A few weeks after the final race of the 2011 NASCAR season, Kasey Kahne strolled through the front door of the main building at Hendrick Motorsports, using the same entrance as all the fans who visit the sprawling, near legendary race shop in Concord, N.C. It was Kahne's first trip inside the team headquarters as a Hendrick driver, and an employee quickly approached. Smiling at the still-boyish Kahne, she handed him a key card. This credit-card-sized piece of white plastic would unlock every door in the complex, opening a new racing world to Kahne—one in which he suddenly has become a legitimate contender to end the seven-year streak of Tony Stewart or Jimmie Johnson winning the Sprint Cup championship.
"The moment I got that key card was the moment I knew my career had really changed," Kahne says. "Now I'm in the best situation I've ever been in to win a championship. There are no more excuses. I really feel like this is the time for myself and my team to consistently run well, make the Chase and be right there at the end of the season."
At the dawn of the 2012 NASCAR campaign, which begins on Sunday with the 54th running of the Daytona 500, Kahne (age 31) isn't the only driver who appears to have the talent, the equipment and the crew to speed past Stewart and Johnson. Carl Edwards (32) and Kyle Busch (26) are also poised not only to knock off Cup racing's Big Two this season but to dominate the sport in the coming years the way Stewart and Johnson have for much of the last decade. Consider: Stewart is 40, Johnson is 36. In racing years, they are on the backstretch of their career primes. The oldest driver to win the Cup was Bobby Allison at age 45 in 1983, and since then no driver older than 43-year-old Dale Earnhardt in '94 has taken the championship.
"A changing of the guard in NASCAR is coming," says Darrell Waltrip, a three-time Cup champion and analyst for Fox, which will televise the Great American Race. "Historically when the establishment gets firmly established in NASCAR, they'll look in their rearview mirror and see a bunch of younger guys coming fast. We're at that transition point right now. Drivers are in their prime from about age 28 to 35. But once they cross 35, those holes on the track that they used to stick their noses into aren't quite so inviting anymore. They slow down and become less aggressive, which opens the door for the younger, more daring guys. This is the year things will change in the Cup series."
"A FUTURE CHAMPION"
Jimmie Johnson stood 20 feet away from Kenny Francis, the longtime Kahne crew chief who followed the driver to Hendrick, and pondered how the duo will perform in 2012. "The expectations for Kasey and Kenny are high, and they should be," Johnson said in January while in the Hendrick shop. "Kasey has a great feel for the car, he's got bravery, and he's methodical in how he chips away at the guys in front of him. There's no doubt that he's a future champion. With the stability that he and Kenny now have at Hendrick, they are going to be dangerous for a long time."
For the past two years Kahne, once touted as the next big thing, has been a racing vagabond. In 2010, while driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, Kahne endured a period of financial tumult within the team and struggled on the track, finishing 20th in points. But the season wasn't a complete loss for Kahne, because that April he signed a four-year contract with Hendrick to take over the number 5 Chevy from then 51-year-old Mark Martin (who is once again retiring from full-time Cup racing), though Kahne wouldn't join the team until 2012. So last year, while waiting to slide into his dream ride at the sport's most dominating team, he drove for Red Bull Racing. Even though Kahne was a lame-duck driver on a lame-duck team—Red Bull closed its doors after the season—he scored more points in the Chase than every driver other than Stewart and Edwards (who finished first and second, respectively, in the final standings). On Nov. 13, Kahne also took the checkered flag at Phoenix International Raceway, a track where he may very well notch his 13th career win when the Cup circuit stops in for the second race of the season, on March 4.
"Kasey and I have been on a roller coaster for the past few years, and it's been very challenging," the 42-year-old Francis says. "We've had to start from scratch with our cars every one of those seasons. We've been on our own, but we believe in each other. Kasey is smart, levelheaded and gives me great feedback. If I can make the car just a little better, he'll show it. Now this is our best opportunity. Whatever potential we have will now come out."
Yet Kahne won't begin the season 100% healthy. On Feb. 10 he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee to repair a torn meniscus. Kahne has proved before that he can drive with an achy knee—in 2011 he finished third at Richmond International Raceway 12 days after similar surgery—and he's not scheduled to miss any practice time before Sunday's race.
"The transition to Hendrick has gone as smoothly as possible, and we're already learning so much," Kahne says. "It's like we've finally found our home. We're being given everything we need to win. I feel capable. Now we just need to do it."
"WE ARE READY"
Carl Edwards climbed out of his number 99 Ford on that cool November night at Homestead--Miami Speedway and, passing a cluster of cameras and notebooks, beelined it to crew chief Bob Osborne. After coming in second in the final race of the 2011 season, behind Stewart—and finishing the Chase tied with Stewart in points but losing the championship on the tiebreaker—Edwards huddled for four minutes with Osborne. "You're the only crew chief I ever want to be with," Edwards told Osborne. "I'll stay with you as long as you'll have me."
