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NASCAR Season Preview: Smaller Teams and Part-Timers

Photo credit: Ned Leone

Not every Sprint Cup team came together in time this offseason to warrant a full preview leading up to the Daytona 500. In fact, a lot of the series’ smaller teams have just finished putting the pieces together in their bids to seize a lower top 35 spot in owners’ points. Many of these teams have been start-and-park outfits in the past, but the majority are attempting to run the full schedule this year.

The newest addition to this list is BK Racing, made up of a group of former TRG Motorsports investors and Burger King franchisees, which has purchased Team Red Bull assets in order to field cars for Landon Cassill and Travis Kvapil (and David Reutimann in the Daytona 500 in Kvapil’s place). They’re guaranteed to make the first five races of the season, after which they hope to remain in the top 35 for the balance of the season.

Other full-time teams include David Stremme and Inception Motorsports, who move up to full-time status (save the road courses) after a half-season run last year; J.J. Yeley and Robinson-Blakeney Racing, moving up from the Nationwide Series with America-Israel Racing sponsorship; Timmy Hill and Rick Ware Racing, who will run for Rookie of the Year after Daytona (where Mike Wallace will fill in, as Hill isn’t approved to run superspeedways yet); Joe Nemechek and NEMCO Motorsports; and Michael McDowell and Phil Parsons Racing, which will partner with Dusty Whitney and Mike Curb in an effort to run full races in Fords this year after years of starting and parking.

A handful of other teams will run the full season while campaigning multiple drivers. Frank Stoddard’s FAS Lane Racing will field Terry Labonte in the Daytona 500, Ken Schrader in nine races with Federated Auto Parts sponsorship, and other drivers on a race-by-race basis. R3 Motorsports will move up from the Nationwide Series and split its ride between Robert Richardson III and Scott Riggs. Michael Waltrip will run superspeedway races and the Kentucky event for his own team, driving the #55 when Mark Martin is off, and six races remain unfilled for that team. Front Row Motorsports returns with a third car this season, rechristened the #26; Tony Raines has locked it into the Daytona 500 field, but who will drive the car beyond Daytona is undetermined.

Plenty of other drivers will attempt part-time schedules. Scott Speed has moved to Leavine Family Racing, where he will attempt 16 races in their #95 Ford. Tim Andrews, son of longtime Sprint Cup crew chief Paul, will attempt 10-12 events in a #19 Ford for Go Green Racing, one of many Nationwide Series teams moving up. Brendan Gaughan will drive the #33 for Richard Childress Racing in four of the first five races of the season, as Childress attempts to keep the former full-time team in the top 35 and sell off the owners’ points; Austin Dillon will also drive one race later in the year with American Ethanol sponsorship. Turner Motorsports moves up to the Sprint Cup level at Daytona in July, as Wal-Mart fields a car celebrating their 50th anniversary with Bill Elliott behind the wheel.

And of course, plenty of drivers have landed one-off rides for the Daytona 500. Waltrip will attempt the race for Hillman Racing, formed by ex-Germain Racing manager Mike Hillman, in its #40 Toyota. Kenny Wallace and Nationwide Series team RAB Racing will attempt the race with American Ethanol sponsorship. Childress will field Elliott Sadler, fresh off a runner-up performance in the Nationwide Series, in a Kroger-sponsored #33 Chevrolet. Elliott will drive a second car for NEMCO Motorsports, hoping to either race his way in or use a past champion’s provisional.

– Chris Leone

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NASCAR Season Preview: Carl Edwards

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#99 Fastenal/Aflac/Subway/Best Buy/Kellogg’s/Cheez-It/UPS Ford, Roush Fenway Racing

Born: August 15, 1979

Home: Columbia, Missouri

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Making the Chase was no problem for Edwards, who spent a total of four races ranked below third in points and was never out of Chase contention in points, even in the early stages of the season where points are shuffled around. Then, when he got there, he had the best Chase average in history, an eye-popping 4.9, partially buoyed by three consecutive second place finishes to finish the year. When all was said and done, he was tied for the points lead with Tony Stewart, the only time that has ever happened in Sprint Cup history.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: And yet it wasn’t enough. Because Stewart won five races in the Chase and Edwards only won one all season, he took the tiebreaker. Edwards won the pole and led the most laps in the season finale at Homestead, but if Stewart won the race, it wouldn’t matter. That’s exactly what happened. “That’s all I had,” Edwards lamented after the race.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Anybody who hates the trend of former full-time sponsors combining to back one team and subsequent related collapse of the racing die-cast market should probably view this team as Public Enemy Number One. After Roush Fenway Racing signed Aflac to a $26 million (annually!) contract to sponsor Edwards, the company had to auction off plenty of races to other companies. That wasn’t a difficult sell, as Edwards is a top-flight driver with a generally well-received personality, but many of those who are now footing the bill used to pour much more money into the sport. This year, the team will add UPS (which shifts its money from Edwards’ former teammate David Ragan) and Best Buy (which backed A.J. Allmendinger full-time at Richard Petty Motorsports last year).

