|Kasey Kahne is an early 2013 favorite|
With testing of the new 2013 Sprint Cup cars beginning in earnest later this week in Daytona, key questions remain loom for the coming year. They include:
What impact will the new cars have? They look good and fans should welcome the change from the washing machine COT, but what impact will the Gen-6 cars (as NASCAR likes to call them) have on the race track? Plenty. The leeway allowed each manufacturer to add more identity to their design opens the door for teams to test the limits. Who finds those limits without going over the line, will have a major impact on deciding the series champion this year.
Will the fans return? Some will, but no one expects sold out race tracks. That may never happen again on a regular basis. Track owners overbuilt in the mid-2000s when casual fans went to races to see what all the excitement was about and many of those fans will never come back. The economy is getting better, but a long way from good, and that will keep other fans at home. Even if the racing is great – and we don’t know that yet – there will still be plenty of seats available.
Will Brad Keselowski repeat? No. Obviously the odds are heavily against anyone repeating, even if their last name is Johnson. But the switch by Penske Racing to Ford makes it just a little bit harder. Getting used to the Ford won’t be that difficult, let’s face it, the cars aren’t that much different, but getting used to the working relationship with Roush may take a little longer.
If not Brad, who? Jimmie Johnson remains the 800 pound gorilla. His biggest competition will come from teammate Kasey Kahne, who started slowly last year but came on strong. Matt Kenseth will be a challenger, but may be a year away.
Is this Ford’s year? Very possibly. Chevrolet has won the Sprint Cup Manufacturers’ championship 10 years in a row, but the move of Penske Racing to Ford will be a game-changer in the manufacturer battle.
Will Matt Kenseth make a difference at Joe Gibbs Racing? Yes – for Matt Kenseth. As noted, he’ll be an immediate title contender. But Kenseth won’t make as much a difference for the team as they’d like. One reason JGR let Joey Logano go was complaints from Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch that Logano added nothing to the team. Well they’re about to learn the quiet Kenseth won’t be adding much either.
Strike three for Earnhardt Ganassi? In 2010 Ganassi Racing was on top of the world, winning the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400. But 2011 was a “disaster” according to Juan Pablo Montoya and 2012 was worse. The team is hoping a switch of engine suppliers from Earnhardt-Childress to Hendrick Motorsports will be the answer, but don’t bet on it.
How lame will Kevin Harvick’s year be? Kevin Harvick read the handwriting on the wall last season when he decided to jump to Stewart-Hass Racing beginning in 2014. Richard Childress Racing is about to become Childress-Dillon Racing. Not surprisingly Childress will be focused on his grandsons this year. What becomes of Harvick’s lame duck year will be interesting to watch. Not sure how much information Childress will want to share with a driver jumping not only to a competitive team, but a competitive team using the same make of car. It won’t be a happy year for Harvick.
What’s Kyle Busch waiting for? Joe Gibbs Racing has been trying to extend Busch’s contract – which runs out at the end of 2013 – since the middle of last season, but the driver keeps putting the team off. Stewart-Haas Racing reportedly made a run at Kyle last year, before eventually signing Harvick. Beyond that, there doesn’t appear to be any other team knocking on the Busch motorhome door. JGR is hoping a deal will be signed before the season starts, but Busch may be waiting to see what progress has been with the Toyota engine program, a sore point for him last year. The longer this drags on, however, the bigger the distraction it becomes. Joe Gibbs has backed up his prodigal driver through all his troubles and this is the thanks he gets?
Will Michael Waltrip Racing continue to improve? MWR kind of snuck up on everyone last year, showing a big improvement on 2011 and by the end of the year there was Clint Bowyer, second in points. Now they have to prove they have the staying power to run with NASCAR’s elite teams. That’s sometimes harder to do than getting there in the first place, just ask Chip Ganassi.
What becomes of Carl Edwards? After entering 2012 as one of the title favorites, Edwards not only failed to win a race, he failed to qualify for The Chase, although both teammates won races and qualified. This will be a critical year for Edwards. New teammate Ricky Stenhouse will hit the ground the running and will push Edwards and Greg Biffle from the start.
What rivalries will emerge in 2013? The easy answer is Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick will be at the center of any new controversies that emerge this season. Both have things to prove and chips on their shoulders. And will the Bowyer vs. Jeff Gordon bad blood carry over?
Will the rise of Nationwide continue? Don’t look now, Nationwide has become one hot series. New cars and young gun drivers. Two-time defending series champion Ricky Stenhouse is moving up to Sprint Cup, but that shouldn’t slow Nationwide’s rise. With Chevrolet moving to Camaros for 2013, the Mustang vs. Camaro battle will be one to watch and is important to both manufacturers. Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne takes over the Stenhouse Mustang at Roush and Travis Pastrana has bought his way into a second car. Sam Hornish moves into a Mustang at Penske with Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney sharing a second car. Austin Dillon will be one of the leaders of the Camaro contingent at Richard Childress Racing, with Brian Scott in a second car. They’ll be joined by Ty Dillon in some races. JR Motorsports is stepping up with one car for Regan Smith and a second car to be shared by Kasey Kahne and Brad Sweet. Tuner Motorsports will field a fleet of Camaros, including one for Danica Patrick in at least 10 races. And Toyota is launching an all-out effort through Joe Gibbs Racing that will be headed by a couple of veterans, Elliott Sadler and Brian Vickers, with a third car to be shared mainly by JGR’s Cup drivers. Kyle Busch will field a car for Parker Kligerman through JGR. This may be the real series to watch.