Race Weekend Central

2013 Staff NASCAR Preview, Part II: Who Has The Most To Prove

As the NFL fades away this week, sports fans across the country turn towards the next big event on the schedule: NASCAR’s Super Bowl. After a three-month hiatus, Daytona beckons as the 38-week, 2013 schedule descends upon us.

But the Great American Race is the Great NASCAR Beginning, the start of a journey that takes us to Las Vegas, Pocono and nearly two dozen American locales in between. There’s plenty of unanswered questions about what’s to come, a year filled with changes from the Gen-6, to new qualifying, to new competitive rookies for the first time in over four years. So let us get you revved up once again; it’s Frontstretch season preview time, all week setting up not only the Sprint Cup season and the excitement of our coverage to come.

“2013 SEASON PREVIEW, PART I: IS THE GEN-6 NASCAR’s FIX-ALL”:https://frontstretch.com/tbowles/42266/

Today’s Season Preview Topic: There’s only a handful of drivers in new rides this season, but they all have big names attached to them. Which driver within that group has the most to prove entering the 2013 season, and why?

Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief: There’s only a handful of drivers in new rides this season. In fact, you can name them all on one hand: Joey Logano to Penske, Matt Kenseth to Gibbs, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. to full-time status with Roush Fenway, ditto for Danica Patrick at Stewart-Haas, and David Reutimann to BK Racing. It was the weakest NASCAR Silly Season we’ve had this century… but I digress.

They may be racing’s newest power couple, but in the eyes of fans around the country it’s Danica Patrick, not Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. who needs to prove more in their 2013 battle for Rookie of the Year in the Cup Series.

With such a short list, the answer to this one’s easy, even though others will try and rationalize responses like Logano and Kenseth. It’s because they don’t want to recognize the elephant sitting down, smack dab in the center of the room and I know you probably don’t, either. It smells like a skunk just sprayed right in front of you, then prancing around like a stale fart that’s lingering and staying in your face even when you’re trying not to pay attention (see: GoDaddy Super Bowl commercials one and two. I think the only one who felt good about those was Walter). But let’s face it: 2013 is clearly make or break for Ms. Patrick in the world of racing. Her sponsorship deal, rumored to be on shaky ground late last season could be up for renewal as soon as November. No expert worth a damn in Cup racing expects her to finish on the lead lap most weeks, let alone challenge new beau Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. for Rookie of the Year.

So why does this marketing machine keep popping up on your screen? Like it or not, there’s a whole legion of competitors whose very future may depend on Danica’s ability to overcome the odds. The female Jackie Robinson has been labeled, placed in the best equipment a woman running NASCAR’s top level has likely _ever_ had. There are plenty of young girls looking up to her, waiting for that bulldozer she’s driving to pave a path to their future in motorsports. If Danica gets bulldozed herself… that path could take another decade or so to get created. So yeah, I think Ms. Patrick has something to tackle, as does new crew chief Tony Gibson who got the “pet project” after underachieving with Ryan Newman. Can this duo get it together? Only every top-level NASCAR executive, millions of young girls around the country and three television networks are counting on her. But no pressure…

Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: I don’t think you can say that any one of those drivers has any more to prove than any other. They all do. Matt Kenseth has to prove he has plenty of wins left in him after age 40. Logano has to prove to himself he deserves the “Sliced Bread” moniker… or to the masses that he doesn’t. AJ Allmendinger and Regan Smith have to prove they’re worthy of a full-time Cup ride by making the most of a part-time one (Phoenix Racing’s No. 51). Patrick has to prove she’s not just another open-wheel-defector-turned-NASCAR-wannabe. Stenhouse has to prove his Nationwide titles were won on talent and not Roush Fenway dollars. Nobody needs to prove anything more than the next guy.

In fact, I’d argue that the ones who really have to prove something are the guys who don’t have to learn to work with a whole new team, manufacturer, and/or series, but failed to live up to expectations in 2012 — drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Carl Edwards. To me, these superstars who all struck out on their recent goals really have to go out and show the world that they’re still championship-caliber.

Beth Lunkenheimer, Managing Editor: With the expanded coverage of Danica Patrick’s NASCAR career, it’s easy to point straight to her. However, for this question, I actually look to Joey Logano. Touted as the latest thing since “Sliced Bread” when he was signed by Joe Gibbs Racing, the 22-year-old has failed to impress in the Cup Series. Sure, there have been some flashes of brilliance, like the 2012 Pocono victory over Mark Martin last June. However, points finishes of 20th, 16th, 24th and 17th aren’t exactly the performance everyone expected when Logano was brought in to fill the No. 20 Toyota left vacant by Tony Stewart. Take those results, combined with a dismal sub-top 15 average finish last year in a season that saw Logano snag just 12 top-10 results in 36 races and you see why JGR kicked him out. Yes, there were a whopping nine Nationwide Series victories but success at the “AAA” baseball level can only buy you so much time in the majors. For Logano, that time nearly ran out and now, at age 22 he must prove this second chance was worth giving.

