Bad news for BK and Junior in '13
Yes or no.
Over the next week or so, I'm listing 10 key questions for NASCAR's 2013 season. On five I'll answer no and the other five I'll answer yes.
I expect some strong disagreement among the readers. Maybe one or two of these will end up as a poll question on ESPN.com.
Let's start with the negative and save the positives for the week before Christmas.
So here are five driver-related questions that -- after serious contemplation -- I'll answer with a no. And I hope some of them prove me wrong:
1. Can Brad Keselowski repeat as champion in 2013?
Only one man has done it in the past 14 seasons. Of course, he did it four times. Jimmie Johnson won five consecutive titles (2006-10), the only man to win more than three in a row.
Clearly, it's not that tough to do. And I believe Keselowski is capable of doing it, but a couple of things are working against him.
Penske Racing is switching manufacturers this season from Dodge to Ford. That includes eliminating its in-house engine program and leasing engines from Roush Yates Engines, which also provides motors for Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports.
That's a whopping change. Penske was the only show at Dodge, receiving 100 percent support and attention from Dodge engineers. Now Penske is part of a conglomerate.
"Ford has been consistent in its belief that we will be stronger with one engine specification rather than continuing with an independent approach," said Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing. "Roush Yates [Engines] has a proven record."
Ford officials call it the "One Ford' approach, the same concept it uses in the NHRA with the Funny Car teams of John Force Racing, along with Bob Tasca's and Tim Wilkerson's teams.
"This aligns well with the spirit of having a unified engine program," said Jamie Allison, director of Ford Racing. "It allows us to apply all of our technical resources into one program benefiting all Ford teams."
Maybe it all will go swimmingly from the start for Penske. Maybe not. It's a completely new approach compared to the way the organization has done things in the past.
The other reason I'm saying no on a Keselowski repeat is the depth of competition in Sprint Cup. There are more drivers capable of winning the title than at any other time in NASCAR history.
2. Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. win the title?
Earnhardt was a true contender for most of the 2012 season, but one thing stops me from saying he can win the championship: He just doesn't win enough races.
Junior ended his four-year winless streak last season at Michigan, but until he proves he can take the No. 88 Chevy to Victory Lane a little more often, I don't see a title coming his way.
In the past eight seasons, every Cup champ has won at least five races that year. In the Chase era, the average number of wins for the champion is six.
Earnhardt won six races at Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2004 and won three times in 2001, but those are the only seasons in his 13-year Cup career that he's won more than twice.
Mathematically speaking, a driver doesn't need to win races to win the title. Realistically speaking, it won't happen if you don't win races.
One thing may change my assessment -- the new car. Earnhardt was thrilled with the way the car drove in the test session this week at Charlotte. The COT never suited his driving style, but he believes the changes to the new car are more in tune with his skills. His six-win season came before the COT became the full-time Cup car in 2008. Maybe the new car means he will win more. We'll see, but I'll stick with a no for now on him winning the 2013 crown.
3. Can Kevin Harvick contend for the title as a lame duck at Richard Childress Racing?
Harvick is in the unique position of racing a full season for a team he knows he's leaving. He will move to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 but still has a year left on this contract to drive the No. 29 Chevy at RCR.
Talk about an awkward situation.
"It'll probably be the best season we've ever had, to be honest with you," Harvick said when his 2013 car was unveiled at Las Vegas two weeks ago.
Sorry, Kevin, I'm not buying it. This is like living with an ex-wife for a year after the divorce is final.
The 29 team will continue to work hard and give its best effort in a professional manner, but it's just not the same. And even if things were the same, RCR has to improve to get back to true championship contention.
4. Can Danica Patrick finish in the top 20 in the standings as a Cup rookie?
Not a chance. Patrick finished 10th in the 2012 Nationwide Series standings, her first year as a full-time NASCAR driver. Consequently, some people might say it stands to reason she could finish in the top 20 in her first year as a full-time Cup driver.
And they would be wrong. Only 13 drivers competed in all 33 Nationwide races, so finishing 10th isn't as good as it sounds. Cup had 27 drivers compete in all 36 races, but four of those didn't finish in the top 25.
That also seems to play into Patrick's favor, but consider these stats: Aric Almirola was 20th in the 2012 Cup standings with an average finish of 20.0. Patrick's average Nationwide Series finish in 2012 was 18.8.
That means she would need to race almost as well in Cup this season as she did in Nationwide in 2012 to finish in the top 20 in the 2013 Cup standings -- highly unlikely with the gigantic increase in driver skills she will see in Cup.
5. Can Joey Logano make the Chase in his first year at Penske Racing?
Moving to Penske was a good decision for Logano, but give it time. Logano ran out of time at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Tony Stewart's departure forced JGR to bring Logano to Cup way too soon (at age 19), and Logano wasn't able to live up to the enormous expectations placed on him as a teenage phenom.
Now he has a fresh start at a quality organization, and he's still only 22 years old. But he's joining a No. 22 team that hasn't raced much in the top 10 recently and still is building its future.
It's hard to say how good the team can be considering all the turmoil it endured in 2012, with AJ Allmendinger's suspension for substance abuse and eventual departure. Sam Hornish Jr. came in and raced well at times but was no threat to win.
Logano has the talent to get the team where it wants to go, but it won't happen quickly. And Penske's switch to Ford, as stated above, could complicate the process.