Less than 30 days remain until NASCAR kicks off its 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Daytona International Speedway, and despite a long offseason of speculation and debate, a number of questions remain that could dramatically impact the 2012 campaign.
|Win, Junior, Win!|
Will Dale Junior Win In 2011? Rick Hendrick’s decision to team Dale Earnhardt, Jr., with crew chief Steve Letarte paid dividends last season. Bolstered by Letarte’s hands-on approach and constant encouragement, NASCAR’s perennial Most Popular Driver surged from 21st in the 2010 championship standings to seventh, and was in contention for a number of wins. Unfortunately for Earnhardt’s army of fans, “in contention” just doesn’t cut it. It’s been 110 races – more than three and a half years -- since Junior went to Victory Lane; and the natives long ago began to get restless. They’d love to see Earnhardt and Letarte return to the Chase for a second consecutive season. They’d love for Earnhardt to author a legitimate Sprint Cup championship bid for the first time in his career.
First things first, though. Earnhardt needs to win a race, as soon as possible. Is a Daytona 500 victory too much to ask?
Will Tony Stewart Regret His Team’s Off Season Moves? Nobody fires their crew chief in the aftermath of a championship-winning season. Nobody, that is, but Tony Stewart.
After a lackluster regular season devoid of wins, Stewart decided to terminate crew chief Darian Grubb at season’s end. He then embarked on a torrid Chase that included five wins in 10 starts and an improbable series championship. Grubb smiled for the cameras, posed with the Sprint Cup trophy, then packed his bags for a new job with Joe Gibbs Racing and driver Denny Hamlin. Veteran Steve Addington will take his place atop Stewart’s pit box, and if things don’t work out, Smoke will have 10 long months to second-guess himself.
|"Five Time" Set To Rebound|
Can Jimmie Johnson Regain His Championship Form? The 2011 season was the worst of Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career. Despite two wins and a best-in-the-sport 21 Top-10 finishes, Johnson faltered badly in the Chase, fading to sixth in the final rundown with a late-season string of DNFs and disappointing finishes. That failure will motivate Johnson and his future Hall Of Fame crew chief, Chad Knaus, pushing them to greater heights and returning their Lowe’s Chevrolet team to title contention again in 2012. Expect Johnson to reclaim his place in the spotlight this season with a solid run toward a sixth Sprint Cup Series title.
Can Denny Hamlin Rebound? After taking his 2011 championship bid all the way to Homestead Miami Speedway, Hamlin fell off the competitive radar last season. He visited Victory Lane only once – at Michigan in June – and managed just five Top-5 finishes all season. Handcuffed by the memory of its 2011 failure, his Fed-Ex Toyota team seemed incapable of making a fresh start. By midseason, it was clear that something was amiss. By season’s end, the team had deteriorated into petty bickering and finger pointing.
Darian Grubb must change all that. Hot off a championship season with Stewart, Grubb must rally the troops at Joe Gibbs Racing, take the focus off the long-gone 2011 season and get everyone pulling in the same direction once again. A fast start could make Hamlin a title contender once again, while a continuation of last year’s struggles could doom the team to another season of frustration.
Can Carl Edwards Overcome His 2011 Disappointment? Losing a championship can lead to the loss of another, as Hamlin will attest. After tying for the title a year ago and losing the championship to Stewart via tiebreaker, Edwards has a lot of forgetting to do. Job One is for Edwards, crew chief Bob Osborne and the No. 99 team to put the spilled milk of 2011 behind them. That could be more difficult than it sounds.
Does Less Equal More For Kevin Harvick? Kevin Harvick’s competitive plate will be much cleaner in 2012. He and wife DeLana divested themselves of their Kevin Harvick, Inc. Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series teams last season, casting off the financial headaches and time constraints associated with running that operation. They started a family in the off season and will welcome their first child in late July. Those changes will almost certainly make “Happy Harvick” happier – and less stressed -- than he was a year ago. Happier drivers are almost always better drivers, and after finishing a strong third in championship points a year ago, Harvick will be even tougher to beat in 2012.
Can A.J. Allmendinger Fulfill His Potential? The former Champ Car World Series star is off to a flying start in 2012, signing to replace Kurt Busch in Roger Penske’s #22 Shell-Pennzoil Dodge, then leading underdog Michael Shank Racing to victory in the 50th Anniversary Rolex 24 at Daytona. His Rolex 24 performance proved what longtime fans have known for more than a decade; with proper equipment and support, “The Dinger” will win races.
Allmendinger never had a chance to succeed at Red Bull Racing, where he was given just 18 months to win with a new team, a new manufacturer and no experience in full-fendered race cars. At Richard Petty Motorsports, he suffered through a 2010 campaign filled with doubt about whether the team would remain viable from week to week. Last year, he finished the 26-race regular season 13th in the championship standings, just a handful of points – or one win – away from a berth in the Chase.
This year, with better equipment, top-notch personnel and a teammate who enjoyed a career season of his own in 2011, there is nothing to keep Allmendinger from become NASCAR’s newest first-time Sprint Cup Series winner.
|Kurt knows what is at stake.|
Can Kurt Busch Resurrect His Career? After a tumultuous 2011 campaign punctuated by verbal outbursts and a “mutual agreement” postseason departure from Penske Racing, Busch knows what is at stake. His new team, Phoenix Racing, will make him a contender at Daytona and Talladega, while running 10th to 20th in the remaining 32 races. How Busch handles the trials and tribulations of being a mid-pack racer for the first time in his career will go a long way toward determining his future in the sport. Can Busch change his ways while maintaining the on-track fire that helped make him a Sprint Cup champion? Quite honestly, the jury is still out.
Can Kyle Busch Get Along? Many of the questions surrounding Kurt Busch apply to baby brother Kyle, as well. There is no doubt that the younger Busch is one of the most talented wheelmen in the history of NASCAR. Unfortunately, he has yet to display the mental toughness and psychological strength necessary to contend for a Sprint Cup championship. If Kyle can learn to harness his temper and deal more effectively with disappointment, he’ll be a title contender in 2012. If not, he’ll win plenty of races, and little else.
Is MWR Ready To Step Up? Michael Waltrip Racing added a pair of proven winners to its lineup for 2012, inking Clint Bowyer to a full-time Sprint Cup Series schedule and adding veteran Mark Martin for a part-time slate. Both have been Chase contenders in the past, and have their sights set firmly on a return. Veteran driver Martin Truex, Jr., ended last season on a high note, longtime financial partner Rob Kaufman gives the team all the financing, material and personnel it needs to succeed, and Toyota provides the factory support. Entering its sixth season of Sprint Cup competition, MWR now has everything it needs to succeed.