But all the money in the world may not be enough to buck the Edwards trend of following up a good season with a relative stinker. After Edwards won nine races and scored 27 top 10s in 2008 and still lost the championship, he followed it up with a winless 2009 and 11th place points finish. Edwards took a page out of teammate Matt Kenseth’s book last season by winning only one race but posting an average finish that was actually better than in 2008; he still lost the title to Tony Stewart in a tiebreaker. He’s still never missed the Chase as a a full-time driver, and don’t expect that to start now, but as Denny Hamlin showed last year (and Edwards showed in 2009), it’s hard to keep performing at a high level after losing the Chase in such a heartbreaking fashion. Winning the pole for the Daytona 500 will help, but can he stay on top all season?

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports

Born: October 10, 1974

Home: Kannapolis, North Carolina

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Last year was a step up for Earnhardt Jr., as team owner Rick Hendrick switched around the crews of all three of his drivers not named Jimmie Johnson. Paired with Steve Letarte and Jeff Gordon’s former crew, he scored double-digit top 10s for the first time since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. He also made the Chase for the Sprint Cup after two consecutive seasons outside the top 20th in points, and managed to rank a respectable 7th when all was said and done.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: It’s still been over three years since Earnhardt Jr. won a race. His best chance in 2011 slipped away when he ran out of gas while in the lead at Charlotte in May. He also only led 52 laps all season, a career low.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Trying to analyze the son of the Intimidator is always a risky proposition. It’s difficult to look at his career statistics and discern a reasonable pattern, as there are just as many good seasons as bad ones on his resume. But when dealing with the sport’s most popular driver by a wide margin, it’s tough to say much that’s negative without catching hell for it, such as pointing out that he’s only had six wins in national NASCAR series since 2005, and noting that half of those came in the Nationwide Series.

Here’s the most likely scenario for this season: Earnhardt Jr. will be a fringe Chase driver or one of the first to miss the cut through 26 races. His performances in the weeks immediately preceding the cutoff should dictate his Chase performance; if they’re mid-pack, he won’t be much of a threat, but if they’re consistent top 10s, he could be this year’s so-so driver with a surprisingly strong Chase. Even if he misses the Chase, he should break his winless streak this season. He almost has no choice.

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Regan Smith

Photo courtesy of U.S. Army

#78 Furniture Row Chevrolet, Furniture Row Racing

Born: September 23, 1983

Home: Cato, New York

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Smith got his first (official) Sprint Cup win in exciting fashion, beating Carl Edwards to the line in a green-white-checkered finish at Darlington. He and his Furniture Row Racing team developed a habit of running well at big races, finishing seventh in the Daytona 500 and third at Indianapolis, and Smith developed a high-profile drafting partnership with Kurt Busch on superspeedways.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Six consecutive finishes outside of the top 30 after the Daytona 500 killed any chances at a decent season for Smith, who found himself 30th in points heading to Texas in April. The win would have given him a chance at a wild-card Chase spot if he could have cracked the top 20, but he never saw those heights again after Phoenix in February. At season’s end, Smith ranked 26th in points.

SEASON OUTLOOK: After failing to even score a top 10 together in 2010, Smith and Furniture Row took a quantum leap forward by scoring five last season, buoyed by the Darlington win. That resume led Roger Penske to consider hiring Smith to replace Kurt Busch in his #22 car, though A.J. Allmendinger got the job. But Smith will return to the team for a fourth season (their third competing full-time together), and with those accomplishments under their belt, they can enter the 2012 season with further elevated expectations.

Crew chief Pete Rondeau returns, as do the Earnhardt-Childress engines that powered the team last year. In fact, the biggest change has been Smith’s marriage in the offseason. That consistency during the offseason should only help Smith improve on his results once the green flag finally drops. A Chase berth will likely be too much to ask, but cracking the top 20 shouldn’t be, and anything short of the top 25 in points will be a disappointment.

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Martin Truex Jr.

