For new-look teams, a look into the new year
January 07, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Jimmie Johnson may have won his sixth title this past season, but what Matt Kenseth did in 2013 was almost as impressive. Despite a new team, a new crew chief and a new car manufacturer, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver won a series-best seven races and came within 19 points of adding a second championship trophy to his mantle. Think that's easy? Consider then that Kenseth almost became the first driver to win the crown in his debut with a new organization since Darrell Waltrip did it with Junior Johnson way back in 1981.
And in the process, the 2003 champion also set a high bar for drivers assimilating into a new environment. For Kenseth, so much went right -- he and crew chief Jason Ratcliff found a rapport right away, he felt immediately comfortable in JGR's race cars and his new teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch were welcoming and receptive to the ideas of an older colleague with a title on his resume. Add in Kenseth's own high standards and even-keeled demeanor, and you had the perfect combination for a career year, not to mention a model to emulate for every other driver changing addresses.
Of course, it's not nearly as easy as he made it look. And for every Kenseth exceeding all expectations in new surroundings, there's a situation like Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggling in his first season at Hendrick Motorsports, despite all the pieces seemingly in place at NASCAR's best organization. Busch has often said that moving to a new team can produce a degree of reinvigoration that's evident on the race track, something his older brother Kurt could certainly testify to after this past season. But then again, there are no guarantees.
Regardless, there are a number of drivers hoping to become the next Kenseth -- or maybe just the next Joey Logano, who had a nice freshman season with Penske Racing -- as they settle into their new teams for 2014. So let's take a look at the major driver changes in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for the coming campaign, and the best, worst, and most likely scenarios for those who switched rides over the winter. There just might be another Matt Kenseth in there yet.
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Worst-case scenario: The most underperforming team at NASCAR's top level slides once again into mediocrity. Keith Rodden, the former Hendrick Motorsports engineer who is now Jamie McMurray's crew chief, faces the same steep learning curve that colleague Chris Heroy did when he became crew chief of the No. 42, and the No. 1 team takes a step back from last year's 15th-place finish. Larson struggles in his transition from the NASCAR Nationwide Series to the Sprint Cup tour, and EGR once again languishes in the middle of the pack.
Best-case scenario: Rodden and McMurray click, and the No. 1 team is able to build on last season -- when it got off to a nice start and won the fall race at Talladega -- and moves onto the fringes of playoff contention. Larson follows the lead of another former sprint-car driver, Kasey Kahne, by acclimating to the Sprint Cup tour much faster than anyone expects. The 21-year-old claims top rookie honors by finishing in the top 15 in points, and breathes some new life into the organization in the process.
Most likely scenario: Larson, whose skill is evident each time he steps into a race car, exceeds expectations. And though his results are as inconsistent as any rookie's would be, his good days do wonders for an EGR team that for too long has been idling in neutral. McMurray's program shows more progress, but falls short of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Still, those are hopeful signs for an organization that has nowhere to go but up.
Michael Waltrip Racing
Change: Drops the full-time No. 56 team of former driver Martin Truex Jr. due to sponsor loss. Adds Brian Vickers full-time in the No. 55 car, and Jeff Burton in a part-time No. 66 car for testing and a limited number of events.
Worst-case scenario: Vickers -- who missed the final few weeks of this past season due to a recurrence of blood clots -- and the No. 55 team suffer in the absence of former crew chief Rodney Childers, who had the car contending almost every week in 2013 despite a rotating cast of drivers, and is now at Stewart-Haas Racing. The loss of Truex leaves Clint Bowyer to shoulder the entirety of MWR's championship aspirations, but the team continues to feel the consequences of last year's race-manipulation scandal, and the organization misses the Chase for the first time in three years.
Best-case scenario: Vickers and new crew chief Billy Scott build the No. 55 into a week-in, week-out force, and having one driver in the seat all year allows the program to challenge for a Chase berth. Bowyer keeps on being Bowyer. Burton adds the steadying veteran presence the team thrived on during Mark Martin's tenure with the organization, and MWR becomes as strong a two-car entity as it was with three.
Most likely scenario: Vickers certainly showed in his limited role the last two years that he's capable of carrying a program, and Bowyer is one of the best around. But make no mistake about it, Truex and Childers are top-flight talents and huge losses, and the shadow of Richmond remains. A team that thought it was entering 2014 with three Chase-contending cars is down to two, and might be fortunate to get one of those in.
Richard Childress Racing
Worst-case scenario: With Harvick gone, RCR is left without a legitimate championship threat for the first time in recent memory. Burton's departure leaves behind a leadership gap that's reflected in struggles with car development. Adaptation to the Sprint Cup level proves difficult for Dillon. A team known for enduring steep peaks and valleys falls into another trough, this one preventing either Newman or Paul Menard from making a run at the Chase.
