_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._
*Yesterday’s Drivers (Part I):* “Click here”:https://frontstretch.com/bpoirier/42261/ to read about Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Bobby Labonte, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jamie McMurray
*Today’s Drivers (Part II):* Aric Almirola, Jeff Burton, Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano, Paul Menard
*2013 Ride:* No. 43 Smithfield Foods Ford (Richard Petty Motorsports)
*Season With Team:* 2nd
*Crew Chief:* Todd Parrott
*Burning Question:* Can Almirola get it done in Sprint Cup?
Richard Petty Motorsports’ selection of Almirola before the start of 2012 was a bit of a head-scratcher. Almirola had just come off of a mediocre season in the Nationwide Series with JR Motorsports, in which he failed to win a race (or really even come close). Drivers such as Brian Vickers, Trevor Bayne and maybe even Ricky Stenhouse were available as quality alternatives.
Almirola, unfortunately played the part of the wrong decision for most of 2012. He finished in the top 15 just four times in the first 30 races, looking lost at times with an underwhelming handling package. But new crew chief Todd Parrott, who came over just before the Chase provided a spark. Almirola scored four top-15 results in the final six events, and that’s not counting Kansas where he led laps and arguably had the fastest car in the field before having tire problems. Those late performances probably saved his job, but he still ended up 20th in the standings — five spots behind where A.J. Allmendinger finished in the No. 43 in 2011. In his first season, Almirola did little to prove he was a Sprint-Cup-caliber driver, and if there is anyone on the hot seat heading into 2013, it is him. Remember, RPM wanted Kurt Busch at one point once he got released from Penske Racing; another hot season in the No. 78 could make him highly coveted in Almirola’s place by ownership that’s looking to pay for a marquee star.
*2013 Ride:* No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet (Richard Childress Racing)
*Season With Team:* 9th (10th with RCR)
*Crew Chief:* Luke Lambert
*Burning Question:* Will he ever turn things around at RCR?
NASCAR’s Mayor has been struggling at Richard Childress Racing, placing outside the Chase for two straight seasons while inching up in age (he’ll be 46 in 2013). If Burton’s performance doesn’t improve, dramatically he might be out of office soon despite the pending loss of RCR veteran Kevin Harvick. Burton’s performance really dropped off at the start of the 2011 season, with Burton posting just four top-5 finishes since and RCR remains on a search for answers.
How bad has it gotten? Burton’s had the same number of crew chiefs in the last two years (four) as he had those top-5 results, diving to a disappointing 20th and 19th in the standings, respectively. In 2013, Luke Lambert will get a second shot at improving the No. 31 team’s performance (He was Burton’s crew chief for part of 2011). He’ll clearly be the catalyst if a turnaround does come, leading Elliott Sadler to the brink of a Nationwide Series championship with the No. 2 car last season. One of the sport’s brilliant young minds, Lambert combined with Burton to post four top-10 results in the final five races of 2011 before getting pulled into Sadler’s program.
*2013 Ride:* No. 9 Stanley/Dewalt Ford (Richard Petty Motorsports)
*Season With Team:* 3rd
*Crew Chief:* Drew Blickensderfer
*Burning Question:* Can he win on an oval?
Ambrose has won 25 percent of his Sprint Cup starts at road courses since going full-time in 2009 (2-for-8). During that time, he’s got a zero-percent clip on ovals (0-for-136). The Australian has proven he is capable of producing top-10 results, even occasionally the top 5 on nearly any layout, but he is yet to really challenge for a win on an oval — much like most of the road-course stars who have come to the sport.
Ambrose flung a monkey off his back when he won his first Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen in 2010, but for the last two years he’s still had another one on there. Will he ever shake it off, or will he only ever compete for wins twice a year? If it’s answer number two, you can kiss his Chase chances goodbye unless Lady Luck gives him the gift of a road course sweep.
*2013 Ride:* No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford (Penske Racing)
*Season With Team:* 1st
*Crew Chief:* Todd Gordon
*Burning Question:* With Brad Keselowski and Roger Penske behind him, can Logano finally reach his potential in Cup?
Logano has 18 victories in 110 Nationwide starts — a staggering clip. And while it would be ridiculous to think that he should mirror those numbers in a much tougher Sprint Cup Series, he still hasn’t matched the “Sliced Bread” expectations that were dropped on his shoulders when he signed with Joe Gibbs Racing at age 15.
Logano often gets the better of Kyle Busch, Keselowski, Carl Edwards, etc. in the Nationwide ranks, but Cup has been a very different story. In Cup with Gibbs, he had been mediocre at best with final standings finishes of 20th, 16th, 24th and 17th in his four full years. Gibbs recruited Matt Kenseth — a proven veteran — last season and told Logano he was free to look elsewhere for 2013. He didn’t have to look for long. Penske made an effort to steal Logano from Gibbs a year ago, and Keselowski has been on the record as saying he believes in Logano’s talent. At Penske, it seems the youngster has the support behind him that may have been lacking at Gibbs. Will it make a difference in the final results?
*2013 Ride:* No. 27 Menard’s Chevrolet (Richard Childress Racing)
*Season With Team:* 3rd
*Crew Chief:* “Slugger” Labbe
*Burning Question:* With uncertainty surrounding his teammates, can Menard be “the guy” to keep RCR legitimate?
Menard is either in the least enviable or most enviable spot at RCR as we head to 2013. As chronicled earlier, unless Jeff Burton makes an unlikely turnaround with the organization, he could be leaving. Meanwhile, Menard’s other teammate, Kevin Harvick, is already on his way out the door, and he is rumored to be taking primary backer Budweiser with him. The season hasn’t even started and already things are a mess at RCR. It would be hard to believe that this organization would take steps forward with these clouds hovering.
Things can either go one of two ways with Menard. He could understandably be dragged down by the instability and uncertainty around him, or he could be the one to provide hope and stability in the face of turmoil. In his NASCAR career, Menard has never really been looked at as the No. 1 guy; however, he has an opportunity to assert himself and be that driver this season through the stability of his father’s multi-million dollar sponsorship. The key is to his consistency up just one more notch: while snagging a career-high nine top-10 results in 2012, Menard finished in the top 5 just once while leading only 26 laps.