Who Moved Where? Recapping the NASCAR Silly Season Before the 2012 Daytona 500
It wasn't even 2011 when we figured out that 2012 was going to be a season of significant change in the Sprint Cup garage.
After all, Kasey Kahne announced all the way back in April 2010 that he would be joining Hendrick Motorsports for the 2012 season, struggling through two "my-heart's-not-totally-in-it" seasons with Richard Petty Motorsports and Team Red Bull before finally joining the top team in NASCAR for this season.
But we had no idea how long this silly season would be. In an atmosphere where driver contracts for the next season are usually signed in the summer, the fact that a top-tier driver like Clint Bowyer had to wait until October to sign a new deal was surprising.
More shocking still was Penske Racing's decision to release Kurt Busch in December in favor of A.J. Allmendinger, and Busch's subsequent move to Phoenix Racing. And while smaller outfits usually don't put together deals until soon before the season, the fact that BK Racing, the organization formerly known as Team Red Bull, waited until mid-February to announce even its team name was incredibly last minute.
Beyond that, however, plenty of teams also experienced crew chief upheaval. In fact, no fewer than 12 full-time teams will see a different person atop the pit box in 2012, and at least half of them have very real Chase aspirations.
In short, to anybody who hasn't been paying attention these past few months, the Sprint Cup garage looks drastically different than it did at Homestead last November.
On this, the day of the Gatorade Duels, we're here to help catch you up on who went where, with every driver change and significant crew chief moves for full-time teams (because you all already know about Danica Patrick). Without further ado...
No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Driver Change: Mark Martin out, Kasey Kahne in
Crew Chief Change: Lance McGrew out, Kenny Francis in
After a lame-duck season with Martin and McGrew that saw this team fall outside the top 20 in points, owner Rick Hendrick is banking on the Kahne-Francis duo to bring his former flagship team back to prominence.
Very little about this team resembles the car that carried the same number last year—including sponsorship—and the results will probably differ as well.
No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Crew Chief Change: Mike Ford out, Darian Grubb in
When Grubb became available, Gibbs made the move to replace Ford after a 2011 season that utterly paled in comparison to 2010's Chase runner-up performance.
Ford's relationship with driver Denny Hamlin was rocky at times, and the hope is that bringing in the defending champion crew chief will provide the driver with a fresh start and confidence after becoming somewhat fragile last year.
No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Crew Chief Change: Darian Grubb out, Steve Addington in
Tony Stewart settled on releasing Grubb before last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup, in which the duo went on a five-win tear and scored the first owner-driver championship since Alan Kulwicki's in 1992.
Because that wasn't enough to salvage Grubb's job, Addington, who has worked with both Busch brothers and thus knows how to handle temperamental drivers, will attempt to keep the team on the same level this season.
No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota
Driver Change: Michael Waltrip out, Clint Bowyer in
Crew Chief Change: Bobby Kennedy out, Brian Pattie in
For the first time since 2008, Waltrip will field three full-time cars after running a limited schedule in the No. 15 last season. His driver will be Clint Bowyer—who couldn't put together the sponsorship to remain at Richard Childress Racing—and he will drive a Toyota for the first time in his career.
No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Crew Chief Change: Greg Zipadelli out, Jason Ratcliff in
Zipadelli, the only crew chief this team has ever known, left to join former driver Tony Stewart as competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing, yielding to longtime Gibbs Nationwide crew chief Ratcliff.
Ideally, Ratcliff's need to prove himself at the Sprint Cup level will inspire driver Joey Logano to pick up his performance in what may be a make-or-break season in his career.
No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge
Driver Change: Kurt Busch out, A.J. Allmendinger in
Crew Chief Change: Steve Addington out, Todd Gordon in
The sponsor and paint scheme may remain the same, but crew chief Steve Addington is gone (to work with defending champion Tony Stewart) and Kurt Busch was canned after a string of tirades last season.
Allmendinger and former Nationwide crew chief Gordon will get a chance to establish their own Sprint Cup identity together in this car.
No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Crew Chief Change: Todd Berrier out, Shane Wilson in
Driver Kevin Harvick has been remarkably consistent the past few seasons, and Berrier's guiding hand has been a big part of that. But when Childress' No. 33 team shut down due to the scaling back of sponsor General Mills and departure of driver Clint Bowyer, Childress' best crew chief, Wilson, became available; as such, he was assigned to Childress' best team in a run for the championship.
No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford
Driver Change: David Gilliland out, David Ragan in
Roush Fenway Racing's loss is Front Row's gain, as Ragan, the winner of last July's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, slides into the primary seat at this team (Gilliland will move to the second car, replacing Travis Kvapil).
While Ragan may not set the world on fire with this team, given the depths that the No. 6 car had fallen to with him behind the wheel, it's at least a lateral move.
No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford
Driver Change: A.J. Allmendinger out, Aric Almirola in
Almirola replaces the departed Allmendinger in one of the most famous rides in the sport, as for once this Petty team and not the No. 9 experienced significant upheaval in the offseason.
It will be Almirola's first full-time Sprint Cup ride, earned after a strong (but winless) Nationwide season for JR Motorsports in 2011.
No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet
Driver Change: Landon Cassill out, Kurt Busch in
When Busch's persona managed to unravel his second high-profile ride in the past decade, Phoenix and owner James Finch became the beneficiary.
The no-nonsense owner offers Busch an opportunity to spend the year reinventing himself and putting the fun back in racing before attempting to score a ride at a larger team again in 2013.
No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota
Driver Change: David Reutimann out, Mark Martin and Michael Waltrip in
Number Change: Used No. 00 in 2011
Reutimann's contract was no match for the opportunity to bring Martin on board for a 25-race schedule in 2012, especially after a significant drop-off in performance rendered the Floridian expendable.
Martin will split time with team owner Waltrip and a handful of other drivers will round out the schedule in one-off rides.
No. 83 BK Racing Toyota
Driver Change: Brian Vickers out, Landon Cassill in
Crew Chief Change: Ryan Pemberton out, Doug Richert in
Owner Change: Red Bull out, Wayne Press and Scott Gunderson in
When Red Bull decided that NASCAR team ownership was no longer relevant to their business plan, a group of Burger King franchisees and former TRG Motorsports investors purchased the equipment and completely overhauled the team.
Their lead driver will be Cassill, a young talent who spent last year with Phoenix Racing and offers upside if the new outfit can get its act together quickly.
No. 93 BK Racing Toyota
Driver Change: Kasey Kahne out, David Reutimann and Travis Kvapil in
Crew Chief Change: Kenny Francis out, Todd Anderson in
Owner Change: Red Bull out, Wayne Press and Scott Gunderson in
Number Change: Used No. 4 in 2011
It's almost unfair to even consider this the same team as it was in 2011, when Kahne and Francis ran one season in a holding pattern before joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2012.
The only thing that will be the same are the physical cars—purchased from Red Bull by the new ownership—and comparatively limited resources may render the quality of those cars irrelevant.