Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Sprint Cup [Print without images]

Thursday, December 22, 2011
Updated: December 23, 2:34 PM ET
NASCAR train rolls through offseason

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

A.J. Allmendinger
A.J. Allmendinger landed a secure ride at Penske Racing with room to grow.

And they call this the offseason? A new name is in order. The "it's-onseason" is a better description.

A constant barrage of drivers, crew chiefs and sponsors changing places have filled the so-called downtime since the 2011 NASCAR season ended last month.

Every major organization in Sprint Cup has undergone at least one move, and there's more to come. A Wall Street frenzy has less trading than what NASCAR has produced in the last five weeks.

Crew chief changes have topped the list. Eleven drivers, so far, will have new crew chiefs in 2012.

But the shocker of the offseason came when Kurt Busch and Penske Racing went their separate ways. Busch is headed down the Cup food chain in 2012 to drive the Phoenix Racing Chevy for James Finch, and A.J. Allmendinger was the surprise winner to replace Busch in the No. 22 Dodge.

So let's review and discuss 11 Cup teams to see who has upgraded and who downgraded in the flurry of transactions:

Penske Racing: Downgrade -- From a pure statistical standpoint, the team has downgraded. Busch is a former Cup champion and a consistent Chase contender. Allmendinger is not, at least not yet.

Penske also lost crew chief Steve Addington, a proven winner, and replaced him with Todd Gordon, an unproven commodity at the Cup level.

However, there's more to this than just stats. Roger Penske unloaded a constant complainer and a team basher in Busch. And he added a likable guy on the rise in Allmendinger.

Penske Racing president Tim Cindric was asked why they chose Allmendinger.

"The word potential is what continues to come up," Cindric said Wednesday. "No one has a better progression in his career than A.J."

But Cindric understands it won't be easy for A.J. to come close to what Busch did in the car.

"We have to be realistic," Cindric said. "We have to hit singles in the beginning. We are replacing a world-class driver."

This is the best ride of Allmendinger's career and could become his opportunity to win races and run with the big dogs. Of all the available drivers, A.J. was the best choice. David Ragan also was a good candidate, but Allmendinger probably has more upside potential.

"I know there is a lot of pressure to perform," Allmendinger said Wednesday. "If I didn't feel I could do that, I wouldn't be here."

Whatever Allmendinger does, it won't involve all the headaches that Busch brought to the No. 22 team.

Phoenix Racing: Major Upgrade -- This is as good as it gets for Finch in having Busch drive his car.

For Busch, it will be a one-year deal to prove he can act like a grown-up and say all the right things while driving for a team that won't be a title contender. Before hiring him, Finch warned Busch he won't put up with any of the team-bashing nonsense Busch displayed at Penske.

If Busch minds his manners, he'll be back with a top-tier team in 2013. For now, it's about being a Boy Scout, having some fun under no pressure and possibly winning a race or two, especially on the restrictor-plate tracks where this team won at Talladega in 2009 with Brad Keselowski.

Stewart-Haas Racing: Upgrade -- Bringing in Addington as Stewart's crew chief and reuniting with Greg Zipadelli (the new competition director) certainly looks like an upgrade for SHR, although anything short of the championship in 2012 will be a statistical downgrade.

Steve Addington
Steve Addington's addition as Tony Stewart's crew chief may help make the championship-winning team even better.

But Stewart has added depth and experience that will make SHR stronger in the long run. Zipadelli also will help with the transition to a third Cup car with Danica Patrick's 10-race schedule in 2012, along with helping Stewart find the right guy as her crew chief for the full-time run in 2013.

FYI: Mike Ford is available and his strength is working with drivers learning the ropes in Cup.

Joe Gibbs Racing: Mixed -- Losing Zipadelli hurts. JGR officials wanted him to stay in some capacity. But it probably was time for some type of change with the No. 20 Toyota (Jason Ratcliff takes over on the pit box) because things weren't improving with Zipadelli as the crew chief for Joey Logano.

The same was true for Ford and Denny Hamlin. A change was needed and this one should help Hamlin. Getting Darian Grubb, the man who guided Stewart on his remarkable playoff run to the 2012 title, is a huge coup for JGR.

This is no knock on Ford. He's a skilled guy on the pit box and could help many drivers, but Hamlin needed a fresh start and Grubb is a perfect fit for the No. 11 Toyota team.

Richard Childress Racing: Mixed -- RCR has one less Cup car and lost a top driver in Clint Bowyer. It also lost Scott Miller, who left to become the vice president of competition at Michael Waltrip Racing.

However, RCR will place the best people from four teams into the three remaining Cup cars, which will give each team more depth.

Jeff Burton now has one of the most talented young crew chiefs in Cup with the addition of Drew Blickensderfer, who guided Ragan's improvement in 2011.

Shane Wilson, who was Bowyer's crew chief, takes over as Kevin Harvick's crew chief on the No. 29 Chevy. It may be the change that finally gets Harvick that elusive Cup title.

RCR also has two talented young drivers -- brothers Austin and Ty Dillon -- waiting in the wings as future Cup drivers (and possible stars) for their grandfather's team.

Red Bull Racing Team: Down and out -- This wasn't unexpected, but until the doors actually closed, everyone hoped GM Jay Frye could find a buyer and sponsors to keep the operation going.

Unfortunately, that didn't happen, and a quality organization with two cars that finished in the top 25 in points won't return in 2012.

Richard Petty Motorsports: Major Downgrade -- Losing Allmendinger to Penske and the sponsor Best Buy to Matt Kenseth's Roush Fenway Racing team is a huge blow. RPM released a statement this week saying it plans to remain a two-car team.

Ragan is the likely choice for the 43, but the key is securing sponsorship. No easy task at this point, but the Petty name is a big asset is finding corporate sponsors.

Roush Fenway Racing: Upgrade -- One less car in 2012, but as is the case of RCR, depth will improve on the three remaining teams. And adding Best Buy as the primary sponsor for Kenseth helps make up for the loss of Crown Royal.

Michael Waltrip Racing: Upgrade -- Most of the MWR changes came before the postseason surge, but this should be the most improved team in Cup next season.

Clint Bowyer
Clint Bowyer is a major upgrade for Michael Waltrip Racing.

Adding Bowyer, the 5-Hour Energy sponsor, and Miller to lead the operation are giant steps forward. Brian Pattie also has come onboard as Bowyer's crew chief.

And having Mark Martin, who will drive in 25 events for MWR in 2012, is a big plus. He'll make Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. better.

Hendrick Motorsports: Upgrade -- This is a quiet offseason at Hendrick, but the operation will be back in top form in 2012. Martin has moved on, but the No. 5 Chevy is in good hands with Kasey Kahne as the driver and Kenny Francis as crew chief.

Hendrick lost a quality engineer when Chris Heroy took the job as Juan Pablo Montoya's crew chief, and Rick Hendrick wanted Grubb to take an engineering position with the company. But this is a deep organization that has the talent to replace Heroy. It also could have another title contender in Kahne.

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing: Slight upgrade -- EGR was so down in 2011, anything in 2012 should look like an upgrade.

Montoya has gone from eighth in 2009 to 17th in 2010 and 21st in 2011. Jamie McMurray dropped from 14th in 2010 to 27th this year, and went from three victories in 2010 (including the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400) to none in 2011.

If 2012 isn't an upgrade, EGR is in big trouble. Heroy should help Montoya, but the big shakeup came in management positions. Max Jones has joined EGR as the new team manager and John Probst, who was at Red Bull, is the new technical director.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.