Why was Edwards, who had just lost the closest championship in the 63-year history of Cup racing, so adamant about expressing his happiness with Osborne? Two reasons: He had just concluded a career year (he held the points lead for more than half the season), and, more significant, he sensed that a title would one day be his as long as he remained with the 37-year-old Osborne, a cerebral, crafty crew chief who has been atop the number 99 pit box for most of Edwards's eight years in the Cup series. "We're getting closer to where we need to be," Edwards said after speaking to Osborne on pit road at Homestead. "This isn't an ending tonight; it's a beginning."
For Edwards to contend again this season, though, a fast start is critical. "If Carl and Bob struggle right out of the gate, there's a good chance they'll never hit their stride, kind of like Denny Hamlin last year after he came so close to winning the championship in 2010," says Waltrip, noting that Hamlin finished ninth in points in '11. "The agony of defeat can linger in NASCAR. You get drained emotionally when you come so close, and there's a tendency to be not as sharp the following year. But if Carl can get a win early, he can overcome that agony and get refueled emotionally."
On a recent morning, while driving through his hometown of Columbia, Mo., Edwards gazed ahead to the upcoming season. "Our cars are better, our engines are better, our pit crew is fast, and Bob and I are still together," said Edwards, who has 19 career Cup wins. "I've got a ton of confidence. What happened last year has made us extremely motivated. We are ready."
"THE TRIGGER GOES OFF"
One afternoon in late January, Kyle Busch sat on an elevated stage in a hotel conference room in Concord patiently answering questions from a crowd of NASCAR reporters for nearly an hour about why he believes this season will be different for him, why his notorious on-track meltdowns will no longer sabotage his title chances. "I realize that if you keep getting in trouble, you're not going to be in this sport very long," Busch said. "There are a bunch of things I wish I could take back, but I can't. I've got to earn respect back. To do that I've made changes."
To review: In November, during a truck series race at Texas Motor Speedway, Busch intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. while the race was under caution. NASCAR parked Busch for one Nationwide race and one Cup event. His primary sponsor, M&M's, pulled its backing for two races (M&M's has returned to sponsor Busch in 2012), and Busch was given a stern talking to about his behavior by his owner, Joe Gibbs.
It appears that Busch just may have been scared straight. For the first time since 2005, he won't run in the majority of Nationwide races this season and won't compete in any truck events. Why is this significant? Because most in the garage believe that the reason Busch had come unhinged in recent seasons—see both his on-track dustups and his awful record in the Chase, in which he has finished no higher than eighth in the last four years—is because he has been physically and emotionally run down. In 2011, for instance, he competed in a total of 71 Cup, Nationwide and truck races; by contrast Stewart, the current Cup holder, made only 38 starts across NASCAR's three top series last year.
"Kyle feels like Superman, but I think he's gotten tired late in the year," says Dave Rogers, Busch's crew chief. "In two of the last four years Kyle has led the points going into the Chase, and then the performance just hasn't been there when it really matters. By lightening the load, he'll stay fresher. The focus isn't on running three series anymore. It's entirely on Cup and winning that first championship."
Busch is widely regarded by his peers in the Cup garage as perhaps the most talented driver in NASCAR. He can control a loose car better than anyone else because he's able to make his car behave as if it's an extension of his body. He already has 23 Cup victories. If he can harness his emotions throughout this season and consistently give clear, focused feedback to Rogers in both practice and races, then the driver who always elicits a thunderclap of boos in prerace introductions could be hoisting the Cup at Homestead this November.
"With Kyle, it's never been a question of talent," says Johnson. "He wants to do the right thing, but then something will happen and the trigger goes off. His mistakes have limited his potential. But you can be sure I'll be watching him closely, because he's capable of winning it all."
Of course, Johnson himself is eminently capable of winning it all too (for a, ahem, sixth time), as is the rejuvenated Stewart. Certainly neither J.J. nor Smoke is going to lie down without a fight, and both multichampions will once again be in top machinery and spearheading rich and talented teams. But their era will not continue forever—and it is Kahne, Edwards or Kyle Busch who is most likely to bring it to an end. That trio will now have nine months and 36 races—the most grueling schedule in sports—to prove that they can pull away from the two future Hall of Fame drivers and become something NASCAR hasn't had since Johnson won his initial Cup in 2006: a first-time champion.
"A CHANGING OF THE GUARD IS COMING," SAYS WALTRIP. "THIS IS THE YEAR THINGS WILL CHANGE IN CUP RACING."
THREE FOR THE ROAD
So who will one day challenge Kasey, Carl and Kyle for championships? For years virtually everyone in the Cup garage has bemoaned the lack of promising young drivers. But not anymore. By 2015, these three hotshoes should be contending for NASCAR's biggest prize.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The defending Nationwide Series champ, Stenhouse is likely to compete in a handful of Cup races this season, including the Daytona 500. Owner Jack Roush—who says the 24-year-old "possesses all the qualities of the best who have ever been"—expects Stenhouse to be piloting the number 6 Ford full time on the Cup circuit in 2013. "Then," says Stenhouse, "I hope to be consistent in 2014 and make the Chase that year. Then in 2015, I hope to challenge for the championship. That's the schedule I have mapped out in my head."