Best-case scenario: The sneaky-good Newman does his thing, winning a couple of races and getting into the playoff. Dillon benefits greatly from the tutelage of crew chief Gil Martin, rides a wave of momentum spawned by the return of the No. 3 and finishes inside the top 15 in final points to claim top rookie honors. Menard steals another race victory, and challenges for a Chase bid. On paper, there's still no clear championship contender, but all three programs show potential in a season that lays the groundwork for others to come.
Most likely scenario: If Newman can make the Chase last season -- forget the asterisk for the time being -- when he had a patchwork crew and a one-year deal, he certainly can with more stability and a more seasoned group around him. Dillon faces high expectations because of both his car number and his pedigree, but has done so in the past and always responded. Is there a title contender in the group? No. Is Harvick's absence huge? Of course. Can RCR still challenge for race wins and get one driver onto the Chase? Absolutely.
Worst-case scenario: Where to begin? Stewart isn't quite the same after missing so much of this past year because of a broken leg suffered in a sprint car accident. The issues in car development that dogged the team early last year become more pronounced, in part due to the accelerated expansion undertaken to accommodate a fourth team. Danica Patrick stagnates, all those fiery personalities become the combustible mixture everyone feared they would be, and a powerhouse on paper falls victim to infighting and underperformance.
Best-case scenario: The addition of Childers and another former MWR crew chief, Chad Johnston, allows SHR to get a better handle on its race cars, which has the added benefit of improving Patrick's performance. Busch's immense natural talent overcomes any headaches caused by the organization's rapid expansion, and his past working relationship with Harvick helps the No. 41 team get up to speed. With new crew chief Johnston, Stewart returns to his irrepressible old self, and a trio of SHR drivers -- Harvick, Busch, and the boss himself -- make the Chase.
Most likely scenario: Stewart's leg injury was severe, and his recovery hasn't been easy. At this point, we just don't know what it's going to be like for him when he slides back behind the wheel at Daytona. Beyond that, fears of clashes among the headstrong SHR drivers are likely overrated -- Busch and Harvick developed a nice working relationship last season when the former was at Furniture Row and the latter was at RCR, and this is a sport that puts competitors in close quarters every week. A more legitimate concern might be the rapid expansion, and what toll it will take on the organization. Regardless, this team has all kinds of potential, and Childers and Johnston are great additions. Think better cars, a better year from Patrick, and at least two drivers in the Chase.
Furniture Row Racing
Change: Truex replaces Kurt Busch in the No. 78 car.
Worst-case scenario: The groundbreaking run to the Chase last season by single-car, Denver-based Furniture Row proves in hindsight to be the work of Busch more than anything else. The No. 78 pit crew continues to have issues, and without the 2004 series champion there to make up the difference, the program falls out of the playoff conversation and back into mediocrity.
Best-case scenario: Busch's one-year stint in the No. 78 car raises standards across the board, making Furniture Row Racing much more capable of competing without him. The technical alliance with RCR continues to pay dividends, MWR expatriate Truex drives like a man with something to prove, and Barney Visser's team goes back to Richmond in September with another chance to crash the championship party.
Most likely scenario: Let's face it, a guy like Kurt Busch is almost impossible to replace. Almost single-handedly, he elevated the No. 78 program from an afterthought to one that could contend for race wins. But he also made it possible for Furniture Row to replace him with a driver like Truex, who might never have considered a ride like the No. 78 otherwise. Can Furniture Row once again make the Chase and threaten to sweep both May races at Charlotte? That's a tough ask. Can it continue to be relevant, and a factor each Sunday? Sure. And from there, much more is certainly possible.
JTG Daugherty Racing
Worst-case scenario: The driver changes, but the song remains the same for an organization searching for both identity and sure footing. Allmendinger takes over the No. 47, but the issues hampering the team's performance prove more than one man can change.
Best-case scenario: Allmendinger's arrival as full-time driver -- he started nine races in the car last year -- provides a natural lift, as does the team's new technical association with RCR and switch to Chevrolet. With more information at its disposal and a driver better able to make use of it, JTG Daugherty Racing follows the Furniture Row model and makes strides, which in this case means a final points standing inside the top 20.
Most likely scenario: As beloved as Labonte is, clearly things had stagnated on the No. 47 team, and Allmendinger brings an optimism and enthusiasm that has to brighten the picture by his very presence. JTG Daugherty suffered greatly after cutting ties with MWR, so the affiliation with RCR should certainly help. Don't expect a miracle turnaround, but for an organization that's finished 31st and 26th in owner points the past two seasons, a little forward progress would certainly mean a lot.