Kyle Busch is Dan Margetta's pick to become the 2013 Sprint Cup Champion. [Russ Lake Photo]
Mash The Gas - 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Team Preview
by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is upon us as the race teams head to Daytona Beach, Florida next week as the Daytona 500 kicks off the nearly nine month grueling campaign culminating in the Sprint Cup.
Many changes dawn with the new season, the most significant being newly designed race cars, named Gen 6, that feature increased down force while more closely resembling cars seen on the street. Also gone for 2013, are the guaranteed starting positions for drivers in the top 35 as a more traditional qualifying rules package is adopted complete with a provisional system to supplement the fastest 36 cars that will make the field by speed each week. The usual "silly season" of musical chairs with drivers finding new homes and teams switching manufacturers has also occurred, starting with announcements in the middle of last season, as all teams approach the new year with anticipation.
Here's a preview and brief analysis of NASCAR's major players in 2013.
Dan Margetta: The Rick Hendrick led operation continues to be the powerhouse team on the NASCAR landscape. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kasey Kahne return for another year piloting the Hendrick Chevrolets and all four should be contenders in 2013. The last time a new car was introduced, Gordon and Johnson adapted the best while Earnhardt enjoyed his most competitive season in years during 2012 before being sidelined briefly with a concussion. Kahne's strong finish to 2012 proved his team is for real as well. The Hendrick team is the organization by which all others are measured and their success should continue in 2013.
Kasey Kahne is John Wiedemann's pick to top the standings at the end of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. [Russ Lake Photo]
John Wiedemann: Whenever there is a change in the rules, the Hendrick Motorsports organization seems to be on top as the quickest to adapt and benefit from the changes. With the new Gen-6, look for Hendrick Motorsports again to rise to the top. All four drivers made the Chase last year and that should happen again with all Hendrick teams returning intact. Watch for Kasey Kahne to get off to a strong start, opposite of last year, and challenge for the championship.
DM: After losing their cornerstone driver in Matt Kenseth, all the Roush-Fenway eggs were placed in Carl Edward's basket for 2013 in an effort to return the #99 Ford to the front of the field. Greg Biffle and the #16 team are back as well and if they aren't overshadowed by effort behind the #99 team, should contend again this year after leading the points for a majority of 2012. Ricky Stenhouse is the newcomer, taking over the seat of the #17 and he brings with him a ton of talent wrapped up in a lot of confidence. If he can keep that attitude and a possible Danica distraction in check, Stenhouse could surprise some people this year.
JW: Roush-Fenway Racing is going to be an interesting team to watch. Major changes have occurred as RFR heads into 2013. Greg Biffle finished fifth in the Chase last year and should again be a consistent challenger for the Championship. Carl Edwards had a disaster year in 2012 after finishing the 2011 season in a points tie at the top of the standings with Tony Stewart. A new crew chief for Edwards and a fresh start to the season is hoped to turn the team's fortunes around. Ricky Stenhouse is a tremendous talent, replacing Matt Kenseth in the #17. Stenhouse will be a great story to follow to see what he can accomplish as a rookie in a championship ride. Watch Stenhouse win a race this year at a mile and a half track like Texas or Kansas.
Joe Gibbs Racing
DM: Gibbs and Toyota scored a major coup when they wrestled Matt Kenseth away from Roush and Ford, tabbing him to drive the #20 car for 2013. Kenseth will bring leadership to the team and should be quick right out of the box. Both Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, who returns to the #11 car, need to work on maintaining their successes for a full year as late-season mishaps have hampered both their efforts the past few years. The driver to benefit the most from Kenseth's arrival and the new cars is Kyle Busch who I see having a monstrous year in 2013. The cars in 2013 will have a lot of increased down force which means the driver will spend more time on the throttle. That fits Busch's driving style to a "T" and if the Gibbs team as a whole can solve their past reliability issues, I predict Busch will be the Sprint Cup champion in 2013.
JW: Matt Kenseth joining Joe Gibbs Racing may just be the missing ingredient that they need to capture another championship. With Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, JGR has a lineup of pure driving talent that can match up to any other NASCAR team. If the three drivers can mix and actually work with each other, JGR will have all three teams in the Chase. Watch Busch to be in contention for the championship all the way to Homestead and possibly capture his first Cup.
