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Should Richard Childress Racing remain among the elite? 2013 will tell

Photo: /US Presswire

Jamie McMurray (left) and Juan Pablo Montoya have a lot of prove for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in 2013.

A new season brings new hope and expectations, but with that comes new pressure. While Brad Keselowski and the rest of Penske Racing welcome the spotlight that comes with the pressure of defending his NASCAR Sprint Cup series championship, other drivers and teams have much to prove this season.

These organizations and drivers need to step up in 2013.

? Richard Childress Racing

Few organizations have shown so much promise yet provided as much disappointment within the last decade. Childress hasn't won a Cup championship since 1994 when Dale Earnhardt won his seventh and final title, and the team has been up and down since then.

Four times since 2004 Richard Childress Racing won no more than one Cup race in a season. But three times since 2004 RCR has won five or more Cup races in a season. Even more maddening is how RCR put all three of its drivers Chase in 2010 but has had just one driver in the Chase each of the last two years.

So what year will this be for this Jekyll-and-Hyde team?

It likely will be one of flux. Kevin Harvick enters his final season with the organization before moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Many will question how well a lame-duck driver can do for an entire season. It's up to Harvick and the team to prove such doubters wrong.

Jeff Burton opens the season with a new crew chief, Luke Lambert, marking the fourth consecutive year Burton enters a season with a new crew chief. Paul Menard and crew chief Slugger Labbe are back together after Menard finished a career-high 16th in the points last year.

The question is can Richard Childress Racing can remain among the sport's elite Cup teams -- or should even be considered among the elite? Certainly the future looks bright with brothers Austin and Ty Dillon moving through the ranks, but they won't be able to do much to help the Cup operation this year if it continues to struggle.

ESTES: Based on 2012 statistics, how will NASCAR's top drivers fare in 2013?

? Earnhardt Ganassi Racing

Entering the 2012 season, Chip Ganassi called the previous year's campaign "pathetic." He was right -- Juan Pablo Montoya finished 21st and Jamie McMurray was 27th in the points. So Ganassi let go of the high-level team management personnel and sought to restructure the organization for 2012.

Unfortunately it didn't fare much better. McMurray finished 21st in the points last year, and Montoya was 22nd. Even worse was that McMurray and Montoya combined for five top-10 finishes -- seven worse than their combined total in 2011.

Ganassi enters this year with more changes. The team will use Hendrick Motorsports engines instead of the Earnhardt-Childress Racing engines. If that can't improve performance, then it seems likely the next area Ganassi will make changes is with its drivers.

The question is can Ganassi, who has been a kingpin in IndyCar racing, ever rise out of the level of mid-level teams in NASCAR? If nothing else, Roger Penske showed that persistence can lead to success in the Sprint Cup Series but Penske's NASCAR teams have been much better through the years than Ganassi's.

? Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Coming off his best season since 2004, Earnhardt has much to be happy about. Had he not missed two races in the Chase because of concussion-like symptoms, the season would have been even better. Is that good enough for Junior Nation? Should it be?

No.

For the first time in years, it's easy to see Earnhardt as a title threat -- this is his year to prove it. Crew chief Steve Letarte has revived Earnhardt's confidence and given him fast cars in the past two seasons, and as a result, Earnhardt's finishes have improved. Not a fan of testing, Earnhardt admitted he'd be up for more testing before this season. That's how revved he is for the coming season. Now is Earnhardt's time to race for a championship.

? Kyle Busch

For all his talent and the resources available at Joe Gibbs Racing, it's amazing that Busch has:

? Not won a Sprint Cup championship. ? Not won a Daytona 500. ? Not been a factor in the Chase.

Admittedly, this isn't all on him, as his team has let him down at times. Even last year, a spat of engine woes played a role in keeping him out of the Chase.

It's time for Busch and this team to prove they belong among the elite teams and drivers. Otherwise, they'll be known as a group that can win races but not the major events (Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Sprint Cup championship).

? Carl Edwards

For as well as things went for Edwards in 2011 in nearly winning the championship, they went as poorly last season, as he missed the Chase for only the second time in eight years.

Yet for all that Roush Fenway Racing and Ford have invested in Edwards and his team, he's only won three Cup races in the last four seasons. That's not the totals of a top-level driver, which Edwards can be at times. Just as in the case of Kyle Busch, all of Edwards' struggles are not his fault. His team and organization have let him down at times.

He'll enter this season with new crew chief Jimmy Fennig. Their chemistry and ability to work together will play a key role in determining if Edwards can bounce back from last year's frustrating season, or if the questions about his results continue.

? Martin Truex Jr.

He's credited with helping lay the foundation for last year's success at Michael Waltrip Racing -- including a spot in the Chase for Truex and teammate Clint Bowyer. If Truex wants to be viewed as a title threat, he has to win races. He enters this year with a 203-race winless drought, dating back to his lone Cup victory at Dover in June 2007.

If MWR is to remain a strong team and contend for titles, it needs a strong effort from Truex. Now is that time to step up, win races that he dominates (unlike last season) and rise to a level he's not reached before.

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