NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup featured a variety of drivers and led to the crowning of a new champion in 2012. Take a look back at how each of the contenders fared this year - and what the chances are for each to repeat a title bid - and match or improve the final result - in 2013.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Team: Hendrick Motorsports Points position: 12th Analysis of Chase: Earnhardt Jr. was enjoyed a decent opening to the Chase when he was caught in a crash at Talladega, finishing 20th, then sidelined two weeks after being diagnosed with a concussion, his second in a matter of weeks. Left in 12th after the two-race setback, Earnhardt Jr. returned for the final four races of the year and enjoyed top-10 finishes in two of those. Outlook in 2013: Watch out for this team. Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte believe unquestioningly in one another – and their combined ability to reach new heights. They did just that, returning to Victory Lane in 2012. Expect more of the same in 2013, with increased competitiveness as this team continues to grow and develop in an effort to reach the heights of their championship teammates.
Martin Truex Jr.
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing Points position: 11th Analysis of Chase: Truex (pictured with Sherry Pollex) ended the season as the only Chase driver without a victory but he enjoyed some strong runs during the segment. He finished second at Kansas and sixth at both Homestead and Dover. Overall, he earned five top-10 finishes in a season in which he and teammate Clint Bowyer combined to give the organization its initial berths in the Chase. Outlook in 2013: Truex and his team need just a little more speed to contend on a weekly basis. The driver is entrenched in a victory drought but showing more consistency week to week. Still, he has shown greater competitiveness over the course of 2012. Truex, though, needs to take another step up if he’s going to contend for the Cup title.
Team: Hendrick Motorsports Points position: 10th Analysis of Chase: Gordon enjoyed some highlights in the Chase, but spent the early part trying to overcome his opening-race finish of 35th, then the second half dealing with a bout of inconsistency. He finished outside the top 30 twice – at Chicago after a parts failure and at Phoenix after being tagged by Clint Bowyer and then retaliating back – but also earned four finishes of third or better, including the win at Homestead. Outlook in 2013: Gordon and his team are definitely back on track. For years there has been talk of the charge toward a fifth title, but Gordon showed his intensity and drive in the Chase, first reeling off top finishes after the setback then in his fiery response to Bowyer. For those who think this competitive fire has been doused, think again.
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing Points position: Ninth Analysis of Chase: What a difference a year makes. A year after charging through the Chase and winning the title, Stewart floundered in the Chase this time around. Things looked good when he opened with a pair of top-10 finishes, but then two outside the top 20, followed by a string of finishes all over the place, left him fighting to finish the year in the top 10 instead of in the heart of the title battle. Outlook in 2013: Stewart-Haas faces a bit of transition in 2013 as it expands to three full-time teams and deals with the potential distraction of adding a rookie driver of the popularity of Danica Patrick. Stewart has also shouldered the task of hosting a Truck series race at his Eldora Speedway in 2013. Still, with a driver as experienced at carrying on multiple roles while focusing on a championship bid as Stewart, the impact of these distractions could be muted.
Team: Richard Childress Racing Points position: Eighth Analysis of Chase: Harvick reunited with crew chief Gil Martin prior to the Chase, but this team was simply never a factor. Something has slipped off track with the team and it showed in the Chase, where Harvick waited until the final three races to break into the top 10. However, once the pair got on track, they certainly made up ground. Harvick finished ninth and eighth and won at Phoenix in the final three races. Outlook in 2013: Which version of Harvick’s team will show up in 2013? With the driver rumored to be leaving Childress in 2014 for Stewart-Haas Racing, will his team deal with media distractions or can he step back into title contention? After finishing third the previous two seasons, Harvick needs to get his team in order to be in the mix in 2013.
Team: Roush Fenway Racing Points position: Seventh Analysis of Chase: Kenseth was at or near the top of the standings throughout the season, but faltered in the title segment. Kenseth had a top finish of 14th in the opening trio of Chase races, hampering his shot at the title. While he won twice in the 10 races, those were two of his three top-10 finishes. For a team known for its consistency, the Chase was certainly not up to its caliber. Outlook in 2013: Kenseth announced earlier this season his plans to join Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013. That move could be the making of his second championship bid. The driver should step into a team leader role within the organization and help stabilize the efforts of teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Look for Kenseth to be back in the hunt next season.