DM: With the exit of Dodge from NASCAR racing, Penske Racing enters 2013 with a switch to Ford for defending Sprint Cup champion, Brad Keselowski and the newly hired Joey Logano. Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe showed great chemistry in their successful championship run and the Ford is a step up from what they had a year ago. As long as the extra duties that go along with being the champion doesn't interfere with Keselowski's attention to the race team, they should be up front again in 2013. The change of scenery should be just what Logano needed. After showing marked improvement each year while driving the #20 car, he could never escape being the guy that replaced Tony Stewart and a new outlook behind the wheel of Penske's #22 Ford should serve him well. Look for both Keselowski and Logano to work well together which should translate to success for both in 2013.
JW: Another interesting team to watch is Penske Racing. How will Brad Keselowski back up his 2012 championship season? How well will Keselowski and new teammate Joey Logano work together? Will Joey Logano become the highly touted "sliced bread" driver that he was referred to when he replaced Tony Stewart at Joe Gibbs Racing. I'm not worried about Keselowski, he's a true old school racer and I expect him to be back racing at the top of the standings. Logano should benefit from a fresh start and good relationship with Keselowski. Watch Keselowski contend for the championship and Logano have a consistent season but just miss the Chase again.
DM: This team enters 2013 with a full season effort for three cars, as Danica Patrick's #10 team joins Tony Stewart's flagship #14 team and Ryan Newman's #39. While Stewart won the championship in 2011 and Newman has made runs in the Chase in the past, the Stewart-Haas teams have been too streaky which leads to a lack of consistency. They would rattle off a string of great finishes in ten races then suddenly fall off the map for a few more. In 2013, Stewart and Newman are good enough to be at the front of the field but need to sustain that effort to be a threat week in and week out. Plus, Newman is in a contract year with no solid plans beyond 2013. Bass Pro Shops replaces Office Depot on Stewarts #14. Patrick's run for Rookie of the Year against Ricky Stenhouse should bring plenty more attention to the team which could lead to added pressure. The fact the two are dating threatens to turn that attention into a circus and the soap opera like storyline pushed by the non-racing media could be a major distraction.
JW: 2013 will be a trying year for Stewart-Haas Racing. Starting up a third team for Danica Patrick's first full season in the Sprint Cup Series will bring needed funding to the team, but the question is will the stress be worth it. A rookie season is tough on any driver, add in the high scrutiny that comes along with Patrick and stress will be at an all-time high at SHR. Now add in the need to sell sponsorship for a number of races for each of the three cars and one can see how trying of a year this will be. Watch only one of the SHR drivers make the Chase and it could be Newman as he reunites with Matt Borland in a "free agent" season.
Michael Waltrip Racing
DM: This team secured the right personnel and put them in place to surprise everyone last season by competing for the title and with everyone returning for 2013, expectations are high. Clint Bowyer proved he belongs in the elite category of drivers by scoring three wins and finishing second in the Chase standings in 2012. Bowyer and the #15 team enter 2013 expecting to equal or better that effort with their new Toyota Camry. Martin Truex returns to the #56 car and after several seasons of being on the cusp of breaking through to that elite list of contenders, they'll have to step up their game in 2013. Truex and the team made the Chase last season but fizzled in the end and they'll need to perform better this year to prove they belong. Mark Martin provides the leadership on the team by continuing to share the #55 car with Brian Vickers.
JW: 2012 was a knock it out of the park season for Michael Waltrip Racing and almost became a grand slam with Clint Bowyer finishing second in the point standings. MWR drivers were racing at the front and contending in almost every race. Even the part time team with driving shared between Mark Martin and Brian Vickers finished 15th in the owner's point standings. Now the challenge will be to duplicate and even improve in 2013. Bowyer is a proven championship contender and Martin Truex Jr. is on the cusp. Watch both Bowyer and Truex return to the Chase again this year and Martin win a race in what may be his final season.
Richard Childress Racing
DM: While Michael Waltrip Racing flourished by adding key personnel last year, Childress Racing felt the effects of those moves as most of the people who wound up at MWR came from the Childress organization. The result was a disappointing 2012 season for Jeff Burton and Paul Menard while Kevin Harvick made the Chase and finally found victory lane late in the year at Phoenix. Menard's team stays intact for 2013, while Harvick is reunited with Gil Martin and Burton goes back to working with Luke Lambert, crew chiefs those two have had the most success with in their careers. However, Harvick is a lame duck driver this season as he's rumored to join Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 and the Childress organization continues to feel the transition of the plan to move Childress' grandsons Austin and Ty Dillon toward careers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. If this organization doesn't get out of the box quick with good runs in 2013, the impending loss of Harvick among the other issues could hang over them like a dark cloud all season.
