January 12, 2012
By Nicholas Schwartz
Throughout the final weeks of the 2011 Sprint Cup season, it was clear that the championship would be won by one of two men -- but that didn’t mean that the other 40 drivers each week were simply going for a Sunday drive.
With the spotlight on Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, many drivers started preparing for 2012 and here are three young talents who seem ready to break out this season; one will be aiming for his first title, one for a spot in the Chase and another will be hoping simply to sneak his way back into victory lane.
Even after Brad Keselowski recorded the first of his three Sprint Cup victories last year, I wasn't convinced he was ready to become a week-in and week-out, bona fide contender. In this very space in August when Keselowski had taken the checkers in Pocono, I wrote that his triumph was not only a fluke, but that it undermined the new Wild Card format to the Chase which awards a spot in the Chase to two drivers ranked 11th through 20th in the points standings, with the number of wins being the deciding factor.
At that point in the season, Keselowski had struggled mightily, save for a previous win at Kansas, and entered the second race at Pocono in 21st place in the points standings.
But that race at Pocono changed everything for Keselowski.
He won in Long Pond, then reeled off five top-5 finishes in his next six races, including a third win of the year under the lights at Bristol. Instead of sneaking his way into the Chase Keselowski had climbed up to 11th place in the standings, and a strong start to the Chase saw him creep inside the top-5.
The wheels fell off in the last four races of the year, but Keselowski’s stellar mid-season form should give him the confidence necessary to put together an entire year of top finishes. He’s undoubtedly the top dog at Penske Racing now that Kurt Busch has departed, and should only get better and better with age and experience.
I think Keselowski is still a few years from making a serious run at a title, but as he proved last season, anything can happen.
One of the most well-received moves in the NASCAR garage of the 2011-2012 silly season was when Roger Penske announced he would fill the vacant spot in the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Dodge with A.J, Allmendinger, a well-liked and talented driver who hasn't ever had top-tier equipment at his disposal. Finally for AJ, that will no longer be a problem.
Allmendinger had his strongest season in his Sprint Cup career in 2011, piloting the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports ride to 10 top-10 finishes, including three top-10s in Chase races—at Dover, Charlotte and Phoenix. His persistence has been rewarded, but with his new setting comes enormous pressure.
Many are picking Allmendinger to make the jump to the Chase this year, and he’s never had to drive with that type of expectation before. Paired with crew chief Todd Gordon, Allmendinger will have to mesh quickly with his new team if they hope to have a successful 2012, but I think Allmendinger has good results coming his way this season.
Life in the Spint Cup hasn’t been easy for 21-year-old Joey Logano. The babyfaced kid who burst onto the Cup scene back in 2008 and won his first race just a year later at New Hampshire has since fallen on hard times and bad luck, but after a long, long season in 2011, Joey Logano may be ready to contend again. Former crew chief Greg Zipadelli has left to reunite with Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing, and Logano’s new skipper Jason Ratcliffe, who had been serving as the crew chief to one of Joe Gibbs’ Nationwide Series cars.
Logano will also have a bit of extra motivation to perform well in 2012, as his contract at JGR expires at the end of this season -- and after a tumultuous 2011, Logano will likely be racing for his job. He excels at short tracks and road courses, so expect to see the No. 20 near the front of the pack at those events.
If you would like to learn more about Nicholas, please check out his web site at Sports By Schwartz. Nicholas is a Managing editor and sportswriter for The Duke Chronicle at Duke University.
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.