Joey Logano spent most of his time at Joe Gibbs Racing looking up at the lofty goals set by his bosses — but never achieved. Can he turn a slumping Cup career around with his new opportunity at Penske Racing?

Brett Poirier, Senior Writer: Easily Joey Logano. Joe Gibbs Racing gave up on him as a Sprint Cup driver, but he’s been given a second chance with Penske. He’s entering his fifth full season in Cup and has little to show for his time — two wins and no points finish inside the top 15. Logano has more potential than any young driver I can think of, and he’s only 22. Kyle Busch was 22 when he left Hendrick for Gibbs in 2008 and became a star. Logano needs to prove he is capable of doing the same. While he is still very young, if he does fail with Penske, then what would be next? It would be highly improbable for Logano to land another ride with a top-tier team if this one doesn’t work out. The pressure is on to perform now.

Mike Neff, Short Track Editor: I don’t know that any of them have anything to prove, but the one with the biggest expectations on his shoulders would have to be Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. Stenhouse is climbing into the seat of a former series champion who made the Chase every year but one and won three races in each of the last two seasons. Roush has long been a top team in the sport and the No. 17 car has been the flagship for years — especially since the No. 6 was shelved. Remember, Stenhouse started his Nationwide career crashing nearly every week and nearly got fired in the midst of a tumultuous rookie season. If he starts to feel pressure to perform, he could end up tearing up a lot of equipment again this year — putting a team behind the eight ball long-term that’s still surviving through little more than patchwork sponsorship.

Danny Peters, Senior Writer: It has to be Danica, doesn’t it? After a relatively poor first season, the step up to Cup will be huge. Can she handle it? It should be fun to watch. I’ll give a second nod to Joey Logano in this category, who really needs to start imposing himself if he’s to live up to all the hype. Having the champ as a teammate should help massively.

S.D. Grady, Senior Editor: I’ll nominate Joey Logano for “Needs to be Most Improved in 2013.” Ever since his meteoric elevation to Sprint Cup in 2009, NASCAR Nation has been holding its collective breath for Joey to live up to his nickname, but things just never quite clicked. Now in a new ride at Penske, with a teammate born in the same decade, the opportunity for true collaboration within the stable shines for him. This will be either a breakout year, or the beginning of his decline into NASCAR anonymity.

Tony Lumbis, Marketing Director: Now, more than ever, rookies are pressured to perform sooner rather than later. I do not think this statement will hold true as much for this year’s rookie class. Danica Patrick would basically have to kill someone to lose her ride at this juncture. Meanwhile, Jack Roush gave David Ragan every chance to succeed over a five-year period before dropping him, so I do not think Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. will be one and done. Many eyes will be on Matt Kenseth for his move of leaving a successful team, but I think the honor of “Most to Prove 2013” goes to Joey Logano. The young New Englander came into the series with lofty expectations and sub-par results. Rarely do drivers in these situations get a second chance, especially with another top organization. Not only does Logano step into a ride capable of winning and in desperate need of stability, he does so at the urging of reigning Spring Cup Champion Brad Keselowski. With two big names still believing in Logano — Keselowski and his boss, Roger Penske — there will be a lot on the line for the organization’s newest addition to win races and make the Chase this year.

Rick Lunkenheimer, Contributing Writer/Photographer: Hands down, Danica Patrick has the most to prove this upcoming season. Whether it’s right or wrong, there’s an instant increase in the pressure for good performance based on the fact that she’s female alone. Add in the additional coverage she receives, coupled with the hype that surrounded her initial foray in NASCAR and you’ve got a recipe for constant criticism. Though she hasn’t been involved in all that many wrecks that were of her making, the driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet instantly takes the spotlight after any incident. Don’t expect her rookie year to be any different.

Kevin Rutherford, Nationwide Series Head Writer: Joey Logano has shown himself to be an expert contender in the Nationwide Series, but his Cup results so far leave much to be desired, especially considering his former team, the always-competitive Joe Gibbs Racing. For 2013, Logano joins Penske Racing and the challenge is immediate. His new No. 22 team didn’t exactly light the racing world on fire last year, struggling with A.J. Allmendinger and Sam Hornish, Jr. But his Penske teammate, Brad Keselowski, was famously the Sprint Cup champion.

