NASCAR: Who has the most to prove in 2013?
Rumors late in the 2012 season that Kevin Harvick was leaving Richard Childress Racing for Stewart Haas Racing in 2014 circulated, but as Brad Keseleowski was crowned champion for 2012, those rumors quieted. Earlier this week during NASCAR Sprint Media Tour those rumors, at least the RCR portion of them, were confirmed. This season Kevin Harvick will wrap up 12 years with RCR before vacating the 29 seat for, hopefully, greener pastures. Neither Kevin nor Stewart Haas Racing have confirmed that Kevin will have a ride at SHR for 2014, but one has to think the breaking news of late 2012 can't be too far off.
Richard Childress has made it clear that the company he is running is there for his grandsons, Austin Dillon, and younger brother, Ty. He has also recently said that he is contemplating running the 3 car in Sprint Cup once again. Kelley Earnhardt has written her thoughts on that subject, and seems to be in favor of the move, posting this on Facebook:
"I came across this article and felt prompted to write. I've thought about this topic alot. I like seeing the #3 on the race track and feel that it keeps the legacy of my dad in the thoughts of others. A number doesn't define a person. How that person lived their life, and what they accomplished and contributed in life defines a person. This number on the race track will carry the legacy and what defined my dad for years to come."
Whether or not the 3 car does make a re-appearance in Sprint Cup in 2014, Kevin and Richard have stated they are running for a Championship in 2013. Kevin has had some up and down seasons with RCR and he does want to leave the team having left his own distinctive mark. With Austin moving up to Sprint Cup in 2014, Kevin's leaving seems a no-brainer. He stepped up when RCR needed him, when the fans needed him, and he did so the best way he knew how - by winning. It only seems right that he "pass the torch" to Richard's grandson.
It also seems that it would be fitting for him to win the Championship and leave.
Matt Kenseth is another driver who made the decision to leave after many years with Jack Roush. Matt moved up into Sprint Cup from the Nationwide Series, joining Roush Fenway Racing, and won the Rookie of the Year honors in 2000, following that up with a Championship in 2003. He won the Daytona 500 twice for RFR, including 2012, but it seemed lately that he just needed a change. So, back in September, Matt announced that he would vacate the 17 seat he had filled for 12 years and move to the 20 for Joe Gibbs. The 20 car had been most famously driven by Tony Stewart, and in recent years Joey Logano had tried his best to continue the excellence of Stewart, and fallen short. Matt looks to bring that number back into Victory Lane on a regular basis, and once again contend for the Championship. The pressure is on, but I think Matt is up to the challenge.
Dale Earnhardt Jr enters his 6th season with Hendrick Motorsports and one could argue that he is under the most pressure to perform. Dale Jr., however, would disagree. He has said in the past that he used to worry incredibly about disappointing the fans, but more recently he worries more about doing the very best he possibly can. He wants to succeed for himself now and has been taking action. No more is the Dale Jr. who just showed up at the racetrack just to drive the car. No longer do we see the Dale Jr who sleeps until noon, not worrying about how the car is set up, except to bitch to his crew chief, spotter and crew if it doesn't work. Steve Latarte can be thanked for the new, improved Dale Jr. He insists that Jr. attend team meetings - after all, isn't he part of the "team"?
Jr. is now at the shop with the rest of the crew, brainstorming and testing to see what can be done to make car and driver dominant.
Sure, Jr. still has other irons in the fire, including Hammerhead Entertainment, his recently opened car dealerships and Whiskey River, but his focus is the race car. He has a significant other in his life, and they seem happy together. In short, Dale Jr. seems to be comfortable in his skin. Even his actions with regard to the concussion show his maturity. He made the decision to put his health first and stepped out of the car, even though he was in the Chase, still competing for a championship. I think that comfort and that maturity take the pressure off and allow Jr. to relax and concentrate on what he needs to do, and enjoy the time he spends in the race car.
Finally, we look to the 2012 Champion, Brad Keselowski. "Bad Brad" won the Championship, and did so with just a little help of luck. That is, bad luck, for Jimmie Johnson. If Jimmie Johnson hadn't had that bad luck, would Brad have won that Championship?
The fans of Jimmie Johnson say definitely not, while anti-Jimmies say yes, without a doubt. I think the answer is somewhere in between. Brad definitely performed like a champion in 2012 and Jimmie definitely had some bad luck. I, along with many others, would have loved to have seen the final Championship competition come down to the last lap of the last race, much as the 2011 Championship did between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards.
The pressure will be on Brad to perform again this season but I think he is up to the challenge. Make no mistake, Bad Brad is here to stay.
Next week we'll have a look at the new Sprint Cup car, the G6 a little closer, and we'll look at the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series.