Tag:2011 NASCAR team review
Posted on: January 13, 2012 2:03 pm
Edited on: January 16, 2012 12:46 pm
 

2011 Team Review/Preview: Roush Fenway Racing

By Pete Pistone


Image Detail
(Edwards damaged his car in the post-race celebration but was still the All-Star Race winner at Charlotte in May)

Review


Roush Fenway Racing couldn’t have missed out on the 2011 Sprint Cup Series championship any closer than it did. Unfortunately the organization and Carl Edwards has the dubious distinction of being the only team to miss out on a title by virtue of a tiebreaker, thanks to Tony Stewart’s five victories in the season. 

But the season turned in by Edwards was still impressive and overall RFR enjoyed another banner campaign even if the Sprint Cup trophy didn’t accompany team owner Jack Roush home from Homestead. 

“I’m 69 years old, and I had a couple of chances to look at my own mortality and think about what I have done with my life,” Roush said trying to put the disappointment in perspective. “Looking at the end of your time in the mirror thinking that you missed an opportunity that could have ended your time probably did more to sober me than anything else.”

Edwards won one race during the year in addition to taking home a one million dollar payday in the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was otherwise the model of consistency. Edwards finished second seven times and although he managed an average finish of 4.9 in the Chase (the best in the format’s history), it wasn’t enough to stop the Stewart and his incredible drive to the title. 

"If I look back on this Chase, there's not one thing that I say that I'd have done or wish I had done,” Edwards said. “I'm truly proud of this season." 

The year also included some contract drama for Edwards who after entertaining offers from other teams including Joe Gibbs Racing signed a contract extension to remain in the Roush camp. 

Edwards’ teammate Matt Kenseth had another typically consistent year that saw the former series champion return to victory lane with multiple victories.

Kenseth finished the season fourth in the series standings and scored three wins along the way, including a victory at Texas Motor Speedway in April to snap a 76-race winless drought.

Through it all, Kenseth was his usual low-key self and didn't mind if others received more attention.

“What’s important to me is trying to win races and trying to be competitive and doing the best job we can do every week," Kenseth said. "I don’t really care about Wii dance-offs or how much coverage you get for doing certain things. If somebody wants to say I’m boring or whatever, I was hired to try to win races and try to run good and that’s what I try to do every week.” 

His undoing may have come at Martinsville when he was swept up into a feud with Brian Vickers that ended with Kenseth in a wrecked race car and took him from championship contention. 

“I wish Matt hadn’t lost his mind at Martinsville and taken himself out of contention,” said a disappointed Roush. “Finishing fourth in points is commendable but he wasn’t challenging for the championship at Homestead, which we had hoped for.” 

Greg Biffle went through the campaign winless and could finish no higher than sixteenth in the standings. A variety of pit road miscues as well as mechanical problems added to Biffle’s frustrations. 

“We didn’t win a race with Greg Biffle and we should have,” Roush said. “We should have won more races with Carl but we didn’t – either because of decisions we made on pit road or because of the way things unfolded on the race track in regards to weather. Sometimes a wreck and a caution that would occur would frustrate your best-made plans and strategy.” 

Finally David Ragan became a first-time Sprint Cup Series winner with his victory at Daytona in the July Coke Zero 400. Ragan nearly won the Daytona 500 but was penalized for an illegal pass on a late race restart but was able to rebound with the trip to victory lane in the annual Fourth of July weekend race. 

However it was a pressure-filled year for Ragan who was forced to compete not knowing what his future would be with the team given sponsorship issues with long-time backer UPS. 

In the end UPS pulled its full-time sponsorship from the No. 6 car and Ragan was squeezed out when Roush was forced to downsize his team to three cars for 2012. 

While Roush was hoping to keep Ragan in the fold, he was disappointed at his overall performance during his career with the team. 

“David Ragan was a frustration and disappointment for all of us because he was not able to realize the potential given what his skill is, what the expectations of the sponsor were and what the performance was being demonstrated in the car and the engineering package was,” Roush said.



Preview 

The streamlined Roush stable brings Edwards, Biffle and Kenseth back for 2012 and hopes to avoid a hangover effect of just missing out on last year’s championship. 

Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne feel confident they can put last year’s disappointment behind and concentrate on finishing the job this season. 

“I’ve accepted the fact that we didn’t win it, but I’m also really excited about the way we could potentially run this year,” Edwards said. “I feel more confident than I’ve felt ever, and kind of more calm because I know we can do it.” 

Kenseth has found chemistry with old school crew chief Jimmy Fennig and with the core of the No. 17 team back as well as a host of new sponsors including newcomer Best Buy, the duo looks forward to challenging for this year’s crown. 

“We won races last year which was big and were in the Chase,” said Kenseth. “It didn’t work out the way we’d hoped in the end but I have no reason to think we won’t be strong again this year and back in the hunt for wins and a Chase spot.” 

Biffle believes having a full season with crew chief Matt Puccia, who replaced veteran Greg Erwin at mid-season, will be beneficial in the No. 16 team’s rebuilding process.

“I can’t say enough about Matt and how he helped bring this team together when he came in,” said Biffle. “That’s a tough thing to do and once we can eliminate mistakes and hopefully some of the bad luck we endured last year we’re gonna be in the mix I promise you that.”

