The off season is officially over as engines fire and tires turn this week as testing begins at Daytona International Speedway. The 2011 season was one of the most competitive in NASCAR Sprint Cup history – the championship going down to the final turn of the last lap before Tony Stewart was crowned champion for the third time.
Everything points to an equally exciting 2012 as drivers and teams return refreshed, retooled and rejuvenated. The 54thDaytona 500 kicks things off on Feb. 26 – a week later than usual – but the schedule opens without interruption for six consecutive weekends. Last year’s surprise Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne returns with his legendary Wood Brothers Racing team attempting to become the first back-to-back winner of the Great American Race since Sterling Marlin in 1994-95.
Off-Season Brings Many Personnel Changes:Last year’s conclusion didn’t exactly turn the garage upside down but there has been enough driver and crew chief movement to whet the appetite of any NASCAR hot stove enthusiast.
* Kasey Kahne, winner at Phoenix International Raceway in November, joins Hendrick Motorsports in one of the most anticipated shifts.
Other driver changes include:
* AJ Allmendinger to Penske Racing;
* Aric Almirola moves from the NASCAR Nationwide Series to Richard Petty Motorsports;
* Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin head to Michael Waltrip Racing;
* 2004 series champion Kurt Busch moves to Phoenix Racing;
* Danica Patrick moves full-time to the NASCAR Nationwide Series and will drive a limited
campaign with Stewart-Haas Racing;
* David Reutimann takes a seat with Tommy Baldwin Racing.
On other side of pit wall, Stewart-Haas gets two significant additions:
* Tony Stewart’s former championship crew chief Greg Zipadelli becomes competition director.
* Steve Addington joins as crew chief of the Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet.
Additional crew chief moves include:
* Kenny Francis to Hendrick with Kahne;
* Darian Grubb to Joe Gibbs Racing and Denny Hamlin;
* Jason Ratcliff with Joey Logano;
* Brian Pattie to Michael Waltrip Racing and Bowyer;
* Drew Blickensderfer to Richard Childress Racing and Jeff Burton;
* Shane Wilson remaining with RCR but taking over Kevin Harvick’s No. 29 Chevrolet;
* Todd Berrier to JTG Daugherty Racing and Bobby Labonte;
* Chris Heroy, formerly a Hendrick Motorsports engineer getting his first Sprint Cup crew chief role with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates for Juan Pablo Montoya.