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Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Hendrick still top dog in Cup garage

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

Rankings for the top 12 Sprint Cup drivers were decided in the 2012 Chase. Ranking the top 12 organizations in Cup is a little more subjective.

Deciding what criteria to use in determining your rankings isn't an exact science. After careful consideration, here's how I list them for 2012, along with a few reasons why and some thoughts on where each organization is headed in 2013:

1. Hendrick Motorsports -- For the second consecutive year, the Hendrick boys didn't win the big prize, again failing to claim the championship after its stretch of five straight by Jimmie Johnson. 2012 was also the first time since 2005 that Hendrick equipment didn't win the title, but Rick Hendrick's juggernaut remains the best organization in NASCAR.

Jimmie Johnson
Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson leads the charge for top-ranked Hendrick Motorsports.

Hendrick placed all four of its drivers in the Chase. Two of them finished in the top 4 (Johnson third and Kasey Kahne fourth). Johnson was in contention for the title until the last 50 laps of the last race. Jeff Gordon finished 10th in the Chase and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 12th, but missed two playoff races because of a concussion.

Each driver won at least one race and the quartet combined to win 10 races. A Hendrick car finished in the top five a total of 51 times.

Johnson and the No. 48 Chevy team will be title contenders again in 2013. Kahne should be even better after having a year under his belt at Hendrick. Gordon proved he isn't washed up at 41, and Earnhardt had his best season in years.

No other organization came close to achieving the overall success as Hendrick's foursome.

2. Penske Racing -- Hard to rate any group worse than second if it has the reigning Cup champion. Brad Keselowski reached elite status with his first Cup title and gave Roger Penske the one crown that has eluded his remarkable career in racing.

Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe are racing's new dynamic duo, becoming the first team to outduel Johnson and Chad Knaus at the end since the No. 48 Chevy team's title streak began.

And the No. 2 team managed to do it with a lame-duck manufacturer. Penske announced early in the year his team was leaving Dodge for Ford in 2013. Dodge officials later announced they were leaving the sport.

But even a championship organization can't beat out Hendrick for No. 1 when Penske's other car struggled and endured controversy. AJ Allmendinger was suspended after testing positive for a banned substance. He later was released from the organization.

Sam Hornish Jr. filled the seat in the No. 22 Dodge and posted some decent runs (four finishes of 11th or better) in a difficult situation, but it was a disappointing year for Penske's second car. He hopes that improves next season with Joey Logano as the driver, but Logano still has a lot to prove.

3. Michael Waltrip Racing -- Easily the most improved organization in NASCAR. Clint Bowyer's first season with the team was a rousing success, winning three races and finishing No. 2 in the Chase.

Martin Truex Jr. also made the Chase, putting two drivers in the playoff for a group that never had one in it previously. And the No. 55 Toyota was 15th in owner points using three drivers: Waltrip, Mark Martin and Brian Vickers.

Clint Bowyer
Championship runner-up Clint Bowyer leading Michael Waltrip Racing was one of the top feel-good stories of 2012.

A big reason for the turnaround at MWR goes to Scott Miller, who left Richard Childress Racing with Bowyer. Miller took over as the executive vice president of competition, and the organization soared upward. He's the NASCAR executive of the year in my book.

MWR should continue to improve in 2013, and Bowyer should be viewed as a serious championship contender.

4. Roush Fenway Racing -- RFR placed two of its three drivers in the Chase with Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, but the man who fell one point short of the 2011 title was the biggest disappointment in Cup.

Carl Edwards failed to make the playoff and ended the year 15th in the standings. And Kenseth spent the second half of the season as a lame duck after announcing he was moving to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013. RFR drivers won five races, but Jack Roush had to be frustrated with the overall results.

Next year should be better. Edwards will have a new crew chief in veteran Jimmy Fennig, who guided Kenseth to three wins in 2012, including two in the Chase.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., coming off his second consecutive Nationwide Series title, takes over for Kenseth in the No. 17 Ford. Stenhouse has paid his dues and appears ready to race competitively at the Cup level.

5. Joe Gibbs Racing -- Halfway through the Chase, Denny Hamlin was only 15 points behind Keselowski. It looked like Hamlin just might get it done, but he had three finishes of 20th or worse in the last four races.

If Edwards was the biggest disappointment of the year, Kyle Busch wasn't far behind, failing to make the Chase for the second time in the past four seasons.