 

Outlook

The last driver to come up on the short end of a Sprint Cup title in dramatic fashion was Denny Hamlin when he lost to Jimmie Johnson in 2010 title race. Hamlin and his team was never able to recover from the experience. The pressure will be on Edwards and Osborne to avoid a similar fate. Kenseth should again be his sneaky self and find his way into the Chase but he’ll need to not let the wheels fall off his championship hopes again. Biffle was a bit of a mystery last season and still appears to be a long shot to make the playoffs. Overall the leaner Roush organization will be a factor for wins and Chase berths.

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Posted on: January 2, 2012 1:47 pm
Edited on: January 3, 2012 3:46 pm
 

2011 Team Review/Preview: Hendrick Motorsports

By Pete Pistone


Image Detail
(Jimmie Johnson's run for a sixth straight Sprint Cup Series championship in 2011 came up short for Hendrick)

Review


For the first time since the 2005 season Hendrick Motorsports did not celebrate a Sprint Cup championship. 

Jimmie Johnson’s amazing run of five straight titles came to an end last season putting a period on one of the most incredible accomplishments in sports. 

"Just thinking about it, like wow, it really is over," Johnson said. "I'm disappointed that it is over but very proud of what this team has done. What we have done over the last, really, 10 years, the last five obviously stand out, but what we have done as a group over the 10-year run so far has been truly amazing." 

Johnson did make the Chase as did his Hendrick teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. but none of the trio was really able to mount a run at the title. 

Johnson’s regular season included 17 top five finishes including a victories at Talladega and Kansas. But once the playoffs began, Johnson could not muster the championship magic that brought him titles from 2006 through 2010. 

“We had a lot of things that happened with the wreck in Charlotte and Talladega,” team owner Rick Hendrick said analyzing Johnson’s Chase performance. “We played our cards wrong at Talladega, our whole organization did, to have cars as good as we had and end up where we did. But that’s racing. I think when you’ve tasted the success they have, and now you’ve been beat, you’ve got to go to work, and you’ve got to come back stronger.”

Jeff Gordon came back to perform stronger in 2011 than he has in recent years and scored three victories with new crew chief Alan Gustafson. 

It marked the first time Gordon had put together a multiple win season since 2007. 

Gordon’s victory in the second race of the season at Phoenix kicked off the solid season that also included wins at Pocono as well as an historic effort at Atlanta when the four-time series champion registered his eighty fifth career victory.




The win put Gordon alone in third-place on the all-time series victory list and he was overwhelmed by the presentation from NASCAR president Mike Helton in victory lane.

"Everybody knows when Mike Helton speaks he has a way with words," Gordon said. "So to be up there, get presented that beautiful plaque that they put together with all the victories, just looking back on all the people that have contributed to it from Hendrick Motorsports, different crew chiefs and crew members and guys in the engine shop. I mean, it’s a team effort." 

But despite carrying tremendous momentum into the Chase, Gordon stumbled and in the end was eighth in the final point standings. 

"It's just disappointing because I feel like Alan is a guy that deserves a championship and deserves to be up there battling for one,” Gordon said. “He proved it with Mark (Martin) and I thought we were going to prove it this year with the way we were running leading into the Chase so it's disappointing, but I'm hoping that next year now having a year under our belt and we get along well. I've got just a ton of respect and belief in him and I feel the same thing is in return that puts us in position to have a great year next year." 

Like Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. enjoyed a comeback season that saw the sport’s perennial most popular driver make the Chase for the first time in three seasons. 

While Earnhardt wasn’t able to end his now three year winless drought, he was as competitive as he’s ever been during his tenure at Hendrick and finished the campaign seventh in the standings. 

Earnhardt gave much of the credit for his turnaround to the relationship shared with new crew chief Steve Letarte, who took the reigns of the No. 88 team last season. 

"We just have a lot in common and our personalities make it where it seems like it's easy for us to have a conversation," Earnhardt said. "I've been spending a ton of time around the hauler all day long during each day on Friday and Saturday and when you're sitting there you just never know when that idea or that thought is going to come into your head or come into [Letarte's] head about what might really be able to help the car.

"And if you just sit around long enough, eventually it's going to pop up and I want to be there for that conversation; I don't want him texting me on the phone while I'm in the bus going, 'Hey, I think I know what we can do.' I want to be there so that I can understand and talk about it. I think that's helping us." 

Unfortunately the lone Hendrick driver to not make the Chase last season was veteran Mark Martin, who ended his tenure with the organization in 2011.

Martin and crew chief Lance McGrew struggled to find the right balance most of the season. Martin, who will join Michael Waltrip Racing next season, finished the year with only a pair of top 5 finishes.

 

Preview 

Martin’s departure makes way for Kasey Kahne to take the wheel of the No. 5 Chevrolet. After a one year stint at Red Bull Racing, which included a November victory at Phoenix, Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis bring their considerable chemistry to the Hendrick organization.

"I'll be so excited and happy to get back in a race car, it's crazy," Kahne said. "Joining Hendrick is exciting. It feels good. They've given me such a good opportunity, I need to take full advantage of it and perform. It may take a little bit of time to figure everything out, but I think we can get off to a pretty quick start."

