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Pedley: 2012 Cup Season Opens With Questions

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 12 2012

Danica Patrick will be at center stage the next couple of weeks as she gets serious about stock cars. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

The 2012 Sprint Cup season starts today. It starts with three days of testing at Daytona International Speedway. It starts with a whole bunch of questions wandering the garages looking for answers.

Here are some of those questions. The answers will take months to locate, but that does not prevent us from making guesses.

So…

– Danica Patrick; Driver or novelty item? For those of us who are also IndyCar Series fans, this question has a very familiar sound to it. When she signed to drive for Bobby Rahal’s team, which now seems like a long time ago, that question made the rounds. The guess  here is that Danica will Danica along. That is, she will notch top-10s and maybe get a podium here and there in Nationwide and struggle in Cup. Her best shots will be in plate races, where very odd things happen.

– Dale Earnhardt Jr.; Ready to take off or will he stay grounded? Another question that sounds familiar. The decision to pair him with a new crew chief – Steve Latarte – emitted some interesting noises last year. This year we find out if those noises were real or imagined. The guess here is that Earnhardt makes the Chase this year and ends his winless streak. Winning a championship, well, first things first for Earnhardt.

– Kasey Kahne; Breakout year or exposed? This is it for Kahne. After spending the first part of his career

Kasey Kahne finally in position? (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

driving for average to good teams, he now gets his shot with a great team. Hendrick Motorsports. Does he pull a Brad Keselowski? Or does he pull a, well, Junior? The guess here is Keselowski. He learns the cars and system by April and wins a couple races and makes the Chase. He is a very,  very good driver who looked Chase good at the end of last year.

– Tony Stewart; A change for the better? Darian Grubb was told to hit the road as crew chief for Stewart just before the Miracle on Chase happened. Steve Addington, a big favorite here, will be on the box this year but you have to wonder about, well, karma. And, you have to wonder if Stewart was a 10-race wonder late in the 2011 season. And you have to wonder if it is time to start caring more about the first part of his owner/driver title. The guess here is that Stewart and Addington will not win half the races in 2012. Stewart is a slow starter and remain just that but look for him to be in the Chase.

– Carl Edwards; Did he take his best shot last fall? For 35 weeks in 2011, the championship had Carl Edwards written all over it. The Fords were fast, the driver smooth and comfortable, the team jelling around him as peace and harmony settled in at the Roush Fenway campus. Then, Edwards got Smoked. Will Edwards and RFR come out pissed and swinging, or shy and shaken? The guess here is they may have to wait a couple years to get another great shot. RFR, like about all teams but Hendrick, crest and recede. They crested a year ago.

– Jimmie Johnson; Did the mojo retire or go on a one-year sabbatical in 2011? Johnson didn’t exactly

Jimmie Johnson to become Mr. Six Time? (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

suck last season. His cars were fast and he was fast. He was in position, when the Chase started, to win a sixth straight championship. The only point of concern as he heads out onto the track today is his relationship with Chad Knaus, who is reportedly not at the test. Those things run their course. The guess here is that Johnson’s lust for more not only remains in tact, but was sharpened by a 2011 season and off-season in which he was just another Chase driver. Johnson goes for six in ‘12.

– Clint Bowyer; Did he move up, down or sideways? The belief here has long been that Bowyer is one of the top five stock car drivers in the world. That while he won races and made Chases, he never reached full potential at Richard Childress Racing. At Michael Waltrip Racing he will be with a team that can identify with all of  that. MWR has always had big potential but has been missing a couple of key pieces. The guess here is that Bowyer is one of those pieces and makes the Chase.

– A.J. Allmendinger; With the ball now in his hands, does he fumble or score? Allmendinger is a great story. His final years in CART, when he was bounced around by team owners like soccer ball in Manchester, was classic. The more kicks to the head, the better he did. I remember talking to him the next year at New Hampshire when he debuted in Camping World. The kid was steel. He does have a hot seat to fill at Penske Racing. Hate Kurt Busch all you want but do not ever – ever – question his driving talent. The guess here is that Allmendinger joins Keselowski in the Chase this coming fall.

– Kurt Busch; Will he rest in peace with James Finch’s team or will he continue to haunt? For the first time in his NASCAR career, Busch will not be with a top flight organization. Yes, he will have good, Hendrick equipment but for the first time, he will probably be able to memorize the name of every single

Kurt Busch lurking in shadows and plotting his revenge? (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

one of his co-workers by the time the dual qualifying races start at Speedweeks. You just have to wonder how long it is before those crew members wish they had never met Busch. The guess here is that Kurt Busch channels his anger and disappointment and becomes a top-10 threat.

– Joe Gibbs Racing; Does the debilitating of fever of 2011 break this year or rage on? Last season was not what Joe and J.D. had in mind when they arrived in the infield at Daytona in late winter. Both Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin were getting championship votes and some thought that 2011 would be a breakout year for Joey Logano, who is no longer, young Joey Logano. Ouch. The guess here comes in three parts. First, Busch has huge year. Second, Hamlin has OK year. Third, Logano keeps searching.

– NASCAR; Was last year’s late season surge in interest a blip or the start of a trend? Ratings went up and and the pitchfork-and-torch mob seemed to quiet and disperse as that wonderful championship run developed last fall. The NASCAR folks were wearing smiles again in the garages during the Chase. Uneasy smiles, but smiles. The guess here is that tough times still lay ahead and that NASCAR needs to tread very carefully when it comes to making changes at race tracks and, especially, in its Daytona Beach offices. Racing is not a “product” in a conventional sense and the mad dash in racing to embrace the slicksters and trappings from Madison Avenue could explode like a novelty cigar. Fans want racing, not marketing.

Of course none of these questions will answered in any form at Daytona in the coming weeks. That track and everything that goes on there in January and February are only about that track and what goes on there. But when the show heads west, when the real racing beings, that is when results will begin to trickle in.

At any rate, here we go.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 12 2012
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