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5 Questions (and answers) heading into the 2012 NASCAR season, Part 5

Over the last two weeks, we’ve been prepping you for another season of racing with five intriguing questions (with answers!) to help guide expectations for the 2012 NASCAR season. Today is question five. 

[Editor’s Note: Over the next few weeks, and hopefully throughout the NASCAR season, my cousin, Wayne, will be bringing racing insight to ignorant dopes such as myself. Enjoy.]

If you missed how Tony Stewart’s 2011 success could impact his 2012 campaign or whether or not this is the year Carl Edwards finally breaks through, or whether Jimmie Johnson will bounce back, or will Dale Earnhardt Jr. ever win again, check them out.

5. How will new teams perform?

There were four major driver changes this offseason, one of which we knew about before last season started, one that happened during the 2011 Chase and two that took place right around Christmas.  We’ll examine whether these moves will have an effect on the championship picture in 2012 or whether they will be afterthoughts by April.

Kasey Kahne – #5 – Hendrick Motorsports (formerly #4 – Red Bull Racing)

When Rick Hendrick signed Dale Earnhardt Jr in 2007, the NASCAR world looked at Hendrick Motorsports’ driver lineup as an embarrassment of riches.  Then they announced in 2010 that Kasey Kahne would move into the #5 car when Mark Martin’s contract expired at the end of 2011. With all due respect to Martin, adding a relatively young driver (turns 32 in April) with 12 career wins and experience in the Chase, raises the level of their driver lineup to that of the equipment they already put on the track.

In 2011, Kahne made a stopover at the now defunct Red Bull Racing and managed a win at Phoenix late in the year on his way to a 14th place finish in the series point standings.  I had never been a true believer in the pride of Enumclaw, Washington.  But watching Kahne go from Evernham to Richard Petty Motorsports to Red Bull proves he’s able to make the most of pretty bad situations.  Now that he has an elite team to compliment his talent, I expect big things from this #5 team, including a chase berth and at least one win.

Clint Bowyer – #15 – Michael Waltrip Racing (#33 – Richard Childress Racing)

Missing the Chase in 2011 was a definite disappointment for a team that made the “playoffs” in 3 of the previous 5 seasons.  Going into the year, the top free agent in the 2012 offseason was Carl Edwards, with Bowyer expected to jump into the next best ride.  When the dominos began to fall in August as Edwards re-signed with Roush Fenway, it was clear Bowyer wanted to stay with Richard Childress Racing.  But as time passed, a deal grew more unlikely, and in October Bowyer inked a 3 year deal with the up-and-coming Michael Waltrip Racing.

Even with the turmoil of an unknown contract situation, then becoming a lame-duck team, Bowyer performed well down the stretch.  During the Chase races he posted one win and seven top-10s, finishing the season in 13th in the series point standings.  Michael Waltrip Racing has shown flashes of being a contender but consistency has eluded them thus far.  They should get a boost in the engine department from Toyota Racing Development, as the manufacturer is also supplying motors to Joe Gibbs Racing.

There are so many unknowns that surround a brand new team.  Will Brian Pattie return to his 2009 form when he guided Juan Pablo Montoya to the Chase, or will 2012 be reminiscent of 2011 when he was released from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing?  Will Bowyer’s talent raise the level of the team, or will he take a step back into the middle of the pack?  I see a top-15 season for this team, but with so many newly formed moving parts, I’d suspect he will finish much closer to 15th than first.

Kurt Busch – #51 – Phoenix Racing (#22 – Penske Racing)

2011 started quite well for Kurt Busch, winning the exhibition Budweiser Shootout, his Duel race, then finishing 5th in the Daytona 500.  He followed that up with solid finishes throughout March even leading the points after the Bristol race.  However, the spring months that followed were not particularly good to the elder Busch brother as he dropped to seventh in the points by June.   A bounce-back win at Infineon moved him up to 4th and helped spur him on to clinch a chase spot, but that is where the success stopped.

As the rest of the NASCAR world was intently watching Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards duke it out at Homestead Speedway for the championship, Busch was 47 laps down in the garage letting his frustrations boil over.  Keeping anything under wraps these days, in the age of camera phones and video sharing sites, is near impossible (just ask Gisele).   Kurt Busch found this out the hard way that evening as his profanity-laden tirade directed at long-time ESPN reporter Jerry Punch ended up on the internet.  Penske Racing demanded he issue an apology and they parted ways after 6 years, 10 wins, 45 top-5s, and 90 top-10s.

At that point, the NASCAR silly season had all but come to an end in terms of filling top-tier seats.  So Busch’s options were limited to say the least.  Enter James Finch and Phoenix Racing.  Their only win in the Chase era came during a rather ho-hum finish at Talladega in 2009 featuring Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards (  Last year, Landon Cassill drove the #51 in 32 races with his best finish coming at Michigan where he took the checkered flag in 12th.

Signing Busch has already given Phoenix Racing more publicity than it’s seen since that Talladega race, evidenced earlier this week by signing two new sponsors for Speedweeks at Daytona.  Needless to say, 2012 will be a probationary year for Kurt Busch to prove that he can behave professionally and succeed even with lesser equipment.  He may be able to accomplish the former, but keeping up with the top teams in NASCAR will be an uphill battle.  Though having more to prove could make for a surprisingly good season.  Either way, we’re certain to see what Kurt Busch is really made of in 2012.

A.J. Allmendinger – #22 – Penske Racing (#43 – Richard Petty Motorsports)

As with many parts of life, one man’s loss is another man’s profit.  When Kurt Busch left Penske Racing, there was a vacancy at one of NASCAR’s top teams.  Former Champ Car driver and 2011 pilot of Richard Petty Motorsports’ famous #43, A.J. Allmendinger, had shown promise, finishing 15th in the points last season; the second highest points finish in the RPM’s nine combined seasons.  Granted a release from RPM, Penske quickly snatched up the 30 year-old Californian, signing him to a one-year deal.

As much as this is a great opportunity for Allmendinger, it will also be a major test of his stock car talent.  The one-year contract will keep the pressure on him throughout 2012.  If he is ever going to succeed in NASCAR’s top touring series, this year will be the turning point.  Though I don’t see him competing for many wins or the championship, a Chase berth would not surprise me.  1 top 5, 10 top 10s and 1 DNF prove that Allmendinger is consistent, just not consistently good.  With better equipment under him, I’d expect those results to improve in 2012.

RECAP: The new teams formed this offseason each have unique circumstances but still have major expectations for 2012.  Each driver highlighted is at a crossroads in his career. A good year could propel him to stardom, a bad year could signify he wasn’t really meant to compete with NASCAR’s elite.  With sponsorship dollars at an ultimate premium, a bad year could also mean the end of the road is near.  Not many in this sport are invincible.  As Kurt Busch found out, if you falter, there will always be someone ready to take your seat.

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