Kahne figures to be a formidable foe for all of his Hendrick teammates including Johnson, who is using the end of his championship streak as motivation in 2012.

“We have a lot to learn from this year and [crew chief] Chad [Knaus] and I have already been in meetings throughout this last week setting up wish lists of what we think we can do better, how we can do a better job at it,” Johnson said. “We are moving forward on next year and figuring out how we can dissect weak spots, if it is on track, you know pit calls have changed dramatically this year, what can I do differently as a driver, all those different components, we are addressing and working on them now.”

Gordon also plans on taking what was accomplished in 2011 as a foundation to build for a better new season.

"It's easy for us to be hanging our heads and think about the disappointments, but I'm also reminded and encouraged of how great of a year this has been for us," Gordon said. "With the three wins -- we did have incredible momentum coming into the Chase so I think as a competitor and as a race team, we certainly are very focused on what we did wrong and what we're going to do to make it better next year."

And season number two of the Earnhardt-Letarte combination also comes with high hopes from the duo.

“We learned a lot last year and had some success,” said Letarte. “We didn’t finish the job by winning races or the championship but I’m very convinced this race team can accomplish those goals in 2012.”
 

Outlook

Only by Hendrick’s high standards could 2011 be considered a down season for the organization. That will happen when you take home five straight titles. But the entire four-car stable should all be considered championship contenders heading into the new season and the entire quartet could very well be in the Chase. All eyes will be on newcomer Kahne as he finally gets an opportunity to run with a stable and solid team, something that was missing during his tenures at Richard Petty Motorsports and Red Bull. Johnson is determined to snap back to championship form while Gordon and Earnhardt bring positive momentum and confidence into 2012. Overall this powerhouse team will be a major factor in the coming season.


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Posted on: December 30, 2011 1:59 pm
Edited on: January 3, 2012 3:52 pm
 

2011 Team Review/Preview: Joe Gibbs Racing

By Pete Pistone


Image Detail
(Hamlin's crash at The Glen was another example of a season's worth of frustration for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2011)


Review


It may sound odd to call a season that included five victories and two drivers making the Chase a disappointment but that’s exactly what 2011 was for Joe Gibbs Racing

Despite Kyle Busch winning four times and claiming the number one seed in the Chase and Denny Hamlin’s win earning a wild card berth in the playoffs, last season wasn’t what JGR had hoped for going into the year. 

After Hamlin won eight times in 2010 and went down to the wire in the title race with Jimmie Johnson, he appeared to be poised to make the next step and came into the new campaign as a championship favorite. 

But from nearly the opening green flag of the season, Hamlin and the FedEx No. 11 team struggled. 

A myriad of mechanical problems, engine issues and bad luck plagued Hamlin all season long and even after he made the playoffs as a wild card, he was never able to mount a serious challenge for the crown. 

"For me, I didn't have as much fun as I felt like I should have had," said Hamlin, who finished ninth in the Sprint Cup Series standings. "Just looking at the grand scheme of things and thinking about the position I was in, I was just too worried week in and week out about where I (was) going to finish.

"I was always worried about the outcome instead of just worrying about going out there and performing the best I can that particular lap over and over and over. When you worry too much about outcomes and things like that, you don't seem to perform as well because you start racing defensively. Last year, I was somewhat racing defensively at the end when we had a lead." 

Busch didn’t race defensively at all during the regular season when he went to victory lane a series-leading four times, good enough to give him the top spot when the Chase started. 

He was also dominant in the truck and Nationwide Series adding victories to give him 100 career wins across NASCAR’s top three divisions. 

But as has been the case during Busch’s career, the wheels came off his championship attempt in a big way and after getting off to a bad start things got worse as the season raced to the finish. 

Busch’s truck race incident with Ron Hornaday at Texas in November was the final breaking point for his tumultuous season as NASCAR parked him for the weekend’s Cup race because of his actions. 

But Busch refused to let the controversy cloud his view of what his team did accomplish in 2011. 

"Certainly there were some high points, certainly there were some low points to it," Busch said. "Of course, winning the inaugural race at Kentucky and winning for our first time at Michigan. ... Being pretty dominant on the short tracks, with wins at Bristol and Richmond -- all in all, those were certainly some highs." 

However Busch is very aware of the Chase shortcomings that once again kept him from adding a Sprint Cup title trophy to his collection. 

"It seems like we just can't seem to figure out the Chase thing," Busch said. "In the final ten, I would give ourselves probably a 'D,' we just seem to fail on it every year. It just doesn't seem to come together. It was what it was and we'll move on to 2012." 

Certainly Joey Logano can’t wait to move on to 2012 after the dismal season he endured. 

Logano’s red-hot finish to 2010 led many to believe he was finally ready to breakthrough in the Sprint Cup Series and perhaps land a spot in the Chase. 

Unfortunately Logano never came close to matching that success. He finished twenty fourth in the standings and was mired in mediocrity the whole season. 

"This year is definitely not what we expected it to be," Logano said. "We ended last year really good and we came in with a lot of high expectations. We kind of struggled with some things out of our control at the beginning of the season, motors, getting wrecked on pit road.”

 

Preview 

JGR will have a much different look to its three-car stable in the coming season with crew chief changes on two of the entries. 

