_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._
*Today’s Drivers (Part I):* Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Bobby Labonte, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jamie McMurray
*2013 Ride:* No. 55 Aaron’s Toyota (Michael Waltrip Racing)
*Season With Team:* 2nd
*Crew Chief:* Rodney Childers
*Burning Question: How much longer can Martin be competitive?*
With Martin, at this point it’s continually a question of age. The veteran turned 54 years old in January, and while his skills haven’t diminished at the rate of many of the drivers of his generation (Terry Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace) it’s only a matter of time before Father Time catches up with him – physical fitness be damned. Even the timeless Harry Gant, who holds the record for oldest Cup victory at 52 years of age couldn’t hang on forever. Holding his retirement tour in 1994, two years after that record he couldn’t even pull down a top-5 result despite driving for the same organization.
*TOUGH TO GET OLD: Famous NASCAR Drivers At Age 54*
(Sprint Cup results)
*Bill Elliott:* 12 starts, no top-10 finishes. *Best:* 15th – Coca-Cola 600.
*Harry Gant:* 31 starts, seven top-10 finishes, one pole. *Best:* 7th – Coca-Cola 600.
*Richard Petty:* 29 starts, one top-10 finish. *Best:* 9th – Watkins Glen.
*Morgan Shepherd:* 31 starts, one top-5 result, five top 10s. *Best:* 5th – Brickyard 400.
It’s more than just Father Time, though that threatens Martin’s competitive chances. Entering his second season with Michael Waltrip Racing, he remains one of the few part-time drivers, running just 24 of 36 points-paying races. Martin and Brian Vickers both had an unparalleled amount of success splitting time in the No. 55 car last season, but will that continue to work? Only Trevor Bayne, with his Daytona 500 upset in 2011 has won pursuing a similar schedule this _century._ And with Martin Truex, Jr. and Clint Bowyer chasing after championships, making the Chase last season how soon before Waltrip wants to add a third driver who can do the same? Martin himself seemed to pre-empt that talk, this January claiming he wants Childers and Co. to “go for a championship” in 2014. Does Martin really mean what he says this time, and will that lead to another “lame duck” swoon that’s come attached to the last two times he’s left a ride? We’ll have to wait and see… but the odds are not in his favor.
*2013 Ride:* No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet
*Season With Team:* 1st Full One (Six races in 2012)
*Crew Chief:* Todd Berrier
*Question: Driving for another underfunded team, how many outbursts will we see from Kurt Busch in 2013?*
You would have thought Kurt Busch was leaving for Hendrick Motorsports when he announced his intentions to join Furniture Row at the end of 2012. At that point, he’d certainly had it with a year’s worth of behind-the-scenes friction at Phoenix Racing, temper tantrums that paired with an in-season, one-race suspension after cussing out a reporter at Dover in June. On paper, this new marriage seems promising: Busch ended the year with three straight top 10s, driving equipment that is boosted through an engine and chassis partnership with Richard Childress. But here are the cold, hard facts: while FRR is certainly a step ahead of James Finch’s small-time operation, it is still a single-car, underfunded underdog of a race team. Busch spent most of 2012 overdriving and wrecking inferior equipment with Phoenix, and with that came the tirades, antics, etc. Keep in mind that car had support from a top-tier organization, too (Hendrick); it’s not like RCR will be an automatic fix here.
So when the performance isn’t up to Kurt’s expectation at Furniture Row — and that will happen at some point – what’s stopping him from blowing another fuse? The bottom line is unless Busch made drastic changes to his way of thinking in the offseason — that SPEED documentary would suggest otherwise — then we should see more of the same in 2013.
*2013 Ride:* No. 47 Kingsford/Clorox Toyota (JTG Daugherty)
*Season With Team:* 3rd
*Crew Chief:* Brian Burns
*Burning Question: Can Bobby Labonte still get it done in Sprint Cup?*
Answer: it’s not looking good. Labonte has six top-10 finishes in the last _four years,_ running no better than ninth last season with JTG Daugherty. He hasn’t recorded more than three top 10s in a single season since 2006, back when he drove the famed No. 43 for Richard Petty. In all fairness, the former Cup Series champion hasn’t exactly been piloting top-notch equipment. Post-Petty employers TRG Motorsports and Hall of Fame Racing are now defunct, and even his current team remains suspect. After one overachieving season, former driver Marcos Ambrose placed just 26th in the standings for JTG before departing in 2011 for Richard Petty Motorsports.
In two years running that No. 47, Labonte is yet to deliver the improved results both he and team ownership were expecting. Now 48 years old, the 2000 series titlist needs to lift this struggling single-car operation to the middle of the pack in order to stay a full-time Cup driver in 2014. Even that may not do it; rumors have this team losing its credit line with vendors due to poor payment history.
*Juan Pablo Montoya*
*2013 Ride:* No. 42 Target Chevrolet (Earnhardt Ganassi)
*Season With Team:* 7th
*Crew Chief:* Chris Heroy
*Question: Is it no longer worth it to wait for this open-wheel star to develop NASCAR skills?*
After a slow start to his Sprint Cup career — minus a win at Sonoma in 2007 — Juan Pablo Montoya seemed destined to be NASCAR’s next superstar by season three. The Colombian made a surprise midsummer push, qualified for the Chase and abruptly toned down the aggressiveness that typically left him hitting the wall – or someone else – far too often. He started the Chase with finishes of third, fourth, fourth, and third, turning him into a Cinderella championship contender before cracking the slipper and fading down the stretch.
That seems like a long time ago. In the next two seasons, Montoya combined for just eight top-5 results, only one more than he had in 2009 while continually regressing. But 2012 was the pure definition of rock bottom. Statistically, it was the worst year of the Colombian’s career, leading just 22 laps while failing to secure a top-5 finish. He earned just two top 10s, compared to 18 in that championship-contending season three years ago and jumped up to five DNFs. Ganassi responded by making several behind-the-scenes changes, prior to 2013 but hasn’t addressed the lack of chemistry between driver and crew chief; remember, Heroy was just an engineer before being poached from Hendrick Motorsports prior to the 2012 season. It’s all a big mess in a free agent year for Montoya, a driver who’s shown in CART and Formula 1 just how talented he is. For a brief moment, we saw that potential in NASCAR… but will we ever see it again?
*2013 Ride:* No. 1 McDonald’s/Cessna/many smaller deals Chevrolet (Earnhardt Ganassi)
*Season With Team:* 4th
*Crew Chief:* Kevin “Bono” Manion
*Question: Can McMurray return to the form we saw in 2010 with Ganassi?*
McMurray’s story is similar to Montoya’s and it is no coincidence. Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing has fallen behind in the Sprint Cup garage, spinning its wheels while leaving its two drivers to pay the price. Consistency has always plagued McMurray, although he nearly made the Chase despite some bad finishes in 2010. That strong season was thanks to winning the sport’s marquee events — the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, and Coca-Cola 600 — paired with six other top-5 results as he shined in his first season back in the Ganassi fold.
But much like Montoya, McMurray’s numbers have progressively gotten worse each year since his peak. The Missouri native had the worst season of his Sprint Cup career in 2012, racking up only three top 10s and no top-5 results along with just 58 laps led. Can he and Montoya, with the same head wrenches return EGR to the ranks of respectable teams? A new engine partnership, with rival Hendrick Motorsports is aimed to add a little extra horsepower, but without the right handling package this No. 1 program will be No. 1 in all the wrong types of categories.
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