Photo credit: Jerry Edmundson (CC-BY-NC-ND)

#56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing

Born: June 29, 1980

Home: Mayetta, New Jersey

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: For the first time since 2008, Truex had multiple top fives in a season. His best track turned out to be Bristol, where he led 63 laps in March and scored a season-best second place finish in August. He also scored a pole at Dover in October, and he improved to 18th in points after two consecutive seasons of finishing outside of the top 20.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Two crashes at Martinsville and Texas in April dropped Truex from 13th to 21st in points, which proved to be his general rank in points for the rest of the season. He also couldn’t make anything of his Dover pole, only leading two laps and finishing 30th, four laps down.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Truex will be looking forward to having one consistent crew chief for the 2012 season. Last year, Pat Tryson was replaced by Chad Johnston after Kansas in May, but after an illegal windshield led to Johnston’s suspension for the final four races of the season, both Tryson and Scott Miller took turns as replacements atop the pit box. Johnston will return this year, with the goal of keeping Truex up front during races; last year, the team led laps in 16 events, but Truex failed to finish in the top 10 in 11 of those events.

With new teammates Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer on board, Michael Waltrip Racing has taken a serious step up for 2012, and Truex should be a beneficiary. There’s no doubt that MWR is hungry for its first ever Chase appearance this season, and while Bowyer may be more likely to seal the deal than Truex, the two-time Nationwide Series champion will certainly give Waltrip and highly supportive sponsor NAPA plenty of exposure this season – if not on the track, certainly during commercial breaks.

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Mark Martin

Photo courtesy of U.S. Army

#55 Aaron’s Rent Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing

Born: January 9, 1959

Home: Batesville, Arkansas

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Martin took two poles in 2011, in the second races at both Daytona and Talladega. He also scored 10 top 10 finishes, with his runner-up finish at Dover in May his best run of the year. Meanwhile, Martin took his then-record 49th Nationwide Series win at Las Vegas in March, giving Turner Motorsports its first series victory.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: As a lame duck driver at Hendrick Motorsports, to be replaced by Kasey Kahne at the end of the season, Martin had the kind of year that leads many to brand a driver as “over the hill.” Martin got the short end of the stick in a preseason crew swap between three Hendrick teams, finishing a disappointing 22nd in points. He hasn’t won in Sprint Cup since 2009, when he scored his fifth career runner-up points finish.

SEASON OUTLOOK: After three years of full-time competition in Hendrick Motorsports’ legendary #5 car, Martin returns to the partial schedule that reinvigorated his career in 2007 and 2008, this time with Michael Waltrip Racing. He’ll split the #55 car and Aaron’s sponsorship with Waltrip himself (and, in the non-Aaron’s races, with other drivers to be determined) as the team expands to three full-time cars for the first time since 2008. Martin will drive 25 races, running a schedule not too far off from his time with Ginn Racing and Dale Earnhardt Incorporated.

Don’t be surprised if Martin’s early season performance this year is similar to his early 2007 hot streak, in which he almost won the Daytona 500, led the points, and was repeatedly asked if he would reconsider running limited schedules in order to go for one last championship run. Martin is the kind of driver that, when he’s really excited about an opportunity, rises to the occasion, and this one fits that category. He’s unquestionably the best driver that Waltrip has ever had, and should be able to put up results that reflect that. Martin himself won’t make the Chase as a part-timer, but he’ll run well enough that, had he chosen to run every race, he’d be in.

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Kurt Busch

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#51 Tag Heuer Chevrolet, Phoenix Racing

Born: August 4, 1978

Home: Las Vegas, Nevada

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: In his first year driving a Penske Racing car not sponsored by Miller Lite, Busch started off hot by winning both the Budweiser Shootout and his Gatorade Duel at Daytona. He led the points early in the season before dropping off, but still scored race wins at Infineon and the second Dover race and made the Chase for the Sprint Cup, finishing 11th.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: A series of tirades over the course of the season, from comparing his team to “monkeys humping a football” at Richmond to tearing apart reporter Dr. Jerry Punch at Homestead, returned the bad-boy image that most thought Busch had left to his brother Kyle years ago. Owner Roger Penske finally dumped his former lead driver at the end of the season.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Busch is starting from square one this year, running on a one year contract with Phoenix Racing as he attempts to re-establish himself as a top-tier Sprint Cup driver and sign a big free-agent contract in 2013. Owner James Finch is known around the garage as one of the easiest owners to drive for, but also unwilling to put up with anything detrimental to his team. In many ways, that’s the best possible fresh start for Busch and his public relations issues: an environment that will allow him to prove himself off the track, if he’s made any progress with his behavior. (Ironically, in the ultimate public relations nightmare team, he’ll split a ride with brother Kyle in the Nationwide Series as well, but sponsor Monster Energy may very well enjoy those fireworks.)

On the track, the combination is as good on paper as any independent team. Finch gets his equipment from Hendrick Motorsports, leading some to incorrectly accuse Rick Hendrick of turning Finch’s operation into a fifth, satellite Hendrick team. Busch, of course, was the first Chase winner back in 2004, and seems to make the cut almost every year. That may be a stretch for both this season, but taking at least a win or two, ranking in the top 20 of points, and positioning Busch well to sign with a big team again in 2013.