While Dave Rogers returns to work with Busch on the No. 18 Toyota, Hamlin and Logano will have different men calling the shots. 

Darian Grubb joins Hamlin’s squad fresh off leading Tony Stewart to the 2011 Sprint Cup title replacing Mike Ford

While Ford and Hamlin were at the top of their game in 2010 when they nearly won the crown, the duo was never able to recapture that magic last season prompting team president J.D. Gibbs and owner Joe Gibbs to make the change. 

“There was never a moment where, ‘OK, we’re past last year. This is what we’ve got this year and we’re starting to move forward.’ We just never had that spot,” Hamlin said.

“It’s not that we never got over last year, we just never had the performance really to back up what we had.”

Grubb is looking forward to working with Hamlin and a crew he believes can return to being more competitive next season. The veteran crew chief doesn’t feel any pressure to follow up what he helped Stewart accomplish in 2011. 

"I really don't feel like I have anything to prove other than I want to work with championship contenders," Grubb said. "I'm not going to do anything for spite, because those are all the wrong reasons. I want to do it, because I want to win a championship with Denny and all these guys.

"Right now, I still have that competitive fire in me that I feel like if I'm not in position at the top of the box being able to make those calls and the seat-of-the-pants type positions, I'd be really missing out on something." 

Logano will also work with someone new atop of pit box with Jason Ratcliff getting the call to replace long-time JGR employee Greg Zipadelli, who left to take the Director of Competition role at Stewart-Haas Racing. 

Ratcliff led JGR’s successful Nationwide effort for years and believes he’s ready to help Logano shake the doldrums that have plagued his recent Sprint Cup Series performance.

“I’m excited about the opportunity to join our Cup operation and work with Joey and everyone on the 20 team,” Ratcliff said. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with Joey a few times now on the Nationwide side so there is a familiarity there, but I’m looking forward to getting started full time and working alongside Dave (Rogers) and Darian (Grubb).” 

JGR’s other big change for 2012 will be in its engine program, which will now be more closely aligned with Toyota Racing Development (TRD). Gibb’s in-house engine effort was much-maligned last year after numerous failures and blown motors prompting the organization to create a closer relationship with the manufacturer next season.

 

Outlook

JGR has a lot to prove next season and several challenges to overcome in order for the team to be considered a legitimate championship contender. Hamlin and Grubb need to find a quick chemistry working together and instill confidence in a squad that is still reeling from the near-championship miss of 2010. For the first time in his Cup career, Logano will have someone other than Zipadelli guiding his effort and it remains to be seen whether the fresh voice of Ratcliff will jump start his career. And Busch will once and for all need to harness his emotional outbursts and behavior before he’ll be ready to join the ranks of title favorites. That’s a lot of “ifs” for one organization to deal with and 2012 will be a major test for JGR.


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Posted on: December 26, 2011 12:03 pm
Edited on: December 26, 2011 5:19 pm
 

Team Review/Preview: Red Bull Racing

By Pete Pistone

Image Detail
(Kahne's November win at Phoenix was bittersweet as Team Red Bull shut down less than two weeks later)

Review

Nobody knew it when the season began, but 2011 turned out to be a swan song for Red Bull Racing. 

The energy drink giant, which served as both owner and sponsor of the two-car Sprint Cup team since its inception, decided to pull out of NASCAR and end its foray in big time stock car racing. 

Although that news didn’t officially come until near midseason, it had a tremendous impact on the organization, and general manager Jay Frye was charged with the daunting task of trying to field a competitive team while at the same time searching for investors to keep the doors open after 2011. 

As the behind the scenes drama unfolded the scenes drama unfolded the on-track product was a mixed bag between drivers Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers

Kahne, who came to the team on a one-year deal before moving to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, was a pleasant surprise. Kahne and long-time crew chief Kenny Francis were a formidable combination and turned in an impressive campaign that included eight top five and 15 top 10 finishes topped by a November trip to Victory Lane at Phoenix International Raceway. 

The win was bittersweet as it came ahead of the news that Red Bull would be shuttered for good in a matter of days. 

“I wouldn't say there's anyone out there that's building better cars at this time,” Kahne said in Victory Lane. “The Red Bull guys are doing an awesome job and they haven't given up.

“It's tough to hear ... it's shutting down in eight days. Over the last three months, you have one of the top five cars in NASCAR shutting down, and that's crazy. I think it's just the people. They haven't given up. They're doing a great job. We've been able to stay focused.”

Although Kahne failed to make the Chase, he was especially strong during the playoff portion of the schedule with seven top 10 runs in the final 10 races of the season. 

“Things started to click for sure and it’s because of the hard work by everybody inside the race team,” Kahne said. “Everyone was working under difficult conditions not knowing what the future held and that made what we were able to accomplish that much more impressive in my mind. I can’t thank everyone enough for their dedication.” 

While Kahne and Francis were building momentum together before their move to Hendrick next season, teammate Brian Vickers was the center of controversy. 

Vickers struggled throughout the season, scoring three top five finishes but ending up 28th in the final Sprint Cup standings. 

His troubles began in late June was he was involved in a pair of on track scuffles with Tony Stewart at Infineon Raceway, and things got worse from there. 

