Sunday, February 19, 2012

12 NASCAR Qs For 2012

Will this be Carl's year?
Carl’s Turn?  After coming close in 2011, can Carl Edwards take the next step and win the Sprint Cup Championship?  Don’t bet against it.  Ford is the make to beat, especially on the super speedways, and Carl is the Ford to beat. But one has the feeling if it doesn’t happen this year, it may not happen for Edwards. 
Is this the year for Penske Racing?  Very possibly.  Firing Kurt Busch and replacing him with always upbeat A. J. Allmendinger will be a huge boost for team morale.  Huge.  He’ll also push Brad Keselowski hard, but at the same time be a better teammate than Busch ever was.  Replacing Steve Addington, who fled Busch before Penske could fire him, won’t be easy.  But Todd Gordon, who will take over Allmendinger’s car, has proved himself in Nationwide.  Allmendinger should win races and Keselowski could win a bunch of races.

Jimmy Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne or Dale Earnhardt, Jr.?  Team owner Rick Hendrick says he wants all four drivers to make the Chase.  Ain’t gonna happen.  A couple of them will certainly make it, but then who makes the run for the title?  No reason to believe things will change much for Gordon or Earnhardt, Jr., so take them off the list.  Johnson says the drive is back, but we saw things on that team last year that hadn’t happened before and no matter what they say, Chad Knaus being in Africa during pre-season testing was just plain weird.  That leaves Kahne.  Can he show the consistency needed to be the champ?  He hasn’t yet.

Can Tony Stewart re-create the magic?  Stewart was having a so-so year in 2011 until the Chase, then went lights out.  Even the team admits they’re not sure why.  With wholesale changes having been made during the offseason and the addition of Danica Patrick – and the distractions that go with her – Tony may find himself right back on the outside looking in.   

 Is Joe Gibbs Racing still one of NASCAR’s elite teams?  We’re about to find out.  A year ago at this time the answer was easy – absolutely.  But the team ended 2011 in complete disarray with a) a sponsor in open revolt; b) a once vaunted engine shop in disgrace; c) Kyle Busch one step away from joining his brother on the unemployment line; d) Denny Hamlin having completely lost confidence; e) the team botching an opportunity to replace Joey Lagano with Card Edwards; and f) the departure of two of the team’s three crew chiefs.  It will take every bit of Joe Gibbs’ team building skills to put the pieces back together again.   It can be done.  Engines are coming directly from Toyota.  Championship winning crew chief Darian Grubb will take over Hamlin’s car.  Jason Ratcliff moves up from a successful Nationwide career to replace Greg Zipadelli, who never connected with Lagano.  We shouldn’t have long to wait.  JGR has always run well at Daytona and if they don’t this year (and they weren’t very good in qualifying, 21-27-37), it could be a long, long year.  Don’t let Busch’s Bud win fool you.

Any life left at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing?  The team fell completely off the map in 2011 and is in need of a major overhaul.  Juan Pablo Montoya called it “freak’in disaster.”  Yet very little is changing.  The revolving door on the office of JPM’s crew chief is swinging again and may keep swinging.  Montoya himself showed he was in mid-season form during testing, taking out both Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Jeff Burton with one jerk of the wheel.

Happy Harvick?  Devoid of his truck and Nationwide teams, Kevin Harvick will be focused solely on Sprint Cup this year; well at least until the little one arrives.  Good or bad?  Not an easy answer.  Harvick can be anything but happy at times and has the potential to be a disruptive force on a team along the lines of Kurt Busch.  Will be interesting to see how the team and Harvick react.   

Can NASCAR survive all-Danica all the time?  There appears no truth to the rumor Speed is considering a Danica channel, although they’ve been generating enough content.  Loved Danica handling the color for Fox during the Bud Shootout.  And how many Cup races has she run?  Once the season starts, the Danica story remains a story only if she is competitive.  The quality of the team should make her a Nationwide story.  Not so on the Cup side. 

Make-it or break-it year for Michael Waltrip Racing?  MWR has made wholesale changes, dumping “The Franchise,” David Reutimann, for Clint Bowyer.  They also added Mark Martin to run 25 races with a hodgepodge of other drivers, including Waltrip himself, filling in the open dates.  Martin Truex showed signs of contending late last year and is in a contract year.  Interesting to see how this all comes together – or if it all comes together.

What becomes of Bayne and Stenhouse?  Two of NASCAR’s brightest young stars, Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse, have only limited plans for 2012 under the Jack Roush banner.  Bayne, the defending Daytona 500 champion, currently will run only about 15 races for the Wood Brothers unless additional sponsorship can be found.  Stenhouse, the defending Nationwide champ, is assured of ride only in the Daytona 500 in the unsponsored No. 6.  After that, it may be back to Nationwide for Stenhouse, although even a full season there is in jeopardy due to a lack of sponsors. 

The Pack is Back?  The Bud Clash appeared to be more of hybrid of yesterday’s pack racing than a return to the pack.  Not sure if the Bud Shootout really told us anything.  One thing to watch when the 500 starts, the battle to see who can get to the back of the pack the fastest. 
How big of an impact will EFI have this year?  Big.  Teams discovered during Daytona testing that a hot engine equipped with electronic fuel injection, once stalled, is hard to re-start.  Watch for at least one of the frontrunners in the 500 to lose a chance at winning after stalling during a pit stop.  On the flipside, EFI will increase the precision of fuel conservation and as a result we’ll probably see fewer fuel economy races in 2012.  Ford says it has a qualifying setting for its EFI and that may be one reason they were so dominate at Daytona.

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