It’s almost time for the gentlemen ( and ladies ) to start their engines again ! There are a lot of driver and crew chief changes that have taken place in the off-season. The Sprint Cup season begins with one simmering feud and one budding new romance. ( One of which involves Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer. Guess which one ? ) All developments which will serve to make this NASCAR season an interesting one to follow.
The 2012 season ended with Brad Keselowski fending off Clint Bowyer and five-time champion, Jimmie Johnson, to win his first championship. This season, the Dodges are gone, largely due to the fact that Penske Racing has made the jump to Ford. Roger will also be getting his engines from Roush-Yates now, after years of always building his own. This could be quite an adjustment for Keselowski and his new Penske teammate, Joey Logano. Logano comes to Penske after four years of under-achieving for Joe Gibbs Racing.
JGR might have lost faith in Logano, but they are bringing in Matt Kenseth. Kenseth is a consistent Chase participant and brings a winning attitude to a team that is already strong, with Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch on board.
NASCAR can be every bit as good of a soap opera as “The Young And The Restless”. If R & B singer Chris Brown isn’t the poster boy for anger management therapy, then the title must belong to the easily irritable, Kurt Busch. He has a long history of run-ins with reporters. Penske gave him his walking papers, but his issues continued to be a problem with Phoenix Racing last year. He begins this season with Furniture Row Racing, replacing the talented Regan Smith, who has joined Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Nationwide team. Furniture Row Racing is a single-car operation, and Kurt is basically starting at the bottom to try and restore his reputation.
The “ First Couple Of NASCAR “ may still be Kevin and Delana Harvick, but Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are sure to have tongues wagging and camera phones clicking this year. I hope the two lovebirds don’t let their battle for Rookie Of The Year bring trouble to paradise !
Reportedly, Clint Bowyer is still infuriated with Jeff Gordon, after the Wonder Boy wrecked him in Phoenix, ending any hope Bowyer still had of winning the 2012 championship. Will there be quick retaliation at Daytona ?
The racing will begin this Saturday, February16th, with the Sprint Unlimited At Daytona
( formerly the Budweiser Shootout, formerly the Busch Clash ). No points are awarded, but a large purse is at stake, encouraging the drivers to take more risks than they normally might. Qualifications begin on February 17th, with the Gatorade Duel qualifying races scheduled for Thursday, February 21. The Super Bowl of NASCAR, the Daytona 500, will take place on Sunday, February 24.
Here is how I rank the top thirty drivers in Sprint Cup, as the season begins….
1. Jimmie Johnson – He is still the most consistent driver around. He handles the pressure of big races better than anyone and he’s on a team that can afford the best of everything. He also has one of the best crew chiefs in Chad Knauss, however unscrupulous he may be.
2. Denny Hamlin- Hamlin is now one of the elite drivers in my opinion. He led the series with five wins and was ranked second with fourteen top-5 finishes.
3. Brad Keselowski- This will just be his fourth full season, and he should continue to put up impressive numbers and bring home a lot of wins. Penske’s switch to Ford could require some adjustments, however.
4. Kasey Kahne- After a dreadful start to the season, Kahne finished last year on fire. He has the tools and the backing to challenge for the title.
5. Kyle Busch- Busch’s up and down seasons are perplexing. He drives with a reckless abandon that sometimes results in DNFs for the talented driver. Still, he led all drivers with seven top-5 finishes last year.
6. Matt Kenseth- The addition of Kenseth could ensure a monster season for Joe Gibbs Racing. I have three Gibbs drivers ranked in my top six. Maybe collectively, they can team up to keep the championship from going back to Johnson or Keselowski.
7. Tony Stewart- His detractors say that he’ll have his hands so full with Danica Patrick’s transition to Sprint Cup, and with paving the way for friend Kevin Harvick to join the fold next year, that his own performance will suffer. They also said running his own team would prevent him from winning a championship. They were wrong.
8. Jeff Gordon- Gordon has been after his elusive fifth championship title for some time now, and some might say that his best years are behind him. He is still a front-runner in a stable of strong Hendricks drivers. The “ Rainbow Warriors “ remain one of the top pit crews, as well.
9. Carl Edwards- Edwards should have a rebound season for Roush Racing this year. He only has three wins in four seasons, but he should return to his old, reliable self. Expect some top-5 and top-10 finishes from Carl, and maybe even a back-flip or two along the way.
10. Clint Bowyer- He has at least sixteen top-10’s in six straight seasons. That is pretty impressive, sports fans.
11. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.- Dale should continue to rack up top-10 and top-15 finishes and he remains the most popular driver in the sport. Until he can start finding the winner’s circle consistently, he and his many fans won’t be celebrating any championships, though.
12. Greg Biffle- Biffle finished second in total points scored over the course of the entire season and had twenty-one top-10 finishes.
13. Kevin Harvick – Harvick enters his final year with Richard Childress Racing, and one wonders if the fire still burns in that race team. His numbers have declined for two years running, and he may be looking ahead to next year with Tony Stewart. At least for Kevin, even on a bad day, he still has the hottest wife in NASCAR. ( Delana. She took the crown when Buffy Waltrip and Michael finally divorced in 2010. )
14. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.- Ricky is the favorite for Rookie Of The Year honors. He replaces Matt Kenseth at Roush Racing, and I expect him to adapt quickly to Sprint Cup Racing after a great stint in the Nationwide series.
15. Martin Truex, Jr.- He still needs to cut down on his DNFs to make a serious run at The Chase, but he set career highs for himself last year.
16. Ryan Newman
17. Paul Menard
18. Joey Logano
19. Mark Martin
20. Kurt Busch
21. Aric Almirola
22. Marcos Ambrose
23. Jeff Burton
24. Jamie McMurray
25. Brian Vickers
26. David Ragan
27. Juan Pablo Montoya
28. Bobby Labonte
29. Danica Patrick
30. Trevor Bayne