Vickers mustered only a pair of finishes better then 10th after the trip to Sonoma and found himself in a nasty feud with Matt Kenseth as the season wound down. 

Vickers and Kenseth tangled several times in the October Martinsville race, which ended in the pair intentionally paying each other back in the closing laps. 

The race featured 18 caution flags with Vickers part of five yellows. 

"I certainly understand that if you're unfairly wrecked, regardless of who that person is, there's a chance retaliation is going to happen," Jimmie Johnson said after getting swept up in the Vickers retaliation to Kenseth in the final laps. "After a fourth, fifth time with the same car in the crash, you start thinking about maybe you're the problem. Something is going on. You're having a bad day. You need to stop crashing for whatever reason." 

Things boiled over two weeks later at Phoenix when Vickers made contact with Kenseth’s car as the duo raced through Turn 3. 

Kenseth was sure the incident was intentional. 

“You have someone that has been telling everybody for four or five weeks that as soon as he got a chance at a fast race track he was going to make it hurt and wipe us out and they do nothing about it. It was so premeditated it just surprises me that they didn’t do anything,” Kenseth said in the aftermath of NASCAR not penalizing Vickers for the move. 

Vickers denied doing anything wrong.

“He just lifted halfway down the backstretch,” Vickers said. “I was planning on paying him back, but he just lifted halfway down the backstretch. He just stopped. I don't know why. If he wants to doubt us, that's fine.”


Preview 

Despite the effort by Frye, news of the team’s official demise came just days after the season ended in Homestead.

Frye had hoped to find new owners to remain in business and then bring in sponsors but was unsuccessful on both counts and the Sprint Cup garage will shrink by two full-time entries in 2012.

“It’s a very tough thing to deal with,” said Frye, who was forced to watch the 5-year-old team close its doors. “We had some success but in the end the business just wasn’t able to sustain itself when Red Bull decided to change direction. I’m sad but at the same time proud of what the people inside this organization were able to accomplish.”

Kahne is off to Hendrick next season while Vickers' name has not been associated with any ride for 2012.

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Posted on: December 22, 2011 5:05 pm
Edited on: December 26, 2011 1:21 pm
 

Team Review/Preview: Richard Petty Motorsports

By Pete Pistone



Image Detail
("The King" was all smiles at the end of the season but Richard Petty Motorsports' future is fuzzy for 2012)


Review

Impressive was the word to describe the 2011 Richard Petty Motorsports effort. 

The very real possibility of the organization being forced to close its doors ended the 2010 campaign as the ill-fated deal with co-owner George Gillett blew up in a financial mess. 

But Petty was able to put together a group of investors including Medallion Financial Group and DGB Investments to keep the team afloat. 

There were tough decisions to be made and RPM was forced to cut back from a four-car operation to running just a pair of teams in 2011. 

But the end result was a tandem of Marcos Ambrose and A.J. Allmendinger that gave the team a victory and brought RPM back to respectability. 

“I’m 73 years old – I’m not ready to start a new life,” Petty said when he took over full control of the team that bears his name at the beginning of the season. “So I will hang on to what we’ve got going. … I live on what I’m doing now from the standpoint that this is what I love to do; this is what I want to do.

“I want to be involved. The more I can be involved, the better I feel. I’ve been doing this since I was 11 years old. This is a lifestyle. And I didn’t want to change my lifestyle, so basically I did everything I could to keep that going.”


Ambrose came over from JTG Daugherty Racing to pilot the No. 9 Ford and rewarded Petty’s decision to add the popular Australian to his stable with a win at Watkins Glen in August.

It was also vindication for Ambrose who gave away a chance to win the previous year at Infineon Raceway when he shut off his engine to save fuel while leading and could not come back up to speed costing him the victory.

“I’ve felt a lot of weight of expectation and pressure to win and sometimes that clouds judgment,” Ambrose said after passing Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski on a green-white-checkered restart. “I know I’ve tripped myself once or twice trying to get to victory lane here in the Cup series.

“It’s not that I was worried, but the word ‘choke’ was starting to creep into the back of my mind.”

The road racing ace added solid runs at several oval track races throughout the season to end up nineteenth in the point standings and score five top five and twelve top ten finishes.

Allmendinger knocked on the door of his first career Sprint Cup Series victory several times and came close to joining his teammate Ambrose in victory lane.

He wasn’t able to accomplish that goal but was still impressive in his own right finishing fifteenth in the standings and chalking up ten top tens along the way.

“I feel like at a lot of race tracks we’re pretty solid. I just want to be consistent,” Allmendinger said in review of his year. “Our biggest problem is that the race tracks we’ve been bad at we’ve been really bad at. I just think we need to get more consistent overall.

“If we can go into the offseason and figure out where we need to work on – the flatter race tracks, the mile-and-a-halves, Kentucky, Chicago, Kansas, California – if we can get better at those tracks, I think we can be a legitimate top ten team and then from there it’s just about slowly getting better after that.”

However things changed dramatically from that view only weeks into the offseason.
 

Preview

RPM’s plans for the 2012 season are very much up in the air.

Best Buy took its sponsorship to Roush Fenway Racing and in the aftermath Allmendinger was released to take the ride at Penske Pacing’s Shell/Pennzoil Dodge.

