_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”:https://frontstretch.com/bpoirier/42261/ to read about Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Bobby Labonte, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jamie McMurray
*Wednesday’s Drivers (Part II):* “Click here”:https://frontstretch.com/bpoirier/42272/ to read about Aric Almirola, Jeff Burton, Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano, Paul Menard
*Today’s Drivers (Part III):* Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Martin Truex, Jr.
*2013 Ride:* No. 99 AFLAC/Fastenal Ford (Roush Fenway Racing)
*Season With Team:* 10th (ninth full season)
*Crew Chief:* Jimmy Fennig
*Burning Question:* Is Jimmy Fennig the solution?
After Matt Kenseth struggled a little at the start of the 2010 season, Jack Roush replaced Todd Parrott atop the pit box with the veteran Fennig. It proved to be a successful partnership as Kenseth had points finishes of fifth, fourth and seventh in the last three seasons with Fennig calling the shots.
Now Roush is hoping Fennig can do the same for Edwards. After tying for the championship in 2011 (and losing it by wins), Edwards was a shell of himself in 2012. While Kenseth raced to 13 top fives, Edwards had just three and finished 15th in the standings. Considered one of the sport’s most talented drivers, Edwards hasn’t won since the third event of 2010.
Fennig has helped Mark Martin, Kurt Busch and Kenseth compete for championships at Roush (winning with Busch). Can he make Edwards a championship contender again?
*2013 Ride:* No. 39 Quicken Loans/Outback Steakhouse/Wix Filters Chevrolet (Stewart-Haas Racing)
*Season With Team:* 5th
*Crew Chief:* Matt Borland
*Burning Question:* With Kevin Harvick knocking on the door, was it the right move for Newman to stay at Stewart-Haas?
Newman took a very significant pay cut to stay at Stewart-Haas for 2013, but his future in Cup is uncertain after that, especially with the worst kept secret in the garage area: Harvick’s plans to join the team in 2014. With the sponsorship woes taking place at Stewart-Haas already, it would be unlikely for the organization to run four teams and that leaves Newman as the odd man out.
Newman’s stats haven’t exactly said, “Keep me around.” Since joining Stewart-Haas in 2009, he has posted final standings of ninth, 15th, 10th and 14th. He didn’t earn a pole last year for the first time in his career and led just 39 laps. He has proven that he can fight for top 10s, but he hasn’t really been a threat to win races, and certainly hasn’t been a threat to compete for a title. Newman could have left Stewart-Haas at the end of the season for a lesser team, but the pay cut is evidence that Stewart-Haas is where he thinks he can be most competitive in maybe the most important season of his career. His back is to the wall, and if he wants one of the top organizations in the garage to give him a second look, the time to perform is now.
*2013 Ride:* No. 18 M&M’s / Interstate Batteries Toyota (Joe Gibbs Racing)
*Season With Team:* 6th
*Crew Chief:* Dave Rogers
*Burning Question:* Can Busch regain his swagger?
Busch was told for years that his Camping World Truck and Nationwide driving was taking his focus away from winning a championship in Sprint Cup. If we learned anything in 2012, it’s just the opposite. Rowdy scaled down his time in the two lower-tier series dramatically and had his worst win total in Sprint Cup (one) since 2007 when he drove for Hendrick Motorsports.
Busch’s numbers from 2012 were eerily similar to those he posted in 2011, minus three wins. However, there was something missing from Busch last season, and I believe it was swagger. He didn’t race on Sunday with that I-just-kicked-everybody’s-ass-on-Friday-and-Saturday mentality. Joe Gibbs Racing realized it and signed him to a Nationwide deal for this season, taking the No. 54 and Monster Energy with it. Well played.
*Dale Earnhardt, Jr.*
*2013 Ride:* No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet (Hendrick Motorsports)
*Season With Team:* 6th
*Crew Chief:* Steve Letarte
*Burning Question:* Will Earnhardt stay healthy?
Most Junior fans were probably expecting, “Is he capable of winning a championship?” but his health is a much more pressing issue. Earnhardt Jr. suffered a concussion during a test Kansas in 2012 and then suffered a second concussion before recovering from the first during what looked like a casual spin during the big wreck at Talladega.
This isn’t an ACL tear or a broken arm, it’s a brain injury. Junior did the right thing by stepping away and missing two races at the end of 2012 (even if he did handle the first concussion badly). The fact remains he had two concussions in 2012, and admitted he had multiple concussions before that. What will happen if he hits the wall hard this season? And how much longer is he going to be willing to risk his health in the future to race now?
We’d all like to believe that 2012 was the end of Earnhardt Jr.’s concussion problems, but there is no way of being certain. Here’s to hoping he has a safe 2013.
*Martin Truex, Jr.*
*2013 Ride:* No. 56 NAPA Toyota (Michael Waltrip Racing)
*Season With Team:* 4th
*Crew Chief:* Chad Johnston
*Burning Question:* Can Truex finally win in Cup for a second time?
A driver with the second-longest losing streak in Sprint Cup is potentially in a spot to compete for a championship. Well, he is going to have to win a race first. Truex Jr., who ran up front for most of 2012 with Michael Waltrip Racing, hasn’t won since the Dover spring race in 2007 — that was 203 races ago.
Truex Jr. can be excused for most of those seasons. He wasn’t exactly in top-notch equipment at Earnhardt-Ganassi (then Dale Earnhardt Inc.) and until last season didn’t seem to have the people or equipment around him to compete for wins at MWR. Last year, he did though and his teammate, Clint Bowyer, won three times.
Truex led races late, specifically Kansas in the spring and Atlanta in the fall, but Denny Hamlin swooped in and stole both wins. If Kevin Harvick earned the nickname “The Closer” in 2011, Truex Jr. may have earned the nickname of “The Opener” in 2012. The bottom line is Truex Jr. needs to close in 2013.
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