NASCAR: Best Up-and-Coming Owners in Sprint Cup
Despite winning hundreds of NASCAR, IndyCar, and sports car races, from Indianapolis to Daytona and everywhere in between, Roger Penske didn't take his first Sprint Cup championship until Brad Keselowski won it for him this year.
That should illustrate just how hard it is to win a championship in NASCAR, where the triumvirate of Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing has dominated the top of the standings for the most part since Jeff Gordon's first title in 1995.
While all of those teams put cars in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup, we also saw some more interesting names in that mix. Michael Waltrip put both of his full-time drivers in, while Richard Petty Motorsports showed flashes of front-running ability, especially late in the year.
Behind them, a host of top-30 teams are counting on an offseason of driver upgrades and few personnel changes to help them build chemistry for 2013 and beyond. Here are the seven teams taking the greatest strides towards competitiveness—maybe even dominance—at the Sprint Cup level.
Front Row Motorsports
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Bob Jenkins (not the longtime NASCAR and IndyCar broadcaster) has spent years building a respectable Sprint Cup team, effectively taking over Yates Racing in 2010 after moving to Ford power. The team has scored one top-five and two top-10s in each of the past two seasons— last year with David Gilliland in its lead car and this year with David Ragan.
At 28th and 30th in points, Ragan and Gilliland produced the best combined results in FRM's history in 2012, so expect both to return in 2013. If they do, the goal will be to keep building on this year's output. They're a long way off of contending for championships, but a top 25 points finish and a top-10 at a non-restrictor plate track should be two attainable goals.
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The result of former TRG Motorsports investors taking over the closed Team Red Bull, BK Racing, joined the Sprint Cup Series in 2012 with Landon Cassill and Travis Kvapil. Ron Devine, a Burger King franchise owner, entered a licensing agreement to use the company logos, and eventually, they took over sponsorship of both cars.
In 2013, we will see the team continue to build on the foundations it established this year. Though next year's drivers haven't been announced, plenty of solid names are available, and rumors suggest that one car is changing to No. 23 as a reflection of Dr. Pepper's increased commitment to the team. With greater sponsorship backing and the right personnel in place, this team could make huge strides next season.
JTG Daugherty Racing
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Bobby Labonte returned for a second season at JTG Daugherty Racing this year and rewarded the team by moving up six spots in points to 23rd. It was the team's best season since 2009, when Marcos Ambrose finished 18th in points, and the first time they ran so well with their own equipment after splitting from Michael Waltrip Racing.
Labonte will return for his third season with JTG in 2013, while former engineer Brian Burns is currently set to return as crew chief. With new general manager Bobby Hutchens at the helm and Labonte's team established, JTG has long-term plans to expand, perhaps as soon as next year.
Furniture Row Racing
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Regan Smith gave Furniture Row its maiden win at Darlington in 2011, but when 2004 champion Kurt Busch became available, team owner Barney Visser made a driver change with six races to go this year. Combined with crew chief Todd Berrier, who joined the team at Indianapolis, Busch gave the team its first-ever three race streak of top 10 finishes to close out this season.
In 2013, Furniture Row will benefit greatly from its partnership with Earnhardt-Childress Racing Engines. Busch is a close friend of Richard Childress, while Berrier worked for Childress for over a decade as a crew chief in all three national NASCAR series. With only a one-year deal and years worth of bad PR to disprove, Busch will be racing as hard as ever to use this team as a springboard toward a better ride in 2014, establishing this team as a contender while he does so.
Richard Petty Motorsports
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How does a team that makes no changes from 2012 to 2013 retain "up-and-coming" status? For Richard Petty Motorsports, stasis is actually a step forward after years of uncertain offseasons and driver changes. Since its establishment in 2009 after a series of mergers, expiring contracts and contraction have left RPM with an ever-evolving lineup of drivers, crew chiefs and sponsors.
But with both Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola returning for 2013, RPM will experience its first-ever offseason of no changes. Ambrose won his second career race at Watkins Glen in 2012, while Almirola showed flashes of brilliance throughout the latter half of the Chase, even contending for the win at Kansas before a late crash. Another season together should help them develop chemistry even further, with a Chase berth an attainable goal in the near future.
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Okay, maybe this one shouldn't count so much when team owner Tony Stewart scored a championship in 2011. But since accepting half ownership of the team from Gene Haas in 2009, Stewart has taken this team from the cusp of the top 35 in owners' points to the front of the pack with himself in one car and Ryan Newman in the other, and they're not even close to done. The next two years will see the team expand even further, from two cars to four.
Danica Patrick will take over the No. 10 car full-time in 2013, after running 10 races this year to get acclimated to Sprint Cup. Then, SHR will reach its long-desired goal of four cars in 2014, when Kevin Harvick and sponsors Budweiser and Jimmy John's enter the fold.
Alongside Stewart and Newman, Patrick and Harvick should give SHR a four-car super-team on par with Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.
Michael Waltrip Racing
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Nobody in the garage except for maybe Waltrip himself expected MWR to be as strong as it was in 2012. Martin Truex Jr. had yet to crack the top 15 in points with the team, Mark Martin was inheriting what had been a mid-pack car to run a shared schedule with pariah Brian Vickers and Clint Bowyer joined a brand-new team with much trepidation after leaving his longtime home at Richard Childress Racing.
The rest, as they say, is history. Martin and Vickers had the No. 55 up-front week after week, Truex made the Chase and Bowyer blossomed into a full-fledged superstar, finishing second in points and coming only one or two good races away from a championship. Though he only drives a few races per season now, Waltrip can sit back and be proud of what he has built—a true Sprint Cup contender.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.