While Ambrose is under contract to return in a Stanley Tools fully sponsored No. 9 entry, RPM needs to find a replacement sponsor in order to field the iconic No. 43.

“Our plan remains to run a two-car team in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2012, and we are continuing down that path,” chief executive officer Brian Moffitt said. “We believe there are several very talented drivers who are still available and would embrace the opportunity to get behind the wheel of the legendary No. 43 Ford Fusion. We continue to move forward and are optimistic about the future of this race team.”

The team is reportedly in talks to sign David Ragan, who was squeezed out of Roush when UPS scaled its sponsorship back and lost out on the Penske ride. However unless RPM can bring in corporate backing, it’s unclear whether the organization can field a second car out of its own pocket.
 

Outlook

Twelve months later Richard Petty Motorsports is right back in the middle of uncertainty. After coming from the brink of extinction last year at this time, the team now faces the daunting task of finding millions of dollars in sponsorship just weeks away from the start of a new season. While RPM remaining in the Ford camp to continue its alliance with Roush assures the team will again have competitive equipment, it’s difficult to gauge the 2012 performance until more questions about the organization’s future are answered.

 
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Posted on: December 19, 2011 2:22 pm
Edited on: December 26, 2011 1:20 pm
 

Team Review/Preview: Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing

By Pete Pistone

Image Detail
(McMurray's Brickyard 400 win of 2010 seemed like a world away after a disappointing 2011 campaign for EGR)


Review 

The team many expected to make a big move after an at-times sensational season the year before fell flat on its face in 2011. 

Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing’s tandem of Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya suffered through a dismal campaign that ended up with both missing the Chase and neither even making the first twenty in the point standings. 

It was a far cry from the previous season when team owner Chip Ganassi celebrated NASCAR wins in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 as well as triumphs in the Indianapolis 500 and Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. 

“Very disappointed. I’m heartbroken, to tell you the truth,” Ganassi said. “We lost our way a bit. A year ago, we had the best cars. A year ago, we had the best engines. And we just lost our way here right in this building.” 

After McMurray won the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and October Charlotte race in 2010, most believed he would continue the successful trend into the new season. McMurray was a very early season favorite by many to win more races and lock down a Chase berth. 

But McMurray could only muster two top five finishes all season long and after coming hone fifth in the August Bristol race never was better than fourteenth the rest of the way. 

The result was a twenty-eighth place spot in the final standings and a very bitter taste left in the mouth of the Joplin, Missouri native.

“It's been really frustrating to have such a good season last year and struggle so much this year,” McMurray said. “We've kind of been the guy that something breaks on the car and the engine shop or wherever the failure is, they say they've never seen that before. It's just really odd.” 

Montoya could certainly empathize with his teammate’s plight also suffering through a season marred by mechanical issues as well as mediocre performances. Like McMurray, Montoya also notched only a pair of top five finishes on his way to ending up twenty first in the final Sprint Cup points.

“It just seems whatever we do is wrong,” said Montoya. “When we try to save fuel, everybody runs out of fuel, including myself. When we’ve tried to go the other way, conservative because people are running out of gas, they don’t.

“What do you do? It’s just a little bit of luck, and the luck hasn’t been on our side.” 

Along the way Montoya was involved in a few controversies as well, first enduring a crew chief change when popular Brian Pattie – who helped guide the former open wheel star to a Chase berth in 2009 – was replaced by team engineer Jim Pohlman. 

The fiery Montoya got into a feud with Ryan Newman as well this past season, a rivalry that boiled over with a number of incidents. The first came at the April Richmond race when the two made contact several times including one that appeared to be a payback by Montoya that ended up with Newman spinning into the wall. 

The two went at it again at Darlington on Mother’s Day weekend reportedly including inside the NASCAR hauler when Newman punched Montoya. 

"I'm not going to tell you s---. Let's leave it at that,” Montoya said when asked what went on behind closed doors. “What happened in the trailer was between me, Ryan Newman and NASCAR. That's it." 

Although Montoya added later "Newman hits like a girl."




Preview 

Ganassi orchestrated some major management changes inside his organization in hopes of getting his team back to a competitive level in 2012. 

Competition Director Steve Hmiel was fired, as was longtime EGR employee and team manager Tony Glover. Between them the pair have decades of experience in the sport but both were let go in a post-season shake up that also included the release of team engineer Ed Nathman. 

Pohlman returned to another spot inside the organization with Chris Heroy tabbed to now lead the No. 42 team working with Montoya. Kevin “Bono” Manion will return to McMurray’s squad and the No. 1 Chevrolet. 

Ganassi know the difficulty in trying to turn things around but vows to do whatever he can to get both his cars running competitively in the coming season.

“I’ve been in this position before so I think it’s just everybody has to get down and buckle down and work a little harder,” Ganassi told SPEED. “It’s no big secret. There’s no magic. There’s no silver bullet either. It’s just a lot of little things that we need to get back on, get focused on, get back to work on. They all know what to do. It’s just sort of outlining what we want to do, give them a plan and go attack the plan.”

