year questions like, “When is someone else going to take over the driver’s seat?” We’ve heard this story play out before, back during the “Salute To You Tour V” days with Hendrick Motorsports, but this time there’s validity. What if super-sub Brian Vickers wins a championship with Joe Gibbs Racing in the Nationwide Series and has an offer from a rival Toyota Cup team? Or worse, a rival Chevy team? Could MWR really let a man who could serve it well for 10 years get away over someone at the tail end of his career? Such are the questions facing a suddenly stout team with championship aspirations.
6. Roush Racing
So let’s get this straight. The man who won the most races at Roush Fenway, Matt Kenseth, was allowed to walk. The one with the most expensive contract, Carl Edwards, hasn’t won since March 2011 and is paired with his third crew chief in seven months. The most successful driver left, Greg Biffle, is 43 and arguably less exciting than 400 miles in Fontana. And the newcomer, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., has all of five Cup Series starts to his credit.
All is not well in Roush-land, mirroring the decline of its co-ownership Boston Red Sox brethren. The questions for recovery are numerous, with the first being why its most veteran crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, is paired with Edwards when common sense says a rookie needs to be balanced by experience. Is RFR really that desperate to turn Cousin Carl’s performance around? And does former head wrench Bob Osborne have health-related issues or what?
In all seriousness, perhaps the biggest adjustment here in 2013 isn’t even Kenseth’s departure, the crew chief swaps or sponsorship issues (Stenhouse could use more). It’s that Ford now has a new kid on the block in Roger Penske after Roush spent the last three or four years as the manufacturer’s main squeeze. How will these two titans of motorsports co-exist in the same house?
There are more questions than answers here. While history tells us that RFR never stays down for long, one must wonder if a turbulent year lies ahead.
7. Richard Childress Racing
Contrary to popular belief, the name on the marquee hasn’t changed to “Dillon Childress Racing.” But all signs point in that direction for 2014 and beyond, right? Owner Richard Childress, still dealing with the fact that Kevin Harvick will depart for Stewart-Haas Racing at season’s end, must right the ship after an underachieving 2012 with an eye on the suddenly foggy future.
RCR’s Cup Series lineup now consists of a “lame duck” in Harvick, a perplexingly underperforming Jeff Burton and daddy-supported Paul Menard. Down in Nationwide, a departing Elliott Sadler has been replaced by family-supported Brian Scott, teamed with grandson Austin Dillon, while a third car may serve as GoDaddy darling Danica Patrick’s ride in 8-to-10 races. In the Truck Series, younger grandson Ty Dillon continues his learning process while Joey Coulter leaves. Who pops in? Brendan Gaughan, known more for his father’s casinos than NASCAR success.
See where we’re going here? Outside funding, from family-supported drivers, helps RCR keep up with the Joneses, providing a place to race while eliminating the jealousy/threats that may result from a focus on the Dillon boys. Pretty smart, actually.
Perhaps that’s why Harvick ran for the door — his problems with patience, combined with the difficulty of a “lame duck” status, make him unlikely to lead this team to success. Of the three drivers in Cup, Burton may have the best chance to make the Chase, handed “golden wrench” Luke Lambert, whose presence at the No. 31 car provides a spark. But when your top dog is a 45-year-old veteran, clearly past his prime … well, those Dillon boys can’t use that extra cash to conquer the minors and make it to the Cup level fast enough.
8. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Talk about the Odd Couple. In this corner, we have a former Daytona 500 winner who is as well liked by his peers on the track as he is personable off it. And in this corner, we have a former Indy 500 winner who continues to make waves on the track with fellow competitors and can be a bit frosty off it.
Such is life at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, where Goldilocks needs to show both Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya the NASCAR formula of racing “just right.” That’s something both have to relearn after running the entire schedule without a top-5 finish, virtually unheard of for a program with this kind of big-time sponsorship money (Target, McDonald’s).
What can make it better? Last year, Ganassi made sweeping personnel changes — though none in the driver lineup — and it made things worse. So what do you do if you’re not going to make any changes behind the wheel?
If you have an answer, write in, because then you could be working for Mr. Ganassi. That’s how bad the NASCAR side has gotten despite an open-wheel juggernaut on the other side of the shop that’s bound to continue for the rest of this decade.
9. Richard Petty Motorsports
It’s hard to believe it’s now been 20 years since Richard Petty last drove in the Cup Series. Turning 76 years old in 2013, NASCAR’s “King” continues to search for sustained success from the famed No. 43. Aric Almirola came close once last season, when a miracle Kansas performance was derailed by a few flat tires. Can the longtime prospect turn potential into reality? The answer may come with how much Ford, along with RPM investors, chooses to market Petty’s name rather than spend the money needed to land the company in Victory Lane. When your top driver, Marcos Ambrose, is threatening to leave the country and head back to Australia rather than re-sign, there’s a perception that the team can only go so far. When a manufacturer, in Dodge, sees the Petty name and still scoffs, then leaves the sport entirely, there’s an impression that funding is more limited than you think.
Something — a lucky break, a sponsor signing, expansion — has to happen here to get this train to leave the station.