2012-02-16 / Sports

Racing Season Is Upon Us

By Gerald Hodges
Robby Gordon wins Desert race

The off season is over, and it back to racing this weekend. As the teams count down the final days until the engines start turning over in earnest, this week is the last before NASCAR’s three national series head to Daytona International Speedway for their respective 2012 season openers.

Daytona Speedweeks kick off with the traditional Shootout at Daytona on Saturday night, followed by pole qualifying on Sunday for Daytona 500’s front row and the Gatorade Duel at Daytona, a pair of races to set the remainder of the field for the Feb. 26 Daytona 500.

There are many storylines coming out of Daytona, but Kasey Kahne is one of the top ones. This will be Kahne’s first season with Hendrick Motorsports, and it got off to a good start with the fastest lap on the final day of Preseason Thunder testing as well as the fifthfastest overall of the threeday session at 205.747 mph.

The eight-year NASCAR Sprint Cup Series veteran hopes to follow the example of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the last high-profile driver to switch to Hendrick Motorsports, by winning in his first start for Hendrick at the Shootout on Feb. 18.

But he will be driving with a sore knee, after undergoing surgery last week for a torn meniscus in his left knee.

He should be ready to practice next Friday, according to a team annoucement.

Kahne, who has replaced Mark Martin in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports car, will not have a backup driver at Daytona, according to the team.

He also plans to race for Turner Motorsports in the Nationwide Series.

Can defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart finally win the Daytona 500? Will there be a seventh-consecutive firsttime Daytona 500 winner?

Stewart is a three-time winner of the Budweiser Shootout, a nonpoints event, his most recent victory coming in 2007. Stewart also won in 2001-02 – one of four drivers with consecutive victories in the 75-lap, 187.5-mile event.

No surprise, Stewart has the best Driver Rating among Shootout eligible drivers, 105.2. Next best is Dale Earnhardt Jr. at 97.9 followed by Kevin Harvick, another four-time Shootout winner Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch.

Kurt Busch, who’ll make his debut in the event with James Finch’s Phoenix Racing, is the defending champion.

A driver to watch is AJ Allmendinger. He’ll make his second Shootout appearance in last year’s winning car – Penske Racing’s No. 22 Dodge. Allmendinger, a member of the Rolex 24 winning Michael Shank Racing team, finished fifth in the race’s 2009 edition. Figure Allmendinger to be a legitimate contender to become the next first-time Daytona 500 winner. The No. 22 Dodge won its Gatorade Duel at Daytona qualifier a year ago with Kurt Busch finishing fifth in the Daytona 500.

The highest-ranked 25 drivers in 2011 standings plus previous winners of the Daytona 500, Coke Zero 400 and Shootout events are eligible to compete in this year’s Shootout.

Since 2005, there have been but two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions: Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart. Stewart was the last to win the championship before Johnson began his incredible run of five consecutive titles, which Stewart ended in 2011.

Will Stewart join Jeff Gordon as the only fourtime champions of NASCAR’s premier series? Can Carl Edwards, who lost last year’s crown on a tiebreaker, give Roush Fenway Racing its third championship? Or will there be a first-time champion – the first since Johnson in 2006?

Richard Petty Motorsports must somehow get their act together. After a terrible 2010 season, RPM attempted to regain its footing under new ownership and a reduction from four teams to two.

Marcos Ambrose starts his second season with the No. 9 team. With Todd Parrott at the helm, Ambrose’s statistics showed dramatic improvement in his first season at RPM. Not only did he earn his first win and post five top-five and 12 top-10 finishes, Ambrose improved his position in the points standings by seven spots and was on target to finish 17th before an engine failure in the season finale at Homestead.

Aric Almirola rejoins RPM following a five-race stint in 2010, when he subbed for Kasey Kahne, who opted out early for Red Bull Racing. Almirola had one career-high fourth-place finish. Most recently, Almirola competed for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series and finished fourth in the points standings. Although Almirola, 27, has 35 Cup starts, he did not compete in a Cup race last year.

RPM suffers from professionalism and lack of sponsorship. If their sponsors stay on board, then this organization should be able to finish the season. However, both teams must work together to overcome inexperience and size.

With a successful 2012 Dakar Rally behind him, Robby Gordon headed to Parker, Ariz., last week for the Best in the Desert Parker 425, for a new challenge.

He drove a new truggy (a hybrid between a trophy truck and a Class 1 buggy). Built by the Geiser Brothers and owned by SPEED Energy/ RPM Off-Road Racing teammate Clyde Stacey, it was be the first time Gordon had entered the 1500 class instead of the BITD’s Trick Truck class.

Gordon finished an impressive 14 minutes faster than last year’s winner, Jesse Jones. Gordon beat the next competitor by nearly 5 minutes.

He is scheduled to run the Daytona 500, but has announced no further NASCAR plans.

Weekend racing: Saturday marks the its NASCAR race of the 2012 season. In addition, the ARCA Series will also hold their first event of the year. Both will be at the 2.5-mile Daytona Speedway.

Sat., Feb. 18; ARCA Lucas Oil 200; Starting time: 4 p.m.; TV: Speed.

Sat., Feb. 18; NASCAR Budweiser Shootout; Starting time: 8 p.m.; TV: FOX.

Sun., Feb. 19 Qualifying for the Daytona 500 first two positions; Time 1 p.m. ET; TV: FOX.

Racing trivia question: Austin Dillon won the 2011 Truck Series championship. Which series will he be running in 2012?

Last week’s question: How many Daytona 500 wins does Michael Waltrip have? Answer. Two: 2001 and 2003.

Contact the Racing Reporter at hodges@race500.com.

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