 

Outlook

EGR will have its work cut out trying to pick up the pieces from the disastrous 2011 effort. While Ganassi has made some drastic changes inside the management of the company, it remains to be seen just how those will impact the weekly product on the race track. Both McMurray and Montoya suffered from a severe lack of speed last season, which was compounded by the bad luck and miscues that made their years forgettable. The untested Heroy will need to regroup the No. 42 team while Manion looks to recapture the magic he and McMurray enjoyed in 2010. Overall neither driver looks Chase-worthy heading into the 2012 season.

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Posted on: December 16, 2011 1:12 pm
Edited on: December 16, 2011 7:51 pm
 

Team Review/Preview: Michael Waltrip Racing

By Pete Pistone


Image Detail
(Waltrip and Bowyer hope to team up and put together a successful Sprint Cup Series season in 2012)



Review 

The 2011 season didn’t go exactly as planned for Michael Waltrip Racing. 

After showing improved performance the previous year, MWR came into the new campaign with high hopes for both drivers Martin Truex Jr. and David Reutimann

But by the time the final checkered flag of the year flew the duo ended up winless and Truex Jr. had himself a new crew chief while Reutimann was out of a ride. 

Truex ended the year eighteenth in the final standings with three top five finishes and a pole as highlights along the way. 

But it was a rough year for the New Jersey native who endured a vicious wreck in the spring Martinsville race. 

Truex hit the third turn wall at full speed in his April wreck at the Virginia half-mile track and completely destroyed his NAPA Toyota. He was shaken but fortunately otherwise uninjured in the accident. 

"Everything was fine and I went to let off [the brakes] to go into [turn] three and it stuck to the floor," Truex said. "At that point, there's nothing you can do. It happens so fast, there's no way you can hit the kill switch or shut the thing off. Just lock up the brakes and you are just a passenger at that point." 





Although we walked away from the incident things didn’t go very well for Truex from that point on. The frustration with poor finishes and performances finally boiled over to the point of crew chief Pat Tryson being replaced by Chad Johnston in early June. 

The veteran Tryson wasn’t sure why the change was made when news came of his release from the position. 

"Somebody always has to be that guy," he said. "I wouldn't say I was part of the problem. As a company we aren't running well. It's a strange deal. I really can't say much." 

Improvement came gradually for the 56 team as the season wore on and Truex was pleased with the progress while still disappointed with his overall season. 

“I think our team has done a nice job all year as far as bringing fast race cars to the race track,” Truex said. “There have been some other things that we’ve missed on, parts failures and making mistakes and things that really hurt us in the points. But we’ve had fast cars all year long.

“For us ... it’s been a lot of what could’ve been or what might have been.”

Reutimann’s year was worse than his teammate's and ended up in the popular driver’s release. He struggled from nearly the opening green flag of the season and after winning a race in 2010 could muster only one top five finish this season.

The disastrous campaign came to a head when Reutimann was informed he would not return to the No. 00 ride next season and was dismissed from the team.

"I had no indication," said Reutimann, when informed of his fate. "They never told me my job was on the line or in jeopardy.

“It’s been an awful season for us, for sure. We haven’t run up to our expectations or our standards. But I thought I’d have a chance to make up for it. … It’s a bit of a shock. I wasn’t expecting it.”


Preview

The team has undergone a huge overhaul heading into 2012 with two new drivers as well as a change in management.

Scott Miller comes to MWR after a long career at Richard Childress Racing and slides into the Director of Competition role of the now three-car team.

“This is the highest ranking role in our competition department and we needed a person with great knowledge of our sport, experience in managing highly competitive personnel, and a vast technical background,” said team co-owner Michael Waltrip. “Scott is exactly all of those things. This is such an important hire for our organization.”

Miller’s job will be to bring Truex Jr. as well as newcomers Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin to the next level and turn MWR into an organization capable of winning races as well as competing for Chase berths.

Bowyer follows Miller from RCR and with 5-Hour Energy as the main sponsor behind the effort of the new No. 15 Toyota believes he can be an impact player in the 2012 championship hunt.

“This is a great opportunity and you can see the foundation for big things in place here,” said Bowyer. “To say I’m excited about what lies ahead is a very true statement.”

Bowyer will be teamed up with veteran crew chief Brian Pattie, who helped guide Juan Pablo Montoya into the Chase for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in 2009.

“I’ve known Brian Pattie for a long time and the thing that impresses me the most is how he calls a race and his knowledge of race cars,” Bowyer said. “We both grew up working on dirt cars and have pretty similar backgrounds. We understand each other and I think we speak the same language. I know once we get together and start working we’re going to see great results.”

Joining Truex and Bowyer for a limited schedule will be Mark Martin, who takes the wheel of Reutimann’s old ride with the Camry now sporting the No. 55. Martin’s tenure at Hendrick Motorsports came to an end this past season and he was seeking an opportunity to remain at the Cup level but on a scaled down schedule.

“I’m really excited about having an opportunity to be a part of something that I can sort of transition to, whether it’s with this organization or another organization when we get around to 2014,” Martin said of his 25-race schedule in the car. “I love this sport. I don’t want to go away. I want to be involved in this sport for a long, long time.”

Waltrip will run five additional races in the No. 55, the four restrictor plate events at Daytona and Talladega as well as the summer stop at Kentucky Speedway.
 