JW: Richard Childress Racing is ready to start a season that one could see going well or horribly frustrating. The announcement last season that Kevin Harvick will be joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 sets up a never desired lame duck season. Having their top driver in that situation and the other drivers, Jeff Burton and Paul Menard, needing a big rebound to return to Chase contenders puts a big question mark on this season. Watch no drivers from RCR make the Chase this season but grandsons Austin Dillon and Ty Dillon, the future of RCR, capture championships in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series.
DM: This team has hired key personnel and made many changes to improve on their performance from a year ago. The biggest move was to switch engine providers and the Ganassi bunch will now receive their powerplants from Hendrick Motorsports. That should sit well with the team's drivers, Jamie McMurray in the #1 and Juan Pablo Montoya in the #42. Both saw a big drop in performance last season as compared to 2010 and 2011 which left them forgotten on many race weekends. McDonald's has increased their sponsorship of the #1 car and Cessna joins the team to help replace Bass Pro Shops which left for Tony Stewart. Montoya's #42 team remains the same with the focus being on improving the equipment to return this team to Chase contender status.
JW: The good news - Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has all of their sponsorship inventory sold again. The bad news - drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray had horribly disappointing seasons in 2011 and didn't do much better in 2012. Watch Montoya win a road course race this season, but neither driver will make the Chase.
Richard Petty Motorsports
DM: The Petty organization turned some heads last season as both Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola proved to be fast in the #9 and #43 Fords respectively. Drew Blickensderfer enters 2013 as the crew chief for Ambrose while Todd Parrott calls the shots for Almirola and both teams enjoyed some success late last season. The team looks to continue the strong performances to help quiet a perceived drop in the Ford pecking order with the arrival of Penske Racing to the Ford camp along with Roush-Fenway Racing. If you're looking for a long-shot bet for some weeks this season, these guys could be it, especially on the restrictor plate tracks or the fast ovals at Michigan or California.
JW: Richard Petty Motorsports is a fun team to watch. Marcos Ambrose continues to improve as an oval racer and raced at the front of the pack in quite a number of races last season. Aric Almirola started the season well, faded in the middle and then finished strong. Consistency is the key for both RPM drivers. They have what it takes to be the surprise team of the year and that would be a great story for 2013. Watch Ambrose win the other road course race and contend on the ovals while both drivers will contend for making the Chase.
Furniture Row Racing
DM: Of the remaining teams, this organization has the best chance of spoiling the party for the powerhouse teams as the single car operation enters 2013 with one of the best wheelmen in the business in Kurt Busch piloting the #78 Chevy. The team has an alliance with Childress Racing and Busch is once again driving under a one year deal with plenty of incentive to audition for a top notch ride in 2014. As always, the major question hanging over the team is how they'll respond to Busch's temper and vitriolic tirades that will inevitable surface at some point in 2013.
JW: Kurt Busch finished the 2013 season strong in the Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet with three straight top ten finishes. Being able to have Busch run the full season and with the Richard Childress Racing partnership should result in the best year ever for the Colorado based organization. Watch Busch win a race or two and get this team into the Chase, ahead of his RCR partner teammates.
Among the remaining teams, Front Row Motorsports
will field three Fords, the #34 for David Ragan, the #38 for David Gilliland, and the #35 for Josh Wise which is a change from the #26 they ran last year. Tommy Baldwin Racing
also sports a new car number as Dave Blaney will drive the #7 while J.J. Yeley is set to drive the #36 while BK Racing
returns in 2013 with David Reutimann replaces Landon Cassil in the #83 and Travis Kvapil remains in the #93 Toyota. Germain Racing
(#13-Casey Mears), JTG Daugherty Racing
(#47-Bobby Labonte), FAS Lane Racing
(#32-Ken Schrader/Terry Labonte/Timmy Hill), Nemco Motorsports-RRR
Nemechek), and Phil Parsons Racing (#98-Michael McDowell) are all single car operations set to compete in 2013. Phoenix Racing
and James Finch are back with the #51 car that will see numerous drivers behind the wheel including Regan Smith and A.J. Allmendinger. Swan Racing
is a newly formed team that has tabbed Steve Hmeil as competition director and Tony Eury Jr. as crew chief for the #30 cars to be driven by David Stremme except for the Daytona 500 where Michael Waltrip will drive. The Wood Brothers
remain on the circuit as the team with the most history behind it and Trevor Bayne returns to run a limited schedule in the #21 Ford.