NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Unlucky Seven: Drivers Who Must Ramp It Up In 2013

NASCAR is a sport driven by performance. What a driver accomplishes, or fails to accomplish, on the racetrack affects not only his personal gratification but his team’s — and even his sponsor’s — bottom line. Sure, some give more leeway than others, and some drivers are more likely to get the benefit of the doubt. But the bottom line is no different than that of any other employer. If a driver doesn’t live up to expectations, eventually, his job could be on the line, his failure trumpeted not just by his team but by others. Race fans can be brutal, the media can be even more relentless, and there are plenty of drivers in the garage holding pink slips and looking for work. Don’t overlook that personal desire to be competitive, either; sometimes, a driver’s worst enemy in trying to fix weeks worth of failure is himself.

The pressure on these drivers, in 2013 comes from all sides, every race. As competitive as the field is in today’s Sprint Cup Series, a minor lapse in average finish can mean the difference between a champion and a runner-up, Chase berth or none, year-end point fund money or empty pockets. Three finishing positions might not seem like much, and it might not be week to week, but it adds up, especially with the Chase in play. Consider this fact: Jimmie Johnson leads all drivers with an average Chase race finish of 9.3. Johnson has five titles. Carl Edwards’ average finish in Chase races is just three spots behind Johnson’s, second among all drivers… and he doesn’t have one.

That said, while everyone enters the season feeling a need to win, to ramp up performance, there are always some drivers for whom the need is much more palpable, more intense. For some, sponsor contracts are up for negotiation; for others, there’s a personal need for validation, something to prove. So who is under the gun in 2013? Here are my top picks.

*Jeff Burton* While Burton might be in a slightly more secure spot at Richard Childress Racing, courtesy of Kevin Harvick leaving at the end of this year, he’s not entirely safe in the No. 31 ride. The driver will turn 46 in June, and with the trend towards younger wheelmen, he needs to ramp it up. RCR has development drivers Austin and Ty Dillon both needing seats in the next few years… and because they are team owner Childress’ grandsons, they’re going to get them. Harvick’s departure opens the door for Austin Dillon’s expected move to Cup in 2014, while Ty Dillon is expected to spend 2014 and 2015 in the Nationwide Series, which could buy Burton some time — but not much.

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Jeff Burton, at age 46 is ready to put up a fight in 2013 after two disappointing seasons. But will the addition of crew chief Luke Lambert be enough to right the ship?

There’s also the “wild card” known as Kurt Busch. Busch will drive for RCR satellite Furniture Row Racing this year; if Childress likes what he sees in the 2004 Cup champ, it’s possible he could lure Busch to his fold. Burton does hold one ace on that one; he is one of the most respected veterans in the garage, a great asset as a mentor for Austin Dillon while the latter makes the move to NASCAR’s top series. Busch, for all his talent, is still Kurt Busch, and not really at the top of the list of mentor candidates.

But there are also sponsors to please, and the fact is that Burton hasn’t made the Chase since 2008, hasn’t won a race since then, and hasn’t had a top-5 points finish since 2000. Busch has an edge on numbers; not only does he have a Cup title, he has 24 wins to Burton’s 10 since Busch entered the series in 2000, though Burton’s 21-win career total isn’t far behind Busch’s. Sponsors can see those numbers, and sponsors don’t necessarily care how good a mentor the guy selling their product is for another sponsor’s driver. In short, Burton has to step it up. In his favor could be the new car; Burton’s best numbers come in the fourth-generation car, and many drivers who preferred that model have been optimistic about the Gen-6. New crew chief Luke Lambert, who nearly led Elliott Sadler to a Nationwide championship in 2012 and has had success with Burton in the past will certainly help. If this driver can put himself in the top 15 in points when the season’s over, it should buy him another year — but that could be a tall order.

*Carl Edwards* Edwards has shown that he can be a championship-caliber driver. The problem is, every time he gets close, the momentum is never sustained. Edwards has twice finished second in points, and twice failed to crack the top 10 the year after. Both times that he fell just short of a title, he dropped more than five finishing positions on average the next year and failed to win a single race.
2012 was an abysmal year for Edwards, who lost the 2011 title on a tie-breaker to Tony Stewart. Not only did Edwards not win a race, he only finished in the top 5 three times and never ran better than fifth. The good news is that the first time this happened, Edwards bounced back. He slumped in 2009 after his 2008 runner-up finish, and bounced back to finish fourth in 2010 and second in 2011. He needs to do that again.

For Edwards, it’s not his job or his sponsor on the line; he has a seemingly endless parade of backers and is probably secure in the Roush Fenway camp as the team’s only real up-and-coming driver is Trevor Bayne, unlikely to ever unseat Edwards. This is all about personal redemption, about having something to prove. But no matter the reason, it’s impossible to overlook that it desperately needs to happen.

*Dale Earnhardt, Jr.* This is a driver who, in the eyes of some, will never live up to expectations. His ride isn’t in jeopardy; Earnhardt’s signed through 2017 and sells more merchandise than any other driver. Sponsorship is a bit of a question mark at the moment, but team owner Rick Hendrick isn’t really worried; there have been offers and there will be more. This driver gets airtime every week because of his popularity.

2012 wasn’t a terrible season for Earnhardt, in reality. He led the points and was in position for a title run before being sidelined by a pair of concussions, the first of which left him at less than 100% just as the Chase started. The second, of course took him out of the driver’s seat for two weeks in the midst of that championship run, leaving him a distant 12th in points.

