Having changed teams, which drivers will have a happy 2013?
When it comes to the concept of free agency, NASCAR was miles ahead of most other professional sports. Players in Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NBA did not have the freedom to change teams until well into the 1970s and '80s. NASCAR drivers, on the other hand, have always had the ability to go wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted.
NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Bobby Allison, for example, raced for 20 different car owners during his 25-year Cup career. In 1967 alone, he drove for five different teams. And it wasn't like he was some struggling driver trying to hold onto a job. Allison won six times that year and finished fourth in the point standings.
But this was back during a time when drivers and crew members would routinely go with whoever offered them the best deal -- both financially and competitively -- even during the middle of the season. Longtime NASCAR radio broadcaster Barney Hall said the first thing he did whenever he showed up at the race track in the 1960s was to wander the garage area and figure out who had changed teams since the previous race.
"Back in those days you might have Fireball Roberts in a Ford one week, and by the next week he had moved somewhere else," Hall said. "It was a challenge to keep up with which drivers were in what cars."
Things are certainly more orderly in NASCAR these days, with teams routinely signing drivers to multi-year contracts. Still, there are plenty of changes that take place each season. Only a handful of drivers remain with the same organization their entire career. Even some of the sport's most famous and successful drivers, such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart, have switched teams over the years.
The annual shuffling that takes place in Sprint Cup racing has resulted in four significant changes for the 2013 season involving two former series champions and two talented young drivers. Here is a quick look at each of them, and what their prospects are for a happy new year.
Kenseth's surprising decision to leave Roush Fenway Racing after 13 seasons to drive the No. 20 car for Joe Gibbs Racing was the move that resulted in two of the other driver changes on this list. While Kenseth said he maintains a positive relationship with team owner Jack Roush and still has plenty of friends at RFR, he has bluntly stated that he thinks he has a better chance of winning races with Gibbs.
"At the end of the day you want to put yourself in the best position you can to win races and championships, and I really felt like this is the place for me to do that," Kenseth said of JGR.
But is that indeed the case? Kenseth won 24 Cup races while with Roush, including twice during the 10 Chase races this past season. And while his lone Cup championship occurred way back in 2003, he has finished in the top-10 of the point standings in seven of the nine seasons since then, and in the top-five four times.
Now Kenseth is with a new team, has a new crew chief, and is driving a new type of car (going from Ford to Toyota). He is well out of the comfort zone he had established during his time with Roush, something he readily admitted earlier this month following his first on-track test session with JGR.
"It was probably the first time I've been nervous in a race car in as long as I can remember," Kenseth said. "[During] my last run I proceeded to go from second gear to first gear and over-revved the engine, so [the crew] is back there changing it. I think they're like, 'Where did we find this clown? Give us the other one back.' "
It's doubtful that Kenseth's crew will continue to feel that way once the season starts. But the team might face a few transitional issues before Kenseth is able to return to his winning ways.
Chances for a happy new year: 75 percent.
The "other one" that Kenseth referred to is Logano, who spent the first four years of his Sprint Cup career driving the No. 20 car. But Logano managed only two victories during that time and never finished better than 16th in the point standings. So when Kenseth became available and JGR was unable to secure sponsorship funding for a fourth car, Logano was let go.
It might turn out to be the best thing that could have happened to Logano. He is still only 22 years old and has certainly shown he is capable of winning races, picking up nine victories in the Nationwide Series this past season. And now Logano is driving the No. 22 car for Penske Racing, meaning he has Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski as a teammate and potential mentor. In fact, it was Keselowski who suggested that Logano contact team owner Roger Penske about the ride.
"I've had a really good relationship with Brad even before we were teammates," Logano said. "We talked about things. I bounced ideas off him, about what he thinks. He was the one who called me and said, 'Hey, you might want to talk (with Penske) about this. This is a great opportunity for you.'
"That means a lot, to have a teammate who really wants you there, who you can work together with. He's been doing a great job. I'm going to see what he's been doing and try to learn from him. Hopefully we can learn from each other and make each other better racecar drivers and make our teams the best we possibly can."
Chances for a happy new year: 63 percent.
Kenseth's departure from Roush Fenway created an unexpected opening on the team, one that was quickly filled by Stenhouse. After winning back-to-back Nationwide Series championships, Stenhouse was likely going to move up to Sprint Cup racing in 2013 no matter what the situation was at RFR. But it had been assumed that he would be stepping into a new fourth car for the team. Instead, he takes over a car that went to Victory Lane six times in the past two seasons.
"This is a great opportunity," said Stenhouse, who won six Nationwide races in 2012 and finished in the top-10 in 78 percent of his starts the past two seasons. "I thought for sure that we would be in a fourth car. I definitely didn't see Matt going anywhere.
"But you have to take advantage of each situation that you are in. I feel great about the opportunity, but I'm going to try to not let it get too big right away. I want to stay focused and stay humble and learn as much as I can this year."
Despite all his success, there is always a learning curve involved when a drive makes the move from Nationwide to Cup racing. Martin Truex Jr. was the last driver to win consecutive Nationwide titles, in 2004 and 2005, and as a Cup rookie in 2006 he managed only five top-10 finishes. Stenhouse will probably do better than that in 2013, but there likely will still be more bad times than good for him during his rookie season.
Chances for a happy new year: 46 percent.
The wild card, in more ways than one, is Busch. His move from Phoenix Racing into the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing car is a slight step up. But this is still a second-tier organization, well behind the first two teams he drove for in his Cup career (Roush and Penske). Busch accumulated 22 victories and the 2004 Cup championship before he burned one bridge too many with his repeated bad behavior. Now he tries to revive his career with a one-car team that has managed only 11 top-10 finishes in nearly 200 Cup starts.
Granted, three of those top-10s occurred in the final three races of the 2012 season with Busch as the driver (he took over with six races to go). That has certainly given Busch optimism that the team can be competitive in 2013.
"Furniture Row is a diamond in the rough," Busch said. "This program is undiscovered and they have not reached their full potential. But all the pieces are in place. It's just a great opportunity to get in a quality car."
Still, it is hard to see Busch being completely happy in 2013, mainly because he never seems to be completely happy.
Chances for a happy new year: 32 percent.
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