The message was the same from every race team during the Sprint Cup media tour: The guys in the shop have been working really, really hard. Our cars will be faster. Our engines will be stronger. We honestly believe we'll win the championship this year.
January is the month of promise in NASCAR. We're still four weeks away from the Daytona 500, and everyone in the sport -- even the small-money teams -- genuinely believes that 2012 will be a special year. But after talking to dozens in the sport over the last few days during the tour, I believe one team is better positioned to dominate the season than any other: Hendrick Motorsports.
Owner Rick Hendrick has never been one to bite into the apple of hyperbole, so when he said that he likes the chances of all four of his drivers -- Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne -- qualifying for the Chase and one winning the championship, it's worth taking notice. Hendrick has as many resources as any other team in NASCAR, and this offseason the owner spared no expense in building a new fleet of Chevys.
In our NASCAR preview issue [on newsstands now] we at SI made Jimmie Johnson, the five-time champion, our pick to hoist the big trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November. But he surely won't be the only Hendrick driver to thrive in 2012, which leads us to our first question ...
Do you think [Jeff] Gordon will seriously contend for a Chase title again -- in other words was last year a fluke as he [apparently] transitions to elder statesman/ambassador/full-time businessman?
-- George, Columbia, S.C.
I do think Gordon has as many as five championship-contending years left in NASCAR. Last season the 40-year-old Gordon had 13 top-five finishes -- the same as in 2002, when he was supposedly in the prime of his career -- and he led 922 laps, which was his most since 2007. Even though Gordon has been involved in several horrifying crashes in the last few years, he doesn't appear gun shy and it doesn't seem like he's lost any of his hand-eye-foot coordination.
Given that Gordon will again be piloting superior equipment in 2012 and he'll again be teamed with crew chief Alan Gustafson (who in my opinion is the most underrated pit boss in NASCAR), I think Gordon will cruise into the Chase. The playoff doesn't set up well for him, as his best tracks aren't in the Chase, but if he gets a little racing luck, who knows? He certainly still has the driving skill to win a fifth title. The numbers back that up.
Lars, quick question ... in your note about EFI, you hypothesize that the change should help the big-money teams, and you list Hendrick, Roush and Gibbs. The premise makes perfect sense ... but my question is, does Roush still belong in that list? They lost sponsorship on one car, and while they did pick up Best Buy, they are running the No. 17 without anything near full funding. The Carl Edwards package is probably as big as anyone's in the sport, but does Roush still qualify as a "big-money" team? Do we need to re-evaluate what we consider the power teams?
-- Brian, Brookline, Mass.
Great question. For now I do think Roush belongs on that list, especially considering that Edwards lost the championship last year by a grand total of one point.
I think the future is actually pretty bright for RFR. Edwards looks like he'll be a force in the sport for years to come. Matt Kenseth has finished eighth or better in the final standings in eight of the last 10 years. Greg Biffle struggled last season but has shown that he's capable of contending for titles (he finished second in points in 2005 and third in '08). And Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the reigning Nationwide champion, likely will jump to the Cup series full-time with Roush in 2013, when I think RFR will again field four cars.
Yes, RFR has had some sponsorship problems, but I don't think the team is to the point yet where they'll be at a competitive disadvantage because of a lack of resources.
What do you think will be the remaining race that Danica Patrick will race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2012?
-- Chris Fiegler, Latham, N.Y.
Right now Patrick is scheduled to run in 10 Cup events. She'll be in the Daytona 500 and said last week she'll compete in the Coke 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Memorial Day weekend rather than in the Indy 500. Nine of her 10 races are set.
If I were her team owner Tony Stewart, I'd start Patrick in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval. Intermediate-length tracks form the core of the Chase schedule (five of the 10 races in the playoffs are on 1.5-milers) and so if Patrick is ever going to contend for a title (and I know, we're years away from THAT), she'll need to perform well on these venues. Plus, if Stewart is in the hunt for another title, it wouldn't hurt to have an extra teammate on the track.
Referring to carburetors as "outdated" technology, can you explain if EFI will increase Sprint Cup engine power output? Will the brake-specific fuel consumption be improved? Will the fuel economy improve? My guess is EFI will offer very marginal improvements, but a big boost in racing cost. Carburetors are that good, even if they are "outdated."
-- Roger Lake, Los Angeles, Calif.
You're right -- sort of. EFI definitely has spiked racing costs, but the early testing has revealed that it has increased fuel economy. As for engine power output, several drivers told me that the cars don't have as much initial acceleration, but that gains in overall horsepower have been made.
EFI will be one of the biggest stories of the 2012 season. Whichever team can harness the potential of EFI the quickest will have the inside track on the championship.