Now, Earnhardt needs to prove he’s back: to himself, his fans, and the media. Simply put, he needs to show that he can return to the form of last year before his injury, when Michigan was his personal playground en route to his first win since 2008. Otherwise, the huge gains he and his team made in 2012 will be questioned as a fluke by many. There is also no glossing over the fact that Earnhardt has been expected to be a champion since day one. Whether or not that’s fair, it’s presumed because he’s an Earnhardt, the namesake of a seven-time champion. It’s not a fair assumption, but it’s been there, often unspoken, the elephant in the room nonetheless.

There is probably more pressure on Earnhardt than any other driver, and he needs to at least win and make the Chase this year to silence the critics… and perhaps even to silence his own trepidation.

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Martin Truex, Jr. stepped it up last season — but failing to reach Victory Lane ate at his confidence. Can he bounce back in 2013 after fading during the Chase?

*Martin Truex, Jr.* Truex, like Earnhardt, the son of a driver, had his best season in five years in 2012. Rumored a year ago to be on the hot seat with Michael Waltrip Racing and sponsor NAPA, Truex performed, never ranking worse than 11th in points from Daytona to Homestead. He looked to be on the verge of winning races.

But he didn’t, and that’s why Truex still needs to find a little more. He is capable of reaching Victory Lane, and while that may not make him a championship favorite, he can put his team in the Chase. And unlike 2012, where his improvement was enough, this year, he needs to do both. Toyota has drivers in the fold looking for a Cup ride, and Truex needs to show that he’s a cut above. Right now, that’s the case but the results still have to be there. The gun is no longer pointed at his head, but it’s still within firing range should he backslide.

*Ryan Newman* Newman is a driver capable of winning races, and that’s been apparent since he won as a rookie in 2002 (he was also that year’s Rookie of the Year) and came back to lay claim to eight more victories as a sophomore. He’s won seven times since, but he’s also never finished higher than sixth in points, showing a tendency toward inconsistency.

Now, with Kevin Harvick already signed at Stewart-Haas Racing next year, Newman absolutely needs to impress some sponsors to convince Tony Stewart to start a fourth team for Harvick rather than handing him the keys to the No. 39. As it is, Stewart said this week that there are eight or nine races for Newman this year without a sponsor.

That means he needs to make the Chase, but more than that, this pending free agent must win _and_ post consistent top 10 and top 5 finishes. If not, he is very likely to be looking for work instead of welcoming a new teammate next year.

*Denny Hamlin* Hamlin is a championship-caliber driver. He’s shown that. And in reality, 2012 wasn’t a bad year for Hamlin by anyone’s standards. His five wins tied Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski for the series lead, and he was in the thick of the title hunt until a mechanical failure at Martinsville. Hamlin was the 2010 series runner-up and, like Edwards, slumped miserably the following year. Hamlin made the 2011 Chase, but finished ninth with no hint of the fire he’d shown the year before, when he carried the point lead into Homestead but lost the title to Johnson. Hamlin rebounded in 2012, arguably stronger that Edwards did after his first runner-up hangover. But after Martinsville and despite a second-place run at Phoenix, Hamlin’s team didn’t look like the same one that had taken the green flag at Martinsville.

That part is a little worrisome. There have been rumblings about Hamlin caving to the pressure in ’10, letting the confidence of Johnson get to him. And 2012 did lend a bit of credence to that after Hamlin couldn’t recover from Martinsville and faded to a sixth-place points finish after going into that fateful event in third, just a handful away from the top spot.

Hamlin needs to enter 2013 with nothing but confidence, and he needs to win a race early to curb any lingering doubts and expel those skeletons from his closet. His title hunt in 2012 was derailed by mechanical issues, not any lapse on his part… but he needs to come out swinging and show that he isn’t going to fold under pressure. His job and sponsor and job are by no means in jeopardy, but he can’t let his title hopes be at risk from something that was completely beyond his control.

*Kyle Busch* Like Hamlin, Busch doesn’t need to worry about his job; he recently signed a contract extension at Joe Gibbs Racing, and there has never been a question of whether or not he’s talented enough to win a title—he most certainly is. Busch has won at least one race in every full season he’s spent in the Sprint Cup Series. He’s finished in the top 10 in points four times in those eight years.

Busch was close to brilliant in the 2012 Chase, finishing in the top 10 eight times and the top 5 in seven. His average finish during the final ten races was ninth — better than runner-up Clint Bowyer’s Chase average. The problem was, Busch wasn’t in the Chase. And when he is in it, he hasn’t run nearly as well. In 2011, for example, Busch made the postseason. In fact, he started the Chase with the point lead. But his 17th-place average during the ten-race playoff relegated him to 12th place, and that type of stumble has been a pattern that hasn’t corrected itself.

So for Busch, whose 2012 Chase bid was derailed as much by bad luck as by anything within his control, the need to improve performance isn’t necessarily in the first 26 races, but the final ten. Busch has been his own worst enemy in the playoff format, and what he needs to show he can do with regularity is take small problems during each race in stride, to keep them from becoming bigger ones. In short, he needs to cool and reset the reactor before a meltdown occurs. On a skill level, Busch is as talented as just about any driver in the field. His problem is an inability to channel his emotions and refocus when the pressure is on. Such horrid Chase history looks poised to repeat itself every year; Busch needs to break that pattern in order to be a champion.

Certainly, there are other drivers out there who know they need to ramp it up in 2013. Jeff Gordon is running out of chances for a fifth title. Jimmie Johnson suffered too many DNFs in 2012 to be a contender. Kevin Harvick is a lame duck but can’t afford to stagnate for ten months. In fact, if you asked, every driver would tell you they need to improve this year. But for some drivers, for a variety of reasons, it’s more than lip service—they must take their performance up a notch.

*Connect with Amy!*
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