This offseason Clint Bowyer moved from Richard Childress Racing, where he made the Chase three times in six seasons, to Michael Waltrip Racing, which hasn't made the 10-race championship playoff in its five years in Sprint Cup. He'll have a new crew chief in Brian Pattie, a new manufacturer in Toyota and new teammates in Ryan Truex Jr., Mark Martin and team co-owner Waltrip.
Bowyer needed a fresh start to take his career to the next level. He needs to win more races and put himself in position to contend for the Sprint Cup title. Bowyer has five wins in six full seasons, all with RCR. He was third in the points in his second year (2007), fifth in 2008, 15th in 2009, 10th in 2010 and 13th last season. Those are all respectable finishes, but the added experience of each season should have led to more wins. He stalled at Childress and traded in continuity for a whole set of fresh ideas and different approaches.
Bowyer understands it's on his shoulders to prove he belongs in that elite class of championship-level drivers.
"It's exciting, there's a lot to prove starting over like this with so many new beginnings," Bowyer said. "But I'm up for the challenge."
Bowyer's has two major objectives: getting back into the Chase and adding to MWR's victory total. The team has two Cup wins, both with the departed David Reutimann.
Bowyer will need to develop chemistry with Pattie, who crew-chiefed Juan Pablo Montoya to the Chase in 2009. Earnhardt Ganassi released Pattie last July. The majority of his new pit crew worked on Kasey Kahne's Toyota at Red Bull last season. Waltrip also hired Scott Miller to be competition director. He held a similar job at RCR until last summer.
The No. 15 Toyota crew inspires confidence in Bowyer.
"I'm excited about these guys," Bowyer said. "Excited about our engineers. We were able to pick and choose the best of the litter and that's what we did."
Waltrip's engines and chassis are built by Toyota Racing Development, which entered the series in 2007.
"The [TRD] program is really coming into its own, moving in the right direction," Bowyer said. "I see a lot of good things."
Bowyer is hoping those good things translate to a Chase berth in 2012. But he's not the only one. Here are four other drivers looking to make the Chase after missing out in 2011.
Logano enters 2012 with a new crew chief in Jason Ratcliff, who replaces two-time Cup-winning (with Tony Stewart) crew chief Greg Zipadelli. Ratcliff has a remarkable Nationwide record with 42 victories (34 with Kyle Busch) at Joe Gibbs Racing, but he'll be a rookie in Cup. Losing Zipadelli, the crew chief for Logano's three Cup seasons, sounds more like a step backward than one forward, but the driver of the No. 20 Toyota likes it.
"I definitely feel like it's my team now," Logano said. "I think it is going to be a very positive change for us. Every once in a while, you've got to hit the reset button."
Logano finished 2010 impressively with a run of five top-10 finishes in the last six races. He ended that year 16th in the points, but he and Zipadelli never adapted to Goodyear's harder tire in 2011, and Logano fell to 24th with four top-fives and six top-10s overall. Logano also was hampered last season by the Gibbs' engine problems.
Gibbs has switched to using TRD-built motors rather than its own and there's also new leadership in the paddock with Darian Grubb, Stewart's crew chief last season, taking over on Denny Hamlin's No. 11.
"I'm excited about working with Joey [Logano]," Ratcliff said. "We have a championship race team and he's pumped up. We need to get faster race cars. I know with our engineers and then bringing in Darian Grubb, it's kind of opened up this whole new process a little bit in some different areas and, hopefully, I can bring in new ideas as well."
Rick Hendrick thought so much of Kahne that he signed him in 2010 without a seat available for 2011. Kahne, a 31-year-old veteran of eight Cup seasons, has 12 victories, including one last year with Red Bull, and made the Chase in 2006 and 2009. He will join Hendrick this season and is signed through 2015. His crew chief will be Kenny Francis, who has been with Kahne since the start of the 2006 season at Evernham Motorsports.
With Francis atop his pit box and Hendrick's Chevrolets at his disposal, Kahne sounds like a lock for the Chase.
"It's a great opportunity and I want to take full advantage of it," Kahne said. "I think the biggest thing is the stability and knowing that I have four years here. I just need to make the best of it. It could be my best four years ever. I just want to do all that."
A.J. Allmendinger landed in a race-winning, Chase-qualifying car in December when Penske Racing hired him to replace Kurt Busch. Penske clearly is banking on his potential and progress. The 30-year-old former Champ Car driver had his best season in 2011 with Richard Petty Motorsports, finishing 15th in the points with one top-five and 10 top-10s.
Allmendinger has been a Cup regular since 2007 and has four top-fives and 26 top-10s in 152 starts. He doesn't have a win.
Busch had two wins, eight top-fives and 16 top-10s last season.
The exact contract is unknown, but it seems likely Penske signed Allmendinger to a one-year contract with options for future seasons. He'll have a rookie Cup crew chief in Todd Gordon, who moves up from Penske's Nationwide team.
"It's do or die," Allmendinger said. "This is the next step to try to be one of those top Sprint Cup drivers. I feel like this is the best place to do it. The way this organization is laid out is just amazing."
Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya was eighth in the Cup championship in 2009, but fell back to 17th in 2010 and 21st in 2011. He has a new crew chief at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in Chris Heroy, a former lead engineer and Nationwide crew chief at Hendrick.
Montoya's best chance at the Chase is probably through wild-card qualification. He's an ex-Formula 1 race winner and both of his Cup victories are on road courses. If he could sweep the two on the schedule, Montoya would be in position for a wild card with a top-20 finish in the points.
That said, Montoya's primary goal is to win on an oval. Heron will be the key to Montoya accomplishing it.
"We think he [Heron] will be a great addition to the Target team and believe his combined engineering and crew chief background should help him work well with both our engineers and the competition folks to move our program forward," Chip Ganassi said.