The Frontstretch: 25 NASCAR Questions For 2013: Gordon, Stewart, Harvick, Kenseth, Hamlin by Brett Poirier -- Friday February 8, 2013

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With 2013 right around the corner, let the countdown to NASCAR’s Cup Series begin! Our Brett Poirier goes through each of the sport’s competitive drivers and tackles the one question each one should be thinking about “answering” this upcoming season. For some, it’ll be the key to getting them into the Chase; for others, they need the right answer to simply keep their jobs. Either way, it’s the one hot-button issue connected to each that’ll make or break their year on the circuit.

Tuesday’s Drivers (Part I): Click here to read about Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Bobby Labonte, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jamie McMurray
Wednesday’s Drivers (Part II): Click here to read about Aric Almirola, Jeff Burton, Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano, Paul Menard
Yesterday’s Drivers (Part III): Click here to read about Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Martin Truex, Jr.
Today’s Drivers (Part IV): Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin

Jeff Gordon
2013 Ride: No. 24 Drive to End Hunger/DuPont Chevrolet (Hendrick Motorsports)
Season With Team: 21st
Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson

Burning Question: Will Gordon ever win another title?

It’s hard to believe that Gordon hasn’t won a Cup title in 12 years, but it’s true. The only driver to go that long between championships was his former teammate at Hendrick, Terry Labonte, who won his first in 1984 and beat out Gordon for his second in 1996. Gordon put up strong bids to win his fifth championship in 2004 — the first year of The Chase — then three years later, setting a modern-era record for top-10 finishes (30) to go along with ten wins but fell short to others on both occasions.

Is The Clock Running Out On Gordon?
Three-Plus Title Winners In The Cup Series
Richard Petty: 7
Age of Last Title: 42

Dale Earnhardt: 7
Age of Last Title: 43

Jimmie Johnson: 5
Age of Last Title: 35
(Still Active, will be 38 in 2013)

Jeff Gordon: 4
Age of Last Title: 30
(Still Active, will be 42 in 2013)

David Pearson: 3
Age of Last Title: 35

Lee Petty: 3
Age of Last Title: 45

Darrell Waltrip: 3
Age of Last Title: 38

Cale Yarborough: 3
Age of Last Title: 39

Tony Stewart: 3
Age of Last Title:* 40
(Still Active, will be 42 in 2013)

Since then, Gordon hasn’t really even been a contender, enduring a couple of winless seasons along the way. Now ready to turn 42 this season, Gordon still grabs the occasional victory and is still considered an elite driver; but when it comes to the playoffs, he tends to be a non-factor. In the last three seasons, he’s just barely been on stage at the banquet with points finishes of ninth, eighth, and 10th. Gordon’s dominance slowed with the debut of the Car of Tomorrow; maybe the Gen-6 car will better suit his driving style and we will see the “Wonder Boy” of old.

Tony Stewart
2013 Ride: No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet (Stewart-Haas Racing)
Season With Team: 5th
Crew Chief: Steve Addington

Burning Question: Has Stewart become too burdened with outside distractions to compete at his highest level?

The changes at Stewart-Haas Racing in the last year would be enough to weigh heavily on Smoke as an owner/driver. He’s at least switched the personnel at a number of key spots in the organization: Competition Director and all three crew chiefs. On top of that, all three of his cars aren’t fully sponsored for this season and he has to discreetly bring Kevin Harvick into the fold. Oh yeah, and outside of Sprint Cup, Stewart’s dirt track, Eldora, will be hosting a Camping World Truck Series race this season for the first time.

Tony has had a lot to deal with, and he will again this season; notice the words “Danica Patrick” haven’t been mentioned yet. On-track, after a championship run in 2011 and a strong start to 2012, SHR took a step backward. Following a Martinsville upset victory, Ryan Newman went the next 67 races (slightly exaggerated) without a top 10 and despite three wins, Stewart found himself near the Chase cutoff because of inconsistency throughout the summer. It would be easy to say that once Tony puts on his helmet, he blocks out everything else, but that isn’t necessarily true.

Kevin Harvick
2013 Ride: No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet (Richard Childress Racing)
Season With Team: 13th
Crew Chief: Gil Martin

Burning Question: Can Harvick be competitive with one foot out the door?

Awkward. Late last year, it was announced that Harvick would leave the only team he has ever driven for, Richard Childress Racing, to head to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Budweiser has been rumored to be coming with him. So now, he has to start a new season with the team he already decided to abandon. This should go well…

If Harvick didn’t struggle so much in 2012, the situation wouldn’t look so bleak. The No. 29 team was lacking something all last season, though, and only made the Chase because of Harvick’s 17 finishes between 11th and 16th. That has to be a record. RCR had a tough 2012 as an organization; now, it must try to improve with a new car and the face of the franchise just waiting to walk out the door. With that said, Harvick isn’t a quitter, or somebody who will lay down in a tough situation. His consistency is what got the No. 29 in The Chase last year; with all odds against him, he could do it again.

Matt Kenseth
2013 Ride: No. 20 Husky/Dollar General/Home Depot Toyota (Joe Gibbs Racing)
Season With Team: 1st
Crew Chief: Jason Ratcliffe

Burning Question: Was the problem at the No. 20 team driver or crew — and can Kenseth fix it?

The No. 20 team at Gibbs was considered elite not too long ago. Tony Stewart won championships with this team in 2002 and 2005, then seemed to win a handful of races each season before taking off at the end of 2008. With Joey Logano at the wheel, though this arm of Gibbs quickly fell behind the Nos. 11 and 18 in performance, seeming mediocre in the Sprint Cup garage at best. It’s been four years now since Stewart left, and four years since this team made the postseason.

So was Logano just the wrong fit? Or is the No. 20 team, who lost mechanical mastermind Greg Zipadelli after 2011 really a step behind at this point? We’ll found out really soon with Kenseth behind the wheel. The 2003 champion, this Wisconsinite is still one of the best drivers in the sport and won three races last season with Roush Fenway. He’s finished fifth, fourth and seventh in the last three years in the Chase and it would be surprising if he didn’t get the No. 20 team back in the playoffs this season.

Denny Hamlin
2013 Ride: No. 11 FedEx Toyota (Joe Gibbs Racing)
Season With Team: 8th
Crew Chief: Darian Grubb

Burning Question: After two close calls in the last three years, is Hamlin the next Mark Martin of the sport?

Martin is the best Sprint Cup driver of all-time to never win a championship. He somehow finished the season runner-up five times, including 1990 when he fell 26 points short to Dale Earnhardt after getting penalized 46 points earlier in the season. He’s also finished third another four times. The numbers pretty much tell the story. Martin was in the picture quite a bit, but couldn’t ever seal the deal.

Hamlin might be the closest thing we have to that today. He certainly hasn’t built a resume that can compare to Martin’s, but he has finished in the top 5 in points three times, including an agonizing 2010 defeat to Jimmie Johnson where Hamlin lost the point lead in the season finale. Last season, he won five races and was the favorite of many to win his first Sprint Cup, but the playoffs didn’t go as planned once again and after seven full seasons he has gone 0-for-7 for the trophy that’s mattered most. To add insult to injury, Martinsville’s mechanical mayhem left Hamlin again wondering what might have been, electrical failure taking what could have been a second serious challenge for the title out of his hands. Will that mental block, which saw him stumbling down the 2012 stretch of the Chase carry over into 2013?

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