Logano, the phenom who once was viewed as a can't-miss future star, never lived up to expectations at JGR. Kenseth takes his spot in the No. 20 Toyota next year and Logano hopes a fresh start at Penske leads to better days ahead.

For JGR, Kenseth should contend for the title in 2013, and his quiet consistency could rub off on Busch and Hamlin. Busch brings some big momentum into 2013 after posting seven top-10s in the Chase races, including fourth or better in the last four events.

6. Stewart-Haas Racing -- Tony Stewart caught lightning in a bottle last year, winning five Chase races, but he was winless in the 2012 playoff and finished ninth in the standings. Teammate Ryan Newman failed to make the Chase after finishing 10th in 2011.

SHR adds Danica Patrick as a full-time Cup driver next year, but she has no realistic prospects of contending for a Chase spot. Finishing in the top 20 in the standings would be a huge success. The real move up for SHR may have to wait for 2014, when Kevin Harvick joins the stable.

Harvick
How will Kevin Harvick's lame-duck status in 2013 impact Richard Childress Racing?

7. Richard Childress Racing -- RCR placed one driver in the Chase in Harvick. That's the good news. The bad news is he's leaving in 2014.

Richard Childress' operation took a major step backward in 2012. RCR had six victories among four drivers in 2011, but only one win among three drivers in 2012, and that didn't come until Harvick won at Phoenix in the next-to-last race.

Losing Bowyer and Miller was a big blow. The RCR engine shop appeared to be a tick behind, which led to Chip Ganassi opting to leave the engine program in 2013 to lease engines from Hendrick. It's a move that will cost RCR millions of dollars.

Now RCR has the unusual situation of racing Harvick in the No. 29 Chevy as a lame duck for an entire season. In a story written by ESPN.com's David Newton last week at Las Vegas, Childress said Harvick's status in 2013 "will make it a difficult year."

Everyone knows the future at RCR is Austin and Ty Dillon, Childress' grandsons. These guys aren't just lucky family members. Both are talented young drivers who could become future stars in Cup. But RCR will have to bide its time for now, shore up its internal weaknesses and right the ship.

8. Richard Petty Motorsports -- Having both drivers finish in the top 20 in the standings and watching Marcos Ambrose earn an exciting victory at Watkins Glen is an OK year, but not an improvement over where RPM was in 2011.

RPM has re-signed both Ambrose and Aric Almirola for 2013 and will stay in the Ford stable, but Petty isn't thrilled about that situation. RPM basically becomes the "third wheel,'' so to speak, at Ford with Penske coming in.

A new deal with Dodge might have been a better arrangement, but Dodge officials needed an engine program and probably wanted a better organization to stay in the sport.

9. Furniture Row Racing -- Rating Furniture Row ahead of Ganassi's team will surprise some people, but facts are facts. Barney Visser's No. 78 Chevy finished 24th in owner points using two drivers: Regan Smith and Kurt Busch.

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing finished 23rd (No. 1 car) and 25th (No. 42 car) in owner points, but did it with far more resources and personnel than Visser's team has.

Busch finished in the top 10 in each of the last three races in the No. 78, so 2013 looks promising if the Denver-based team can keep Kurt's volatile nature in check.

10. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing -- Easily the most disappointing organization in NASCAR. Despite numerous staff changes at EGR for 2012, Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya were winless for the second consecutive year. They didn't have one top-5 finish between them.

There is no sensible reason for EGR to be this bad. Ganassi already took one big step for 2013 by switching to Hendrick engines, but it will take more than new motors to turn this operation around.

11. JTG/Daugherty Racing -- Going it alone in Cup in no easy task, but this team (owned by Tad and Jodi Geschickter and Brad Daugherty) did show a little improvement over 2011. Bobby Labonte finished 23rd in the standings, six spots better than 2011.

Labonte is returning in 2013 for what could be his final Cup season, but the prospects of the organization making any significant improvement probably will require a second car and more sponsorship funding.

12. Phoenix Racing -- The fact that James Finch's boys weathered most of the season through Kurt Busch's antics and temper tantrums is enough to deserve some recognition here.

The bare-bones operation of the No. 51 Chevy finished 27th in owner points, which was better than eight other cars that competed in every event. And major props to Finch for giving Allmendinger a chance to return after his rehab and compete in four events.

Whether Finch can keep it together for 2013 remains to be seen, but at least the 51 crew went out every weekend and gave it their best shot by truly trying to compete, which is more than I can say for the start-and-parkers.