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Daytona 500 testing looms, and NASCAR teams are facing a lot of questions

  The first surprise of 2012? Aric Almirola could well be (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   'Tis the end of the year, really the end, and for the first time in a quite a while a full week went by in NASCAR Country without any furor or controversy or shakeup.
   Well, aside from the undercurrent swirling around that open seat in legendary number 43.
   And who knows just what Robby Gordon is up to down in South America in the Dakar….  
   Aric Almirola would indeed be a good pick to take the wheel for Richard Petty and Ford's Jack Roush. He's paid his dues, worked the sport loyally for several years now, showed both enthusiasm and talent, and a nice polish. Of all the men available, Almirola looks like the one who has the most upside potential.

   Yes, sponsorship is always an issue, and Almirola isn't a household name. But he's shown good presence, and enough feistiness on the track. Plus, he seems to have a knack about getting out of trouble on the track.
   That, of course, isn't the only issue still up in the air as the New Year approaches.
   Daytona 500 rules, for one.
   The upcoming testing at Daytona for the season opener starts Thursday Jan. 12th , and SpeedWeeks itself kicks off with the Shootout Saturday night Feb. 18th, a week ahead of the Feb. 26th 500 itself.



Robby Gordon, heading to the starting line of the Dakar (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Considering the Bests and Worsts of NASCAR 2011, in retrospect….
  Well, the oddest pit road decision was probably Darian Grubb, championship in sight, telling Tony Stewart to switch to a fuel mileage end-game at Homestead.
   But then the best job by a crew chief in the playoffs was also Grubb's, though he has to share it with rival Bob Osborne, for that season-long performance with Carl Edwards.
   Most suffering by a crew chief? Easily Steve Addington, for his season of abuse by Kurt Busch.
   Most surprising move by a driver: Tony Stewart releasing crew chief Darian Grubb…who helped him win five of the year's final 10 races and the Sprint Cup championship.
   And most dubious move by a driver: Kyle Busch, at Darlington, in that run-in with Kevin Harvick, and Busch again, at Texas, in that run-in with Ron Hornaday. And let's rerun the tape of last spring's Phoenix race….

   Can the new NASCAR season bring any more surprises – good and ugly – and upsets than 2011?


Tony Stewart (R) and crew chief Darian Grubb. With five wins in the last 10 races, why in the world aren't Stewart and Grubb back together for 2012? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


  Maybe some predictions then:

  -- Kurt Busch and James Finch, his new team owner, will have success, and fun. If a man can't have fun driving for the wide-open Finch – the Hoss Ellington of his era? – he might oughta try something else….
  Finch, remember, is a Daytona-Talladega big track kind of guy, and that's where Busch shines (if he can keep his temper in check). Busch beat Denny Hamlin in that Daytona controversy to open 2011. And Busch and Finch might get off to a faster start together than rivals might like.

   -- Kyle Busch will also have success. In fact, he's probably at the top of the list of men capable of and ready to win the championship. All those years of disappointment and mistakes should finally be behind him.
   Remember how well Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers were doing up till the start of the playoffs?
   Ah, the chase – Kyle Busch's weak link. He and Rogers roared through the regular season with brilliant stats, albeit with a few too many run-ins. If they'd had a little more support from their teammates, and if the Toyota guys in general had had a better year, and if engines had been stronger, and if team owner Joe Gibbs had been a little sterner with his troops…..
   -- Tony Stewart? Well, after his amazing charge to the title this past season, it's going to be hard for him to do much better. And, to be honest, Stewart went through the year making too many mistakes. Remember Sonoma?
   But having Greg Zipadelli, his old crew chief, back on the roster, as competition director, should be a plus. Maybe. At least in morale. But Zipadelli will not only be cheering-leading the Stewart-Ryan Newman operation, and trying to figure out just what a competition director really does, he'll also be  baby-sitting Danica Patrick in her first 10 or 12 Sprint Cup races. And how well old-school crew chief Steve Addington and his old-school driver really pair up, well, that remains to be seen.

   -- Carl Edwards? He had a positively brilliant season; in any other year he would have won the championship easily. And Edwards, at 32, is in his prime.
   An Edwards versus Kyle Busch title duel? Could easily be in the cards…though preseason championship picks lately have been notoriously off.

   -- The rest of the 2012 title picture?
   Jimmie Johnson, for sure; hard to bet against the man with the coolest head on the stock car tour. He hasn't had any edge over his rivals the past two years, but he still challenged for the title. Without that crash at Charlotte, Stewart and Edwards might have had more competition.
   Brad Keselowki, probably, though it's always difficult to put two good seasons back to back, and 2011 for Keselowski was just about as good as they come. How well Keselowski and new teammate AJ Allmendinger work together could be key.
   Denny Hamlin, too, who may be a better match with crew chief Darian Grubb and Stewart was. However Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano will have to learn how to be teammates. And Logano will have to start to carry his fair share.
   Anyone else in the 2012 title picture may have to earn his way in, and overcome some apparent obstacles.

   -- Questions for 2012?
    The Michael Waltrip and Richard Childress operations. Shakeups in both. In fact Waltrip now has some of Childress' key people, like Scott Miller and Clint Bowyer.
  Waltrip – certainly under the gun to start performing after so many years – has strengthened his team.
  But the Childress camp, well, that strange late season surprise, in which Kevin Harvick essentially fired his crew, which had put him in championship position two straight years, leaves a cloud over things. Harvick is one of the best Daytona-Talladega closers, and new crew chief Shane Wilson is bringing his top-notch crew, so SpeedWeeks should go well. But after that…..
  The benchmark for the Childress camp will likely be the Slugger Labbe-Paul Menard team.

   -- Surprises for 2012?
   Almost certainly Kasey Kahne, now at Rick Hendrick's, teammate with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. But Kahne shouldn't really be a surprise.
   Clint Bowyer perhaps. Did Bowyer help make Shane Wilson, or did Wilson and his crew help make Bowyer? The two have been split, and now Bowyer, who has been somewhat erratic in his time on the tour, is on his own over in Toyota World.
   Jeff Gordon? Well, he's 40, and that's typically a milestone for a NASCAR racer. But he was solid in 2011, had a great shot at that fifth championship, and he is one of the best drivers in the sport's history, and certainly one of the smartest. Year Two of Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson could be good. If Hendrick gets his engine program back on track….

   And what to expect out of the Jack Roush Ford camp, after Edwards? Good question.
   Matt Kenseth is a big one – he had a good shot at the title, until the Martinsville meltdown. And why, given Kenseth's talents, personality, and that 2003 title, has sponsorship been such an issue? Roush lost too many good sponsors, and he's even had to cut back to three Cup teams.
   Greg Biffle had speed but no luck in 2011, and frustrations mounted as the season went winless; the split with crew chief Greg Erwin didn't pan out, and Roush himself may need to sit down and rethink things.
   Trevor Bayne, the surprise Daytona 500 winner, then suddenly sidelined for several months with some weird illness, became a footnote the rest of the season. Was Bayne just a flash in the pan? Should Roush and Ford have put more behind him? Has Bayne's young career been mismanaged? Or did he just have too much luck too soon. All questions he himself needs to answer. On the track.


    Remember how well Robby Gordon (7) and Trevor Bayne (21) worked together at Talladega? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Hey Mike, correct me if I'm

Hey Mike, correct me if I'm wrong, but I do believe Dakar is in Africa, not South America.

of course; but The Dakar

of course; but The Dakar Rally is in South America, Buenos Aires to Buenos Aires, over the rivers and through the deserts. Fewer bandits down there.

Don't know about you, but

Don't know about you, but Kahne already has surprised me.

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