There hasn't been nearly as much intrigue and change over this past Silly Season as there has been in recent years. Previous seasons have beheld major factors such as Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, and Mark Martin moving to new teams. When a Silly Season's biggest move comes from Martin Truex Jr., that says it all.
However, I feel the changes made over the offseason will cause a ripple effect that will certainly shake up Sprint Cup's standings, the progress of some young teams, and the downfall of some others. I will go through every driver change and new team, from the bottom to the top numerically, and share my thoughts on how the move will effect Sprint Cup.
#09 Aric Almirola- Phoenix Racing- Miccosukee Indian Gaming Dodge/Chevy.
Last season, the #09 team was about as bipolar as racing teams can come. With hotshot up-and-comer Brad Keselowski behind the wheel, Finch racked up a surprise win at Talladega in the spring, and followed that up with a couple Top Tens in limited starts. In nearly every race that Keselowski didn't drive, the #09 was piloted by a gaggle of journeyman veterans and one race with Almirola. In these races, the Miccosukee machine was a consistent start-and-parker, only finishing five non-Keselowski events. With Finch running an entire season with just one driver I have to wonder if they will go the start-and-park route or actually try to compete in races. Almirola showed some promise in a limited schedule back in 2008 in which he drove the #8 subbing for Mark Martin, but in 2009 his aborted campaign featured dismal finishes and no interest from potential sponsors, leading to the shutting down of the iconic team. Almirola has a future in this sport and is a gifted racer. I just doubt that Phoenix Racing will give Almirola the equipment, consistency, and opportunity to become the good driver he could be.
Prediction: Between 28th and 35th in points with a couple Top Tens, much worse if they start-and-park much of the season
#1 Jamie McMurray- Earnhardt/Ganassi Racing- Bass Pro Shops Chevy
Jamie McMurray has been one of those drivers that has been "on the verge of being great" for most of his career. With the sensational way he won in his 2nd start as a substitute driver for the injured Sterling Marlin in 2002, many fans and analysts have been expecting much more from McMurray. He performs well every season, but never well enough to place in the Top Ten in points or challenge for multiple wins. When he drove for Ganassi the first time around, he was never worse than 13th in points and had 46 Top Tens in three seasons. Those statistics are good, and with McMurray going from being the number five driver at Roush to being one of only two drivers at EGR, he will get a better share of equipment and attention. EGR may be a team on their way back up, especially after Juan Pablo Montoya claimed a Chase berth and consistent finishes in the #42 last year. This move will benefit both McMurray and the man he replaced, Martin Truex Jr., in many ways.
Prediction: Top 20 in points, contending for a couple wins and having several Top Fives, a typical Jamie McMurray year but slightly better than his Roush seasons
#12 Brad Keselowski- Penske Racing- Verizon Dodge
Brad Keselowski's been one of the best drivers in the Nationwide series for a couple years now. His hard-charging style has been compared to drivers from Earnhardt and Waltrip to the Busch brothers and his rival Denny Hamlin. He won a Cup race in an incredible finish at Talladega for an underfunded team, and was rumored to be linked to a variety of major teams from Hendrick to Stewart-Haas. Keselowski ends up at Penske, however, and will be an instant contributor to the top of Sprint Cup stat sheets. The #12 had always been a mainstay in Top 20 finishes, in races and standings, from the days of Jeremy Mayfield through Ryan Newman. That is, until last year, when David Stremme bungled his way through the season and selling the #12 completely short of what it can accomplish. Keselowski will have some struggles in his first full season, yes, but his Nationwide experience and racing instincts will carry him to several great finishes and contentions for wins. I don't think he will make the Chase this year, but don't rule him out for a trip in the next couple seasons.
Prediction: Top 20 in points, a win or two and over 10 Top Tens.
