Special Edition Under the Spotlight: Cup Series Underdogs to Watch in 2012

The start of the NASCAR season is officially in tow with this Sunday’s 54th running of the Daytona 500 and this means “Under the Spotlight” is back in action. Several changes were made during the offseason including the creation of rules to breakup two-car tandem racing, changes made to the cars at restrictor-plate tracks and many teams had changes in personnel with several drivers now running for different organizations. All of these changes are sure to shake things up a bit both on and off the track. Several drivers are now a part of larger organizations, while some have had a change in crew chief and a few are now running full-time as opposed to simply being a start-and-park – whatever the case, these changes have given the underdogs a shot at success. This special edition of “Under the Spotlight” will highlight some of the underdogs that are worth watching in 2012.

AJ Allmendinger and Penske Racing partner up and look to
break "The Dinger's" winless streak in 2012.
Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images
AJ Allmendinger

AJ Allmendinger’s career took a drastic turn during the offseason when he was asked to replace Kurt Busch in the famous No. 22 “Double Deuce” for Penske Racing. Now with a new team and a new crew chief in Todd Gordon, for the first time in his five year career, Allmendinger has a reason to smile as he looks to earning a spot to contend for the championship. As a driver for Richard Petty Motorsports last year, Allmendinger showed promise – he earned ten top-10 finishes and despite having only one top-5 finish, Allmendinger finished 15th in the point standings, the best of his career. Since entering the Sprint Cup Series, Allmendinger has been able to improve his position in the standings each year from 2007 through 2011, finishing 43rd, 36th, 24th, 19th and 15th respectively. If he is able to continue the trend and pick up some wins, come the end of the season Allmendinger will be competing with the best of the best in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Joey Logano

Like Allmendinger, Joey Logano also experienced some changes during the offseason – although Logano will continue to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing, he will be under new guidance as Jason Ratcliff has replaced Greg Zipadelli as crew chief of the No. 20 Home Depot team. Since the moment he entered the series, Logano has been under immense pressure, replacing champion Tony Stewart in the No. 20 made famous by Stewart. He first entered the tour in 2008 as the youngest driver in series history. In 2009 the driver became the youngest winner in Sprint Cup Series history, winning the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. That same year, Logano earned the title of 2009 Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year. Just when it seemed as though Logano would live up to his nickname “Sliced Bread,” the hype was put to an end as Logano was unable to rack up more wins. In his worst performance yet, Logano finished 24th in the standings in 2011 and earned only four top-five finishes. This year, Logano says is different – he is not letting the pressure of the media get to him, but instead is focusing on putting pressure on himself to perform well and live up to his own expectations and “the main way to do that is to go out and win races and win championships,” says Logano. Its now or never for Logano and with a new crew chief and new outlook for this season, its looking like now for the young driver.

Danica Patrick

All eyes are focused on Danica Patrick as she makes her Sprint
Cup debut in the Daytona 500.
Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR
While Danica Patrick is no underdog when it comes to popularity, her lack of experience in a stock car is definitely raising some questions as to whether or not she will be able to perform in the major leagues of the motorsports world. Patrick will make her Sprint Cup Series debut in the Daytona 500 driving for three-time champion Tony Stewart, running only a partial schedule in the series and a full-time schedule in the Nationwide Series. Last year, Patrick ran 12 races in Nationwide, earning one top-five and three top-10 finishes. She finished 26th in the point standings and had a season-high finish of fourth in the Sam’s Town 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Patrick is no stranger to speed, driving in the IZOD IndyCar Series for seven seasons as the only female to win in the series as well as the highest finishing woman in the Indianapolis 500. Patrick has had some time to adjust to the new machine, but this year will undoubtedly be a test for the driver and the Daytona 500 will be the entrance exam. All eyes will be on Patrick in the 2012 season-opener this Sunday, but things are already looking up for the driver as she qualified 29th for the 54th running of the inaugural race – ahead of several top drivers including Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, Juan Pablo Montoya, Paul Menard and last year’s Daytona 500 winner, Trevor Bayne.

David Ragan

David Ragan definitely has a lot to prove in 2012 as he was let go from Roush Fenway Racing after competing with the team from 2006 through last year due to a lack of sponsorship. Regan was offered the last ride in the Sprint Cup Series, the No. 34 Ford for Front Row Motorsports. The driver finished 23rd in the standings in 2011 and has just one win in 182 starts – luckily for him this win came last year in the July race at Daytona. While Ragan’s new team is by no means the top-tier organization that he was used to, it helps keep him on the track and in the minds of other organizations for when 2013 rolls around. Last season, Ragan finished 23rd in the standings with one win, one pole (in April at Texas Motor Speedway), three top fives and seven top 10s. Ragan will start 25th in the Great American Race.

Marcos Ambrose & Aric Almirola
Aric Almirola takes over the famed No. 43
for RPM. Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Marcos Ambrose earned his first Sprint Cup Series win last April at Watkins Glen and turned some heads toward Richard Petty Motorsports, a team that most people had counted out after the organization experienced financial troubles and had several changes in personnel. Now entering his fourth season in the series, Ambrose showed tremendous improvement in 2011 with five top fives and 12 top-10 finishes compared to 2010 when he had eight DNFs. Ambrose finished 19th in the standings last season, gaining seven spots over 2010 when he finished 26th. The driver starts seventh in Sunday’s Daytona 500, his best season-opener start since 2008 in which he also started seventh. Ambrose also gained a new teammate this year in Aric Almirola who replaced Allmendinger in the No. 43. Although this is Almirola’s first full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series, the driver has proven success in the Nationwide Series. In 2011, Almirola finished fourth in the standings with two poles, seven top fives and 18 top-10s. The driver starts 27th in the Daytona 500. This season will be a learning experience for Almirola and a true test for Richard Petty Motorsports.

David Reutimann & Dave Blaney

David Reutimann’s unemployment was short lived – he will drive for Tommy Baldwin Racing (TBR) alongside Dave Blaney. Last season the team competed full-time with Blaney behind the wheel, finishing 32nd in the driver standings and guaranteeing a spot in this year’s season-opener. Reutimann was fired from Michael Waltrip Racing and replaced by Mark Martin. During his time with the team, the driver earned two wins (Charlotte in 2009 and Chicago in 2010), with a career-best finish of 16th in the standings in 2009. Last season. Reutimann finished 28th and had just three top-10 finishes. He will start 38th in the Daytona 500. Blaney who starts 24th had only one top five and one top-10 finish last season. As an up-and-coming team, TBR will look to 2012 will the goal of successfully running two full-time teams and holding their own week in and week out.

Special Edition Under the Spotlight: Cup Series Underdogs to Watch in 2012 Special Edition Under the Spotlight: Cup Series Underdogs to Watch in 2012 Reviewed by Unknown on Saturday, February 25, 2012 Rating: 5