Outlook

Things couldn’t have been much more disappointing for MWR in 2011 so a fresh start and shake-up was just what the team needed. The addition of Miller to run the day-to-day operations of the organization is a huge move that should bring stability to a team dearly in need of it. Truex is still the anchor and will need to carry the momentum of his final 2011 outings into the new year. Bowyer and Pattie should make a formidable pair but the chemistry of a brand new team usually takes some time to develop. Martin can still wheel a race car and his veteran presence will be a major benefit to have around. More speed and reliability from Toyota’s engine program is a necessity. Overall things look much better for MWR going forward but the team needs to find some cohesiveness quickly in order to compete with the top echelon of the series.

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Posted on: December 12, 2011 12:31 pm
Edited on: December 16, 2011 3:41 pm
 

Team Review/Preview: Furniture Row Racing

By Pete Pistone

Image Detail
(Smith's upset Southern 500 victory at Darlington highlighted a surprisingly successful season for Furniture Row)

Review 

Furniture Row Racing made some huge strides in 2011 as the team continued to battle against the odds as a single car entity headquartered in Denver, Colorado. 

Despite being a solo effort based well outside of the Charlotte NASCAR hub, Furniture Row can proudly look back at a year that saw Regan Smith give the organization a win in the Southern 500. 

The 2011 season saw Smith and Furniture Row Racing score that Darlington as well as two top-fives and five top-tens - a marked improvement since the team did not have even a single top ten finish prior to the 2011 season.

"We made so much progress this season and feel that we're on the edge of hitting a new level of competition," said Smith, who finished twenty-sixth in the final standings. 

Although the organization shares an alliance with Richard Childress Racing, team owner Barney Visser has kept its headquarters in the Denver area despite the logistical challenges. 

"Basically he’s said ‘this is my hometown,’” Smith told the Denver post about his boss. “I want the race team here, I live here, I want to be able to go to it, and see it, and have my hands on it and being involved with it,' and that's what he's done. 

"It's a little more travel. We have to organize stuff ahead of time when it comes to parts, pieces, engines and things like that, but it's worked out really well and we've got great people out there." 

Despite overcoming the odds, Visser says that operating in Colorado rather than in North Carolina doesn’t provide any additional satisfaction for his success. 

"The fact that I've proven people wrong doesn't really mean anything to me," Visser said. "Just knowing that we can win every time we can go to a race track — really knowing it — is just huge for me. It adds a lot of thrill to the game. It's a lot of fun."

Smith’s Mother’s Day weekend win at Darlington was the high point of Furniture Row’s fun in 2011. The team outran Carl Edwards to the checkered flag despite not having four fresh tires and Smith called it the biggest accomplishment of his racing career.

“This race is so special and so meaningful,” Smith said in victory lane. “We were standing there looking at the names and the faces on the trophy, and you just look at it, and you think, ‘My face is going to be there right next to these guys, and it’ll be there forever.”

Things leveled off a bit as the summer wore on for Smith but he was still able to stay in the hunt for several more top five and ten finishes before the year ended.

And the team was also able to escape a potentially disastrous situation when its hauler nearly caught fire at Talladega in October.

“They were just taking the fuel probe off the can and it just ignited – it blew up,” General Manager Joe Garone said of the incident that ignited flames directly next to the team’s hauler.  “The tractor got a little bit of damage. It melted all the hoses. … We just need to have this one repaired. It was more scary than anything.”


 Smoke rises from the Furniture Row Racing hauler following the Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega Sunday.
(Fortunately there were no injuries or significant damage from the Talladega fire that broke out)


Preview

The team comes into the new campaign virtually unchanged with Smith back as driver and crew chief Pete Rondeau returning to call the shots.

The veteran crew chief likes the foundation the team is building and understands the benefits of being aligned with RCR as well.

“When you’re a single-car team in this day and age, you need to be aligned with another operation,” Rondeau said. “And fortunately for Furniture Row Racing, we have aligned ourselves with one of the best in Richard Childress Racing.

“Our technical and engineering alliance with RCR have made us a better team, no doubt about that. The data we receive from RCR has been very beneficial to our program and one of the reasons we made positive strides during the end of the 2010 season. RCR had three teams in the Chase in 2010, and to be aligned with those three teams is pretty stout. It’s been a great relationship with the folks at RCR and I anticipate more of the same in 2011.” 

Rondeau feels comfortable coming into 2012 and sees no reason why improvement cannot continue. 

“It’s all about consistency and keeping up with technology,” he said. “We kept on saying in 2010 that this is the first year of a three-year process. 

“We made strides this past year and expect that to keep on going in 2012.” 

Smith echoes the sentiment of his crew chief. 

"We made some big gains this season as a team and accomplished many of our goals," said Smith. "But we still didn't accomplish everything we wanted to so there's still plenty to get done. But with that said, I feel we are at a point where we are ready to reach another level of competition. I have the same feeling I had last year at this time."

 

Outlook 

The odds are still stacked against Furniture Row as long as it remains a one car team. Confidence is high within the organization after the successful 2011 campaign and the Darlington win proved under the right circumstances Smith can drive with the best in the business. But a realistic goal in 2012 should be maybe another trip to victory lane and a finish inside the first twenty of the point standings. Anything more would have to be considered an extraordinary accomplishment in this David vs. Goliath story.

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The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com