#34 Travis Kvapil- Front Row Motorsports- Long John Silver Ford
Travis Kvapil, I believe, is one of the most underrated drivers in any level of NASCAR racing. His consistent style and Wisconsin short track background make for a skillset Cup owners shouldn't pass up. A Truck Series championship doesn't hurt his resume, as well as over 100 Cup series starts under his belt. Front Row seems to be a team on their way up, at least compared to the teams below them in last year's points. Bob Jenkins refused to start-and-park the #34 with John Andretti in 2009 as Andretti kept the car in the Top 35 by keeping the car in one piece. Kvapil, I feel, could be a Chase contender in the right equipment. Kvapil boosted the #28 Yates car when he stepped in and kept it relevant even without sponsorship, so I think he can do what Andretti did last year, if not more. Kvapil's finishes typically don't match his actual performances in races, especially in several fateful superspeedway events. I actually look for Kvapil to rack up Top Tens for Front Row, help the team gain acclaim, keep himself relevant and maybe even contend for a superspeedway win.
Prediction: Top 30 in points, several Top Tens
#36 Mike Bliss- Tommy Baldwin Racing- Toyota
Unless this team picks up a sponsor or finds a way into the Top 35 I sincerely doubt they will run many full races at all, and if they did, Bliss will be battling for hard-earned 33rd place finishes.
Prediction: Under the Top 35. Several missed races and many start-and-parks.
#37- Kevin Conway- Front Row Motorsports- Extenze Ford
Front Row Motorsports debuts a second full-time team this year with Kevin Conway. Conway's not the most experienced driver in the world, and one has to figure that he getting the ride has more to do with his rookie status and the fact that he brings a sponsor, than his actual ability. While Front Row's been doing much correctly lately and will be more prominent with Kvapil behind the wheel of their other car, I doubt Conway will be relevant this season. The team will make their way into the Top 35 and probably won't start and park as much this year, however, it won't be a very glorious 2009 campaign.
Prediction: Top 35, but barely. Lucky to get some Top 20 finishes.
#46- Terry Cook- Dusty Whitney- Dodge
Terry Cook's a good driver. However, this is an unsponsored start-up team. I doubt we will see Cook drive very many full races. In the few races that they do run, they will jockey for 34th position with Mike Bliss and Kevin Conway. The addition of this team won't be a very big splash in NASCAR at all.
Prediction: Many, many start and parks.
#56- Martin Truex Jr.- Michael Waltrip Racing- NAPA Toyota
This is a move that could help push Michael Waltrip Racing into superteam status. Marcos Ambrose and David Reutimann contended often in 2009, with Reutimann picking up a win and Ambrose establishing himself as more than just a road course ringer. Michael Waltrip, despite being one of the sport's better personalities and a smart owner, failed to accomplish much behind the wheel over the last few years. With the experienced and proven Truex taking over the team, expect Waltrip's cars to launch an assault on Chase berths. I wouldn't be surprised if all three teams were in contention for the Top 12 come August. Truex, especially with the guidance of Pat Tryson, will return to top form and may indeed make a visit or two to Victory Lane.
Prediction: Will challenge for the Top 12, make the Top 20 for sure and rack up Top Tens, maybe even pick up a win or two
#71- Bobby Labonte- TRG Motorsports- TaxSlayer Chevy/Dodge
Labonte, after being ousted from the #96 in favor of Erik Darnell, will take over the #71 full-time. Labonte drove several races with TRG late in 2009, racking up a Top Ten and several other promising finishes. Labonte is a great driver, he will find a way to make things happen for this up-and-coming team. With such a good driver and a sponsor on board, I won't expect any start-and-parks out of TRG this season. I wouldn't be surprised to see this team creep into the Top 30 of the standings either. Expect stats similar to Bobby Labonte's past few seasons: Nothing spectacular, but very solid and occasional Top Tens.
Prediction: Top 30 in points, a handful of Top Tens and a tremendous boost for TRG
#90- No Driver Announced- Keyed Up Motorsports- Chevy
Without a driver or sponsor announced at this point, I wouldn't expect much out of this team in the near future.
Prediction: A few start-and-parks with a journeyman veteran driver here and there
I hope everyone enjoyed my first-ever blog for Racing Reference. If you enjoyed my insights, give me some feedback and I may write some more. Feel free to comment and discuss; I love to talk racing and look forward to hearing other viewpoints.
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