SI.com's Lars Anderson breaks down the five hottest topics entering the 2012 Sprint Cup season.
How will Danica fare?
Danica Patrick :: Nick Laham/Getty Images for NASCAR
Ever since Danica Patrick became a household name in 2005 by finishing fourth in the Indianapolis 500, NASCAR officials have been dreaming of this moment: her arrival in the Sprint Cup series. The wait is almost over. Patrick, who has been competing in IndyCar for the last seven years, will drive full time on the Nationwide circuit in '12 and part time in the Cup series, including in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26. Not since Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his first start in NASCAR's top series at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1999 has there been a more anticipated Cup debut.
Yes, Danicamania will be in full flower during Speedweeks as reporters from as far away as Japan chronicle her every move. Though her background is in open-wheel racing, Patrick, 29, has spent the past two seasons piloting a stock car part time in the Nationwide Series. Driving for JR Motorsports, which is co-owned by Earnhardt, Patrick has started 25 Nationwide races. She's never won, but she has steadily improved. Two years ago her average finish was 28.0; in 2011 it was 17.4. What's most encouraging to her crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., is that last season Patrick frequently displayed the car control and calculated aggression of a Cup veteran.
"Every time out I'm learning so much," Patrick told SI. "I'm getting better at restarts, pit stops, learning how to use the air to make a pass?everything."
Patrick will race in 10 Cup events this season for Stewart-Haas Racing. According to Tony Stewart, co-owner of SHR, the plan is to then move Patrick to the Cup series full time in 2013?if she proves she's ready. "Danica is a heck of a lot more than a pretty face," Stewart says. "She's got talent and, trust me, she's going to surprise a lot of people this year." Indeed, don't be shocked if Patrick becomes the first female driver to take a checkered flag in a Nationwide race. That may come as early as March 11 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where last year she finished a career-best fourth in a stock car?which is also the best-ever finish for a woman.
Will Kurt Busch be a changed man?
Kurt Busch :: Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR
During the waning weeks of last season Busch began seeing a sports psychologist, hoping to resolve what he called "personal issues." But by his own admission the 2004 champ still has plenty of work to do on the couch, as was evident during his meltdown at Homestead on Nov. 20. After a transmission problem forced him into the garage, Busch repeatedly cursed at ESPN reporter Jerry Punch while waiting to be interviewed. The outburst was caught on video and posted on YouTube, where it has been viewed more than 900,000 times. NASCAR fined Busch $50,000, and two weeks later Busch and owner Roger Penske agreed that Busch would no longer drive for Penske Racing.
"I recognize I need help," said the 33-year-old Busch. "I need to find a way to put the fun back into racing." But 2012 may not be so fun for Busch, who dropped out of SI's top 20 now that he's with Phoenix Racing and driving inferior equipment.
Why did so many crew chiefs get fired this offseason?
Darian Grubb :: Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR
One year ago Mike Ford was widely considered by his peers to be one of the top crew chiefs in NASCAR. Sitting atop Denny Hamlin's pit box in 2010, Ford guided the number 11 team to a series-best eight wins and a second-place finish in the standings behind Jimmie Johnson. Leaving Homestead that November, Ford's future looked exceptionally sunny.
It was just a mirage. Thirteen months later team owner Joe Gibbs fired Ford after Hamlin finished 2011 ninth in points with only one win. Ford's dismissal reaffirmed a new truth about NASCAR: At a time when sponsorship dollars are hard to find, owners are quick to make changes to a struggling team. If a sponsor such as FedEx, which shells out around $30 million annually to back Hamlin, expresses unhappiness with its investment, an owner will do everything he can to placate that sponsor. The first one to be let go after a disappointing season is usually the crew chief, who doesn't have the star power or the unique skills of a top driver. "You cannot afford to lose sponsors," says Jeff Gordon. "They ultimately make the decisions."
Ford was one of six high-profile crew chiefs to be axed or reassigned this off-season, along with Frank Kerr (who was with Bobby Labonte), Gil Martin (Kevin Harvick), Brian Pattie (Juan Pablo Montoya), Shane Wilson (Clint Bowyer) and Darian Grubb, who was with Tony Stewart and has signed with Hamlin's team. "More now than ever, NASCAR is a bottom-line business," says Stewart. In other words, win or get lost.
Will NASCAR's latest effort to go green run smoothly?
EFI engine :: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for NASCAR
This season, for the first time, NASCAR Sprint Cup cars won't be using carburetors. Instead, as part of a green initiative, the car engines will employ electronic fuel injection (EFI). The no-carb diet will make the engines run more efficiently by controlling the fuel mixture through electronics. Every passenger car sold in the United States has featured EFI since 1990, but not all drivers are fans. Brad Keselowski, for one, said it changed how his car drove when he tested it late last season, labeling it "a disaster."
Other drivers were happy with the new technology and believe it won't have an impact on how the car handles. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who also tested EFI last year, said, "It felt exactly like the carburetor car." What's certain is that the role of engineers in NASCAR will become even more significant with fuel injection. Why? Because it will take some serious expertise to interpret the amount of data generated by the engines' sensors. This favors?no surprise?the deep-pocketed teams.
Can Hendrick Motorsports win another Cup?
Hendrick :: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR
For the first time since 2000, Rick Hendrick didn't have a driver in the top five of the final standings in '11, though that pales next to last year's real low point. On Oct. 31 the Gulfstream G150 in which he was riding crashed upon landing in Key West, leaving him with four broken ribs and a broken clavicle. (Everyone survived.)
Hendrick?and his race teams?will be at full strength at the Daytona 500. This year's biggest addition to Hendrick Motorsports, which has won 10 titles since 1995, may not be potential contender Kasey Kahne but Kenny Francis, Kahne's 42-year-old crew chief. Jimmie Johnson has long admired Francis, and the five-time champ believes that at an organization known for sharing data well, Francis will be one of the team's most potent weapons in 2012. "Everywhere Kenny has gone he's been able to find speed in his cars," says Johnson of Francis, who has been on Kahne's pit box since '06. "I can't wait to hear his ideas and learn from him. He'll be huge [for us]."
And a crucial ingredient for Johnson, SI's pick to win the 2012 Cup title and put Hendrick back on top.
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