by Matt Taliaferro
The Daytona 500 will kick off another exciting NASCAR season on Sunday, as Tony Stewart tries to defend his Sprint Cup title against many worthy adversaries. The Budweiser Shootout was exciting last weekend with Kyle Busch winning in thrilling fashion, and Carl Edwards will start on the pole for the Great American Race. From the pages of Athlon Sports Monthly, here’s our 2012 NASCAR preview.
What to Do for an Encore?
The 2011 season finale in Homestead, Fla., will go down as one of the most dramatic races in NASCAR’s 60-plus-year history. Tony Stewart capped off a scintillating Chase run by winning his fifth race of the playoffs and, in the process, nipping Carl Edwards for the championship in a tiebreaker.
So how does the sport top it? Thankfully, by letting everything play out naturally in the upcoming year. In the annual January “state of the sport” address, NASCAR principals announced no new rule modifications directed at the point system or structural changes to the Chase. And with Edwards hungrier than ever, Stewart looking for title No. 4 and a more determined duo in Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, expect a 10-race playoff run every bit as exciting and unpredictable as last season’s epic stretch.
First Things First, Though
NASCAR’s annual pilgrimage to the world’s center of speed in Daytona Beach, Fla., culminates in this weekend’s Daytona 500. The sanctioning body has worked throughout the offseason and during Speedweeks to bring back the popular — albeit white-knuckle — “pack racing” style of competition at Daytona. The last couple of years have seen the rise of two-car “tandem draft” racing on NASCAR’s restrictor plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega, where two cars glued nose-to-tail while never lifting off the accelerator have proved faster than a giant pack of machines mere inches from one another.
For all of NASCAR’s effort to discourage the two-car breakaways, though, most drivers believe that when the money is on the line, the tandem phenomenon will rule the day. A snarling 30-car pack may have its time and place throughout the 500, but the drivers know the surest way to Victory Lane is by pairing up with a teammate and separating from the field.
And What of NASCAR’s Most Popular Duo?
Nine-time Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and open-wheel-turned-stock-car-driver Danica Patrick will undoubtedly be under the fans’ microscope throughout the season. After all, with popularity comes scrutiny — and in a sponsor-driven sport such as NASCAR, funding follows.
Earnhardt, an 18-time winner in the Cup Series, looks to break a 129-race winless skid on the circuit. He experienced a turnaround of sorts in 2011, finishing seventh in the point standings while posting his best numbers since his first season with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. Still, the wins did not come, and in order for Junior to find favor with the naysayers, racking up victories is imperative.
His six-win campaign of 2004 is but a speck in the rearview mirror at this point in his career. With the resources of the sport’s most potent organization, a crew chief in Steve Letarte who seems to push the right buttons and championship teammates in Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, expect Earnhardt to earn a checkered flag or two this season — and what better place to get the season started off right than Daytona, where he’s won both the February and July races.
And then there’s Patrick, who enters her first full season in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series after seven years in IndyCar. Armed with the financial backing of GoDaddy.com and the resources of Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports (which receives engines and chassis from Hendrick), Patrick should be a contender in a series where the gap between “haves” and “have nots” has grown exponentially.
A much more interesting story to follow will be her Cup Series debut with Tony Stewart’s Stewart-Haas Racing team, which will happen in the Daytona 500. Patrick will also suit up with the big boys in nine other races, as she ratchets up her knowledge and skills for a run at full-time Cup glory in 2013.
A Year of Redemption
Every sport has its villains, and brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch seem to have taken on the title with their colorful antics over the last few years.
Kyle may be the most talented pure racer on the circuit, but a competitive streak that gives him an edge also serves as his biggest liability. Parked for a race last season after intentionally wrecking a competitor in a Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway, the mercurial driver nearly found himself without a sponsor or a ride. However, Joe Gibbs Racing was able to smooth things out with both driver and sponsor, Mars/M&M’s. The 26-year-old, who has accumulated 23 Cup wins in only seven full seasons, will look to start a new chapter in his career.
The bigger question surrounding Kyle is if he’ll ever win a coveted Cup title. Thus far, he’s proved that when the pressure is at its greatest — during the playoffs — his mental state is fragile. Until he delivers in the clutch, it’s hard to see him as anything more than a driver who will win in spades, but fold at title time.
Older brother Kurt wasn’t so fortunate last year. Following a number of dust-ups with the media and weekly team radio tirades, the 2004 series champion was shown the door at Penske Racing.
Kurt landed with single-car outfit Phoenix Racing, where he’ll look to prove to the powerhouse organizations of the sport that he can play team ball and behave as a professional should. How he co-exists with team owner James Finch may be the most entertaining storyline of the season.
The opportunity to win on a plate track or road course is there for the 33-year-old this season, but beyond that, it will be a season of mending his reputation as he looks to 2013 as a comeback year of sorts.
Keep Your Eye On…
When races are in the books and NASCAR’s Chase begins, look for these five drivers to separate themselves from the field and battle for the 2012 Sprint Cup.
After two consecutive third-place finishes in the point standings, Harvick enters 2012 with a new crew chief and retooled pit crew. Shane Wilson, who guided Harvick to a Busch Series title in 2006 prior to working atop Clint Bowyer’s pit box in the Cup Series, will lead the team. With seven wins in the last two seasons, expect Harvick to rack up a handful more in 2012 en route to his first Sprint Cup championship.
Keselowski took the circuit by storm in 2011, winning three races in a scorching summer stretch that propelled his Penske Racing outfit into a surprise Chase appearance. Keselowski possesses the perfect balance of raw talent, aggressiveness and media savvy that will make him a popular contender for years to come. Expect big things out of the Michigan native this year now that he knows the Cup ropes and inherits the mantle of “team leader” in the Penske organization.
It’s hard to envision losing a championship in a more heartbreaking fashion than Edwards did in 2011. Edwards was relegated to second after losing a tiebreaker that gave the title to Tony Stewart. Many drivers have run second in the standings only to fall off the radar the following season. That said, Edwards is mentally tougher than most, and having been in this position before (2008) should prepare him to challenge for his first Cup title once again.
The streak had to come to an end sometime. After an unprecedented five consecutive titles, Johnson “slumped” to a sixth-place points finish in 2011. But that result may only yield a more determined duo in Johnson and ace crew chief Chad Knaus this year. With Knaus’ smarts, Johnson’s ability, and the resources of NASCAR’s strongest organization, a new streak may begin in November.
Kasey Kahne has finally landed in a place where he can expect sustained success — Hendrick Motorsports. Kahne has experienced a roller-coaster career with teams that invariably have fallen apart, through no fault of Kahne’s. Paired again with crew chief Kenny Francis, Kahne will share shop space on the Hendrick campus with Jeff Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson, making the 5 car a weekly contender out of the gate. The sky’s the limit here.