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing Points position: Sixth Analysis of Chase: Hamlin certainly had to be less-than-thrilled with his Chase run. Entering the segment in the lead, and looking on track to take his first title, he finished 16th in the opening race to lose his advantage. He finished outside the top 10 in six of the 10 races and was well outside contention by the time the season finale rolled around. Hamlin looked on track, though, to pick up ground in the season finale after finishing second at Phoenix, but faltered with a 24th-place finish there. Outlook in 2013: Hamlin and championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb are going to have to step up in the Chase. Making the segment has become commonplace for Hamlin, but he quickly ceased to be a factor in the title race this season. The Gibbs organization as a whole needs to figure out how to turn a stellar regular-season run into a title bid.
Team: Roush Fenway Racing Points position: Fifth Analysis of Chase: After a year in which Roush had Biffle and Matt Kenseth near or at the top of the standings for much of the season, the championship segment opened on a sour note. Biffle and his team just couldn’t get things going until the fourth race of the Chase, and then struggled through another setback at Kansas. Still he earned six top-10 finishes in the segment and was consistent in the closing segment to gain ground late. Outlook in 2013: Biffle and his team need to find more speed to contend for the title in 2013. The Roush Fenway group as a whole is a model of consistency in reeling off top-10 finishes, but as recent years have shown, it takes wins – and lots of them – to be crowned champion these days.
Team: Hendrick Motorsports Points position: Fourth Analysis of Chase: Kahne obviously enjoyed a relatively strong Chase. In his first season with Hendrick, he and his Kenny Francis-led team earned six top-10 finishes, five of them top fives. But Kahne struggled with consistency, also enduring two finishes of 20th or worse, to be out of the running before the season finale. Outlook in 2013: Look out, this could be the best Hendrick team – and the group of the future. If Kahne can find more consistency week to week, this team should be challenging for wins and the title throughout the year.
Team: Hendrick Motorsports Points position: Third Analysis of Chase: Johnson and his Chad Knaus-led team did not enjoy their usual bullet-proof run through the final segment of the season. Although Johnson enjoyed his standard form for much of it – he won twice and finished as runner-up twice with a total of six top-five Chase finishes – he was caught up in a late crash at Talladega and then, with the title seemingly in reach once more, suffered a pit-road setback and then a mechanical failure in the season finale. Outlook in 2013: If history tells, then suffering setbacks will only fire up this team for 2013. Look for Johnson and Knaus to start the year strongly. Hendrick Motorsports is known for its ability to adjust to changes in the sport – like the new car – quickly and effectively. But can Johnson hold off the challenge of those hungering to join the ranks of champion? Or has the changing of the guard effectively begun?
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing Points position: Second Analysis of Chase: Bowyer endured a couple of setbacks in the Chase, but overall turned in a consistent run at the title. Generally known for running well in this segment of the season, he could have been in the heart of the championship race entering the finale if not for getting crashed by Jeff Gordon in the second-to-last race of the year at Phoenix. He also finished 23rd after getting caught up in the melee at Talladega. Outside of that, he had a win in the Chase and eight top-10 finishes, three of them top fives. Outlook in 2013: Coming off a Cup career-best finish of second, Bowyer must see nothing but positives for 2013. He joined his Michael Waltrip Racing team this season, so this was supposed to be the year they went through the growing pains of a new group. Now, with a season under their belts, he and crew chief Brian Pattie should be a formidable pairing for the upcoming run.
Team: Penske Racing Points position: Champion Analysis of Chase: Keselowski was stellar throughout the 10-race championship segment. He won twice and earned eight top-10 finishes, three of them top fives, during the Chase. He had a worst finish of 15th in the segment – which came in the season finale – and showed the ability to adjust strategy and gain significantly in his overall performance at each track. Outlook in 2013: Look for more of the same from this young team. Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe are on their game. They’ve shown that ability to adapt quickly to any changes and to overcome setbacks. Certainly changing from manufacturer Dodge to Ford will offer a challenge to this team, but as Keselowski proved in 2012, that only seems to fire up this group.