Commentary

Good news for Gordon and more

Originally Published: December 19, 2012
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Jeff GordonChris Graythen/Getty Images/NASCARJeff Gordon may have a real shot at holding the most important hardware at next year's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion's Awards.

Last week was the negative, the five questions for the 2013 NASCAR season that I answered with a "no."

This week, I'm going positive -- five other questions I'm answering with a "yes." Good things could happen in 2013 for these drivers and teams. A couple of my optimistic responses may surprise you.

1. Can Jeff Gordon win a fifth championship in 2013?

Gordon is about to begin his 21st Cup season. His last championship was in 2001, the year he turned 30. Now he's 41.

Based on those numbers, some might say the glory years are long gone for Gordon. I'm not one of them, not now. I might have agreed when he was winless in 2010, but things have changed for the better on the No. 24 Chevy team.

Two reasons stand out. First, Gordon is starting his third season with crew chief Alan Gustafson, a combination that has produced five victories and 24 top-5s in the past two years.

They got it done in 2012 despite a horrendous start when Gordon ranked 24th after 11 races with two DNFs, including an engine failure in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Gordon rallied to make the Chase, but finished 10th after an accident ruined his chances in the Chase opener at Chicago. However, Gordon finished third or better in four of the last eight playoff races, including a victory in the season finale at Homestead.

But the second reason for optimism is the big one: The car that never suited his driving skills is gone.

Gordon and the Car of Tomorrow never really hit it off when it became the full-time Cup car in 2008. The Gen-6 car that debuts this season likely will prove more to his liking.

Consider these stats: In the past 5 years with the COT (2007 had 16 races with it), Gordon won nine races in the car, three of which came in the partial COT year in 2007.

In the 5 years immediately before the COT (including 2007 in the old car), Gordon won 20 races. All four of his championships came in the car used before the COT.

All indications are the Gen-6 will include more characteristics similar to the pre-COT car. That's good news to Gordon and some other drivers, but Gordon could be the driver who benefits the most from the change.

It just might be enough to earn him that fifth title.

2. Can Clint Bowyer break the runner-up jinx?

If he doesn't, someone must be walking around with a voodoo doll.

The last runner-up to win the championship the following season was Tony Stewart in 2002. The average position in the standings for a previous-season runner-up in the past 11 seasons is 9.6.

But Bowyer has some things going for him many of those other runners-up didn't have. He's part of an organization at Michael Waltrip Racing that obviously is on the rise.

MWR placed both its full-time drivers (Martin Truex Jr. joining Bowyer) in the Chase for the first time in team history. Look for MWR to continue to improve and establish itself as one of the elite teams in Cup.

Bowyer also wasn't the runner-up for long, actually about 50 laps of the last race after Jimmie Johnson had mechanical issues.

Bowyer ended 2012 finishing sixth or better in five of the last six races, including a win at Charlotte. It might have been 6-for-6 without Gordon's decision to deliberately crash Bowyer at Phoenix.

So here's what both men need to do to improve their title chances in 2013 -- avoid each other.

3. Will Carl Edwards have a comeback year in 2013 after the worst season of his career?

[+] EnlargeCarl Edwards
Jerry Markland/Getty ImagesIt would a be a surprise if Carl Edwards didn't improve in 2013 after a dismal 2012.

The 2012 season for Edwards was a fall from grace that shocked almost everyone in the sport -- going from one point short of the 2011 title to 15th in the standings, Chaseless and winless.

But Edwards is far too talented a driver, and Roush Fenway Racing far too good an organization, for this to be more than a one-year bump in the road.

No one will enter the 2013 season more motivated than Edwards. The disappointment of coming so close to the championship in 2011 and falling short is long gone now. What's left after 2012 is an all-out quest to prove he belongs with the elite drivers, not the middle-of-the-packers.

Edwards always has rebounded with a good season after a year that wasn't so hot. He was winless in 2006, but won three times in 2007 and moved up three spots in the standings. He didn't win a race in 2009 and finished 11th, but improved to fourth overall with two victories in 2010.

Edwards also has the right man on the pit box to help him now -- veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig. If Fennig can lead Matt Kenseth to two Chase victories last season, think what he can do with a driver who isn't a lame duck.

4. Will Earnhardt Ganassi Racing become a competitive team again?

No way Chip Ganassi allows his boys to be pathetic (his word) again in 2013. Edwards failing to rebound in 2013 would be shocking, but EGR drivers Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya going winless and uncompetitive for a third consecutive year would be downright unimaginable.

Doing that for two years in a row was pretty surprising, but Ganassi has too much pride and too much racing knowledge to allow this to continue another season.

He took a big step to change things in November, announcing EGR would switch from Earnhardt Childress engines to Hendrick Motorsports engines. If you're wondering, Ganassi didn't abandon his own organization to make this change. The Earnhardt name basically is in title only for the Childress engines and the Ganassi race team.

But it will take more than new motors to raise this sinking ship. McMurray was 21st in the 2012 standings and Montoya was 22nd. They aren't the two best wheelmen in the sport, but both of them are way better than the equipment they're steering now.

Both drivers claim EGR made major improvements last season that weren't visible in results. I'll take their word for it, but those improvements better reveal themselves in some top-5s this season, which neither man had in 2012.

5. Can Kurt Busch contend for a Chase spot with Furniture Row Racing?

[+] EnlargeKurt Busch
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images/NASCARKurt Busch and Furniture Row racing made strides down the stretch last season.

My most surprising yes answer of the list. A one-car organization never has made the Chase, but the No. 78 Chevy team can do it with Kurt Busch in the driver's seat and veteran crew chief Todd Berrier on the pit box, assuming they don't claw each other's eyes out along the way.

Busch had an average finish of 14.3 in the six races he ran for Furniture Row to close out the 2012 season. Jeff Gordon made the 2012 Chase with an average finish of 14.9 in the first 26 races, along with the wild-card help of one victory.

So it may take a win to get it done, but it's not out of the question. Busch had three top-10s to end the year in the No. 78 Chevy.

Regan Smith's average finish was 21.6 in the first 30 races for the team. He had only three top-10s all season, but all three came in his last 10 starts, an indication the team was starting to show real improvement in the second half of the year.

Now it has one of the best drivers in the business, but Busch will need to keep his temper in check. Berrier previously worked with Kevin Harvick, so he's used to having a talented driver get a little unruly on the radio.

Team owner Barney Visser and general manager Joe Garone are making another change they believe will help the team improve. The 78 borrowed guys from Stewart-Haas Racing for its pit crew last year, but Furniture Row is switching to its own crew in 2013.

Veteran over-the-wall crewman Mike Houston left Hendrick Motorsports to train the No. 78 crew at the Performance Instruction & Training facility in Mooresville, N.C.

How this will work will the team being based in Denver is a little unclear, but it shows Visser and Garone are willing to do what it takes to make a serious run at the Chase.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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