Because of Penske’s recent success, 2013 is more important than ever for Logano to capitalize on his chances in NASCAR’s top series. If he can’t make it with an organization that is coming off a championship and has one of the sport’s top drivers to work with, he may forever be caught in the limbo between Cup and Nationwide — too good for one, not good enough for the other.

Matt Kenseth never expected to leave Roush Fenway Racing, successful to the very end in every avenue but long-term sponsorship. Will a fresh start at Joe Gibbs Racing turn that 2012 frown upside down?

Jeff Meyer, Senior Writer: Matt Kenseth will definitely have the most to prove during the 2013 season. Moving from one high profile team to another, especially when Kenseth had expectations of staying in Roush’s stable for his whole career, there will plenty of people just waiting to say, “I told ya so!” no matter which side of the fence you fall on. I can’t help but think of Kurt Busch and his leaving for “more souvenir profits.”

Danica and Ricky? They will cancel each other out now that they are dating, as each tries to desperately to stay out of each other’s way so as not to cause discord in the bedroom. Joey, paired with Brad will do fine and probably will even excel. AJ may be a big surprise… if the equipment holds up… and will shine for Phoenix. Finally, Reutimann will show spurts of promise (as usual) but he can never sustain it.

Phil Allaway, Senior Editor: Likely Joey Logano. He’s no longer within the Gibbs fold, where he has been since age 16. Even though it’s his first year with Penske, the expectation is he’s got to produce and produce now. I don’t think 19th in points is going to cut it this season. Remember that he is still in a perennial Chase-contending organization. After last year’s quagmire, Roger Penske is going to want the No. 22 to be right back at the form they had when Kurt Busch was still driving the car. The pressure is going to come quickly.

Summer Dreyer, Writer/Assistant Editor: I would say that Joey Logano has the most to prove. With all of the hype that was built up around his move to the Cup Series, his career thus far has been nothing short of a disappointment. While the argument can be made that he was moved up too fast, expectations were too high, etc., four full seasons is more than enough. That’s not to say Logano isn’t a talented driver. You can’t be nearly unstoppable in the Nationwide Series and still suck. Perhaps Penske Racing will be that extra “oomph” he needs to translate that success to the Sprint Cup Series.

Matt Stallknecht, Senior Writer: Many will likely disagree with me on this point since she is still only a rookie in the Sprint Cup Series, but Danica Patrick has the most to prove of anyone piloting a new ride in 2013. No matter how much us media types insist that Patrick still needs time to adjust to stock cars after years and years of running open-wheel, public perception is unfortunately reality, and the public has been none too impressed with Ms. Patrick’s efforts in the NASCAR ranks. If she goes out every race and runs 33rd, she will likely be viewed as a 33rd-place driver the rest of her career, no matter how much she actually improves. Such is life for someone who is subject to incessant media attention; if you don’t produce consistently, you get labeled an overrated failure.

With all these mental concepts in mind, it is absolutely paramount that Danica Patrick comes out of the gate swinging in 2013 and posts some decent finishes. She needs to prove that she belongs in this sport based not just on the level of her sex appeal, but on the merits of her driving skill. Whether she has it in her to silence the doubters remains to be seen, but there is no question that Danica Patrick needs to at least prove she can be competitive this year if she wants to have any sort of respect in the eyes of fans across the nation.

Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: Without question, the driver with the most to prove in this group is Joey Logano. He’s dominated in the Nationwide Series when he’s run there but has been far from a contender in Cup. His average finish last year was 17.4, but besides his victory in the Spring Pocono race, he had only one other top-5 result. At the very least, he needs to go into the final couple of races of the regular season as a serious Chase contender. He can only live on potential for so long.

Brad Morgan, Senior Writer: After being ousted from his seat at Joe Gibbs Racing, Joey Logano finds himself facing heavy demands behind the wheel of Roger Penske’s No. 22 Ford Fusion for the 2013 season.

Since entering Sprint Cup competition full-time at age 19, Logano has had a tough time living up to his teenage nickname “Sliced Bread” despite driving JGR’s highly touted No. 20 Toyota made famous by three-time champion Tony Stewart. But the road doesn’t get easier from here, as the 22-year-old driver lands at a newly crowded championship organization with the same pressures to succeed as the team he departed from over the offseason.

Some of the sport’s biggest names have seen their misfortunes in Penske Racing cars culminate in ride termination in recent years. After watching the departures of Ryan Newman and David Stremme, and as drivers such as Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger quickly fell from Penske into the clutches of bottom-flight teams, it’s evident that Logano will have only a few seasons to prove that he can progress into the Chase-caliber driver that many people thought he could be out of the box.

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