No car has carried the number 3 in the Cup Series since Dale Earnhardt died in 2001, but it could return when Dillon becomes a full-time Cup driver, which should happen in 2014. The '11 truck series champ and grandson of Richard Childress—who owned Earnhardt's number 3 Chevy—Dillon, 21, will run the Nationwide circuit this season. "I want to stay in Nationwide for two years, learn how to win, then move up to Cup," he says. "There are fans who live for the number 3. One day I hope to make them very happy."
Saddled with mediocre equipment last season at Richard Petty Motorsports, Allmendinger, 30, produced an impressive 10 top 10 finishes. Owner Roger Penske was so taken with Allmendinger that he signed the former Champ Car racer to a multiyear contract to replace Kurt Busch in the number 22 Dodge. "AJ has an incredible amount of potential," says Penske Racing president Tim Cindric. "We have to be realistic and try to hit singles before we hit home runs with AJ, but the long-term future is bright."
Well, three key ones anyway: When the green flag flies on the Great American Race, they will center on a high-profile newbie, a perennial favorite—and on just how close the field can get
1. How will Danica do?
After hinting for several years that a move from IndyCar to NASCAR was possible, Danica Patrick will at last make her Sprint Cup debut in the Daytona 500. She'll compete in nine more Cup events in 2012 for Stewart-Haas Racing while running a full Nationwide schedule for JR Motorsports. Next year she's set to pilot the number 10 Chevy for SHR in all 36 Cup races.
If Patrick, 29, is going to win this season in either series, her best shot will be on Sunday on the 2.5-mile tri-oval. In IndyCar she flourished on big, fast tracks like Daytona—she twice finished in the top five in the Indy 500, where speeds on the 2.5-mile Brickyard layout reach 225 mph—and her car co-owner/teammate Tony Stewart has already said that he'll be her drafting partner in the late stages of Sunday's race. If Patrick has a little luck and can avoid Daytona's traditional big wrecks, she could pull off one of the most memorable victories in the 54-year history of the 500.
2. Will the two-car draft return?
Yes, but it won't be as prevalent as it was in 2011. Last Saturday in the Budweiser Shootout, a 75-lap exhibition event, pack racing returned to Daytona for the first 70 laps (and with it, several multicar crashes). In the Shootout, drivers feared pairing up in two-car tandems because this off-season NASCAR, trying to end the era of the push-me-pull-you two-car draft, tinkered with the cars' radiator and grille. Engines will now overheat after a few laps of running nose-to-tail. But in the closing laps, with the Shootout on the line, drivers threw caution to the winds and once again paired up, with Kyle Busch taking the checkered flag.
The 500 likely will follow a similar pattern: traditional pack racing for the first two thirds, but as the laps wind down, drivers will seek a drafting partner. Drivers can go about 5 mph faster in a two-car draft than they can in the pack, which means the only way to win will be to get hooked up with another car for the final 10 miles or so. The vast majority of fans detest this style of racing, but it appears that the two-car draft will play a key role on Sunday.
3. Will Junior finally get back to Victory Lane?
The last time Dale Earnhardt Jr. took a checkered flag was on June 15, 2008, at Michigan. His winless streak of 129 races has become a personal ball and chain; he's asked about it nearly every day at the track. But Earnhardt, voted NASCAR's most popular driver the last nine years, should be fast in the 500. He has two career wins at Daytona—including the 500 in '04—and he's still widely regarded as one of the series' top restrictor-plate racers. Last April, for instance, he pushed Jimmie Johnson to victory at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, the other plate track on the schedule.
On Sunday at Daytona, Junior figures to be the one getting pushed. With Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon leaning on his bumper on the final lap, Earnhardt is likely to end his drought to earn his second career Daytona 500 victory.
Photograph by JEFFERY A. SALTER
WINDOW'S OPEN After two lost and frustrating seasons, Kahne takes over the number 5 car at Hendrick Motorsports, which should give the proven race winner his best shot ever at a championship.
ASHLEY R DICKERSON/ASP/CAL SPORT MEDIA (CARS)
NO SETTLING THIS SEASON Edwards (99 and far left) lost the 2011 Cup on a tiebreaker, while Busch (18, near left) excelled in the regular season before fading in the Chase. Both have a shot at winning it all in 2012.
[See caption above]
JASON SMITH/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR (KAHNE AND FRANCIS)
A CHIEF ASSET Francis (with headphones) and Kahne closed out a difficult season with Red Bull last year with a strong Chase run and plan to continue the charge at Henrick.
CHRIS GRAYTHEN/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR
BACK TO THE PACK? Off-season rules changes by NASCAR should result in a return of the 190-mph traffic jams that fans love, but that can also make for dicey racing on Daytona's high bankings.