All hail the champions.
No, not of the 2012 Sprint Cup season, a mantle that belongs firmly to Brad Keselowski and his No. 2 team at Penske Racing. No doubting that, not after a spectacular closing run that began with a summer victory at Kentucky and didn't end until he put some real separation between Jimmie Johnson and himself in the penultimate event at Phoenix. In between, he won three times and finished ninth or better in 17 of 19 starts -- exactly the kind of thing champions do. That big beer at Homestead was well-deserved.
But enough about what we now officially can refer to as last season. The awards ceremony in Las Vegas is over, the trophy is on Keselowski's mantle, teams are building their new 2013 Cup cars, and everyone is looking ahead to preseason testing that will get here before Santa Claus does. There's a new champ in town, the victors of the personnel shuffle that reshapes each NASCAR campaign, and this one isn't even close.
Meet your 2012-13 "silly season" champions: Joe Gibbs Racing.
|Strength of JGR|
|2013 Sprint Cup drivers|
Combining JGR's Cup and Nationwide Series efforts, there's not a better driver lineup in the sport. You have a former champion in Matt Kenseth, a guy who's never missed a Chase in Denny Hamlin, a driver who's universally regarded as the preeminent natural talent in the garage in Kyle Busch, a former Nationwide champ and two-time Cup race winner in Brian Vickers, and a two-time Nationwide runner-up in Elliott Sadler, who also won three times in the premier series. One through five, that roster simply is unbeatable.
And it's an upgrade from the lineup with which JGR finished this past season. Nothing against Joey Logano, who still has all kinds of potential on the Cup side and is an absolute terror in a Nationwide car, but the steady, reliable Kenseth seems just the kind of veteran presence JGR needs. And with two-time Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. promoted to the big league, Vickers and Sadler could battle one another for the title in NASCAR's No. 2 series. Compare that with Brian Scott, who placed ninth in final points but wrecked a lot of cars in the process, and Logano, who won a lot of races but wasn't eligible for the crown.
So with apologies to Hendrick Motorsports -- which placed all four of its Sprint Cup drivers in the Chase last season and which upgraded on the Nationwide side with the addition of Regan Smith to JR Motorsports -- JGR is stacked. If Busch can continue the roll on which he ended last season, Kenseth can be Kenseth, and the Gibbs people somehow can tighten up the quality control issues that have bitten them too many times in the past, there's no reason JGR can't have five legitimate title contenders (across two series) loaded and ready to go. Can any other team claim that? Maybe the boys in the slanted H caps, but at this point Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Smith simply lack the track records of their counterparts at Gibbs.
Of course, they have to do it on the race track, a goal that becomes considerably more complicated for 2013 with the addition of new Cup cars that promise to put teams on a more level footing, at least at the start. Toward that end, testing ramps up with a two-day session Tuesday and Wednesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. There will be another two-day test in January at the Concord track, and the possibility of more testing later that month at Las Vegas. Next week's session will mark Kenseth's unofficial debut in his new No. 20 car and will be the first time he and Hamlin take to the track as teammates.
"I can't wait to go to Charlotte," Kenseth said after the postseason awards ceremony in Las Vegas. "... Denny is going to be there, I'm going to be in another car, so I'll be able to start working with him. And I think this offseason will be really fun for me because I think I'm going to spend a lot of time in the shop, a lot time getting to know new people and getting acclimated and ready to go racing. So I'm really curious to see how everything works."
Kenseth is taking part in the test with the blessing of his former team, Roush Fenway Racing, "which they didn't have to do," he added. Since Homestead, he has been in touch with new crew chief Jason Ratcliff a few times and has been to the Gibbs shop to take care of things like hiring a spotter and getting a seat fitted. He also texted with Hamlin regarding plans that begin with this first test as a Gibbs driver, something his new teammate clearly is enthused about.
"For me, I'm just so excited to go to Charlotte [next] week and us be on the same track together," Hamlin said. "What happened with Kyle in 2008, when he came to the Atlanta test we were at, it was 41 other guys and it was me and Kyle, going back and forth over who could set the fast time. I think that's going to be very similar with what happens with us and Matt."
Of course, other teams upgraded in the silly season shuffle as well. Smith went from out of a job to perhaps the best opportunity of his career -- a ride in a JRM car that places him beneath the Hendrick umbrella. After Talladega, he was out of the No. 78 at Furniture Row Racing. The next week, he was piloting the No. 88 in relief of Earnhardt, who was sidelined with a concussion. He landed the JRM job and won in his first start, at Homestead. Greg Ives, who won five Cup titles as Jimmie Johnson's engineer, comes over as crew chief. Next week, Smith will test the No. 24 in lieu of Jeff Gordon at Charlotte. How's that for landing on your feet?
Smith's former team seemed to benefit from the hiring of Kurt Busch, who steered Furniture Row to an unprecedented three straight top-10s to end this past season, but now the Denver-based organization faces the hurdle of keeping up in an era of new cars. Joey Coulter is a nice addition to the Camping World Truck Series program at Kyle Busch Motorsports, but no sponsor has been announced yet for the vehicle. Stenhouse might be moving up, but that makes room for former Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne to make an overdue full-time return to the Nationwide Series ranks at Roush.
None of those moves can match the stockpiling at JGR, which this past season was supplanted by Michael Waltrip Racing as the premier organization in the Toyota fleet. Now, a team that's underachieved the past few years is poised to take a great leap forward in 2013. Much of that is thanks to the arrival of Kenseth, who during his last days at Roush purposefully kept his attention on his No. 17 car rather than let an eye wander toward his future ride. "I drew a line and never crossed it at all," he said. That line no longer exists. Now the 2003 champion can begin helping his new program and new team reload for the future.
"I don't have a real great feel for what's great, what needs to be worked on [at JGR]," he said. "So I'm looking forward to doing that test, spending some time with Jason and my new team, and spending some time with Denny ... and getting that started."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.