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Jimmie Johnson

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#48 Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports

Born: September 17, 1975

Home: El Cajon, California

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: With two wins, 14 top fives, and 21 top 10s, Johnson made the Chase for the Sprint Cup easily, leading the points going into the final regular-season race at Richmond, and finished a respectable sixth in series points.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Those results would be a bit more respectable, or at least a bit less disappointing, if Johnson wasn’t coming off of five consecutive Sprint Cups. But a so-so run at Loudon dropped him to 10th in points, and a crash at Charlotte effectively ended his chances at a championship six-pack. Well, you can’t win them all.

SEASON OUTLOOK: It’s hard to get on top, harder to stay on top, and hardest to get back on top after being surpassed by others. Johnson has done the first two; this year, he and team leader Chad Knaus will attempt to do the third and win their sixth title in seven years. Those championships got harder and harder as the epic run went on, and now that the rest of the field knows that Johnson isn’t bulletproof in the final few months of the season anymore, they aren’t bound to get any easier.

But to suggest that Johnson and Knaus are having serious trouble, as some have suggested in the past year or so, is ridiculous, and any move short of plummeting to 20th in points would be an overreaction. The truth remains that these guys have a better season together during an off year than most teams can ever hope to have when everything is clicking. And now that they’re looking to knock somebody else off the top again, as they were in the first four seasons of Johnson’s career, they’re looking forward to another year of everything coming together. Then again, if they don’t, nobody will ever begrudge this team for it – their legacy will remain intact for decades to come.

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Bobby Labonte

Photo credit: Parker Anderson (CC-BY-ND)

#47 Kingsford/Clorox/Bush’s Baked Beans Toyota, JTG Daugherty Racing

Born: May 8, 1964

Home: Corpus Christi, Texas

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Labonte started the season with an impressive fourth place finish in the Daytona 500, which saw him in the handful of cars that charged to the front of the pack at the race’s end. He is currently sitting on 652 consecutive starts, one behind Jeff Gordon for most of all active drivers.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: With one top five and two top 10s, Labonte could muster only a 29th place finish in Sprint Cup points, falling to that level after Infineon in June and never climbing back above it. That made him the second-worst driver in the series to start all 36 events on the schedule.

SEASON OUTLOOK: The 2000 series champion, Labonte hasn’t won a race since the end of the Winston Cup era in 2003 and hasn’t cracked the top 20 in points since 2007. At least he scored a top five and consistent ride in 2011, after spending the past two seasons bouncing around teams and failing to finish better than 16th in 2010. Nobody thought that JTG Daugherty Racing would necessarily resuscitate Labonte’s career, but nobody thought that he’d go as far downhill from Daytona as he did, either.

2012 will signify a season of change for Labonte, as proven winner Todd Berrier moves over from Kevin Harvick’s team to take over crew chief duties from new JTG shop foreman Frank Kerr. But this year should be a step forward for the team in other ways, too; JTG purchased a handful of former Michael Waltrip Racing cars to start the season and plans to run a second car in a limited schedule late in the year, with an eye on a full schedule in 2013. If the team finds the right young driver to bring up, Labonte’s mission may shift from keeping this team afloat to mentoring unproven talent, sooner rather than later.

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Aric Almirola

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#43 Smithfield Foods/US Air Force Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports

Born: March 14, 1984

Home: Tampa, Florida

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Driving full-time for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series, Almirola finished fourth in series points with 18 top 10 finishes. His best stretch of the year came in July and August, where he scored four consecutive top five finishes starting at Loudon.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: In his best full-time opportunity yet in NASCAR, Almirola failed to score a race win; his lone victory in Nationwide remains the controversial 2007 Milwaukee event where he was replaced mid-race at a sponsor request.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Almirola, the closest thing to a “super-sub” in NASCAR for the past few years, continues the trend of bouncing around that has defined his career for years. This time, he bounces from JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series back up to Sprint Cup and Richard Petty Motorsports, for whom he drove a handful of races in 2010 in replacing Kasey Kahne. This time around, though, he’ll drive the #43, replacing the departed A.J. Allmendinger, now at Penske Racing.

What Almirola inherits, besides the responsibility of representing a famous name and number with little connection to its storied past, is a top-20 team that is still waiting for its big breakthrough. They could never score a win with Allmendinger, but it seems a stretch to think that they suddenly will with Almirola. He hasn’t been a full-time Sprint Cup driver yet, hasn’t really won all that much at the national level, and may have had his growth stunted just a little by hopping from team to team so frequently. With that being said, this team could end up anywhere from 15th to 30th in points at the end of the season, because we just don’t know what we’re going to get yet.

– Chris Leone