_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
*Thursday’s Drivers (Part III):* “Click here”:https://frontstretch.com/bpoirier/42276/ to read about Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Martin Truex, Jr.
*Friday’s Drivers (Part IV):* “Click here”:https://frontstretch.com/bpoirier/42279/ to read about Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin
*Today’s Drivers (Part V):* Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski
*2013 Ride:* No. 16 3M Ford (Roush Fenway Racing)
*Season With Team:* 11th
*Crew Chief:* Matt Puccia
*Burning Question:* Can Biffle be the veteran leader at Roush Fenway?
Biffle will enter his 11th full-time season at 43 years old. He is coming off one of his most competitive seasons, tying his personal mark in top 10s (21) and poles (three). He also spent much of 2012 on top of the standings, but fell short in The Chase, basically out of contention three weeks into the playoffs. With good friend and teammate Matt Kenseth now at Gibbs, Carl Edwards coming off the worst season of his career and rookie Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. being added to the mix, Biffle heads into 2013 needing to set the tone at Roush Fenway, whose championship drought on the Cup side is approaching a full decade.
The No. 16 team, who along with Biffle is building off one of its strongest season ever, needs to be a barometer for the Nos. 99 & 17 operations in 2013. But most important of all, they need to avoid history repeating itself. The closest Biffle came to competing for a title was in 2005, when he finished runner-up to Tony Stewart. He followed that up with a pair of down years (13th in 2006 and 14th in 2007) where he was little more than an afterthought. Biffle — and Roush Fenway Racing as a whole — can’t afford for that to happen this time around.
*2013 Ride:* No. 5 Farmer’s Insurance Chevrolet (Hendrick Motorsports)
*Season With Team:* 2nd
*Crew Chief:* Kenny Francis
*Burning Question:* Can Kahne win a championship where he’s at?
In his first year at Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne finally found what he’d been lacking in his previous eight seasons in Sprint Cup — consistency. Would you believe that Kahne, considered one of the most talented young drivers in the sport, had only two points finishes in the top 10 before last season? And they were eighth and 10th. Kahne strung together week-to-week performances we hadn’t seen from him before, bouncing back from an awful 2012 start with a career-high seven straight top-10 finishes from April to June. That allowed him to make The Chase; then, he posted five top-5 results in the playoffs and finished fourth overall.
Is he ready to take yet another step forward this year? To do so, the No. 5 team is going to have to prove it is just as strong as Hendrick’s juggernaut, the No. 48. That means Kahne is going to have to take his consistency to the next level — Jimmie Johnson’s – and keep making seventh-place finishes on weeks he knows winning is not an option. If the Washington native is able to do that, he will not only be a factor to win a title this season, but for years to come.
*2013 Ride:* No. 48 Lowe’s / Kobalt Tools Chevrolet (Hendrick Motorsports)
*Season With Team:* 12th
*Crew Chief:* Chad Knaus
*Burning Question:* Can he still be considered the best active driver in Sprint Cup?
Johnson seemed bulletproof during his five-year championship run. Besides a strong challenge from Denny Hamlin in 2010, Johnson all but cake-walked to those titles. But then two drivers proved they could perform at his level in 2011 (Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart); next, Brad Keselowski out-dueled Johnson in 2012.
Johnson still hasn’t shown much weakness. Bad luck has hindered him in The Chase more than anything, including a pit miscue-turned-parts failure last November when it looked like Keselowski could be in trouble at Homestead. The No. 48 team hasn’t won a title in the last two years, but it is still the team in the garage that all others compare themselves to. If Johnson goes a third straight year without a trophy despite the top team in the garage and Knaus on the pit box, though that label will finally go away.
*2013 Ride:* No. 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota (Michael Waltrip Racing)
*Season With Team:* 2nd
*Crew Chief:* Brian Pattie
*Burning Question:* Can he avoid the dreaded second-place slump?
In the Cup Series, second place really _is_ the first loser. The previous season’s runner-up hasn’t won the title in the next go-round since Tony Stewart did it in 2002. This second-place slump thing is for real — just ask Carl Edwards.
*CHAMPIONSHIP RUN HANGOVER*
The last seven second-place finishers in the title race and how they’ve done the following year:
2011: Carl Edwards
Ranking in 2012: *15th*
2010: Denny Hamlin
Ranking in 2011: *9th*
2009: Mark Martin
Ranking in 2010: *13th*
2008: Carl Edwards
Ranking in 2009: *11th*
2007: Jeff Gordon
Ranking in 2008: *7th*
2006: Matt Kenseth
Ranking in 2007: *4th*
2005: Greg Biffle
Ranking in 2006: *13th*
Will Bowyer be the next to have a down year? It seemed like the No. 15 team could do no wrong and had luck on its side in 2012 — besides maybe Phoenix. Will that carry over into 2013? For most, it hasn’t and it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why. When a team falls short in a championship run, instead of stepping up to that next level, it takes a step back instead. However, in some of those cases, in particular Edwards and Hamlin there was a mental block that developed from coming tantalizingly close to their life’s dream, only to fall heartbreakingly short. Bowyer, who was never real close to winning in 2012 (he was third until Johnson’s parts failure at Homestead) didn’t have that close of a call. In fact, the closest Bowyer came to a championship before last year was when he finished third with Richard Childress Racing in 2007. He followed that up with a fifth-place showing in 2008. Those numbers contradict what we’ve seen recently from championship runner-ups, so something is going to have to give.
*2013 Ride:* No. 2 Miller Lite Ford (Penske Racing)
*Season With Team:* 4th
*Crew Chief:* Paul Wolfe
*Burning Question:* Is a manufacturer and engine supplier switch too much for the reigning champ to repeat?
It is unprecedented for the reigning championship team to make such drastic changes heading into the following season. Roger Penske decided early in 2012 that his two cars would leave Dodge — the carmaker ultimately left the sport — and would start running Roush Fenway engines. An amazing run to the championship changed none of the plans.
The question is, did Keselowski lose an edge? Penske didn’t have to share its resources under the Dodge banner, and while the Penske engines might have lacked horsepower at some of the bigger tracks, the Penske cars got better fuel mileage than any other teams in the garage. Keselowski and Wolfe used that consistently to their advantage — most notably stretching their fuel to win at Dover in the Chase. Now paired with the Roush Fenway group, whose strength was a step below at times the Penske cars might have to rely more on pure speed than strategy in 2013. That will be one of many adjustments Keselowski makes, along with dealing with frontrunner status, a new teammate and more if he’s going to repeat as champion.
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