By Jerry Bonkowski for TheRacingGuy.com
No sooner does a driver win a Sprint Cup championship, and then many observers almost simultaneously ask the same question.
“Can he win it again next year?”
That’s the million-dollar question that follows the multi-million dollar championship check a driver wins for being the best of the best in a given season.
That question has already been bantered around countless times regarding reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski.
Will he be able to repeat in 2013?
Even with Penske Racing’s switch from Dodge to Ford in 2013, even with a new updated version of the Car of Tomorrow, and even with other teams ratcheting up their own respective games for next season, there’s no reason why Keselowski can’t repeat as champ in 2013, given the organization and personnel he has behind him, the same group that led him to his first Cup title this past season.
What’s it going to take? Essentially, more of the same of what he did in 2012, and potentially a bit more to make him stand out from the crowd in 2013.
That means at least four or five wins (he won five in 2012), steady if not improved consistency (13 top fives and 23 top 10s in 2012) and to keep his motivation high even in the face of disappointment or a few bad finishes in a row.
But perhaps the most significant thing that Keselowski can do in the short term is to get off to a great start when the new season starts. Granted, that’s easier said than done, but at the same time, look at how Carl Edwards flopped in 2012 after such an outstanding season in 2011, losing the championship by a mere one-point tie-breaker.
What Keselowski needs to do is be as aggressive as he ever has. He has to shake opposing drivers up, rattle some cages and show that he will do whatever it takes to defend his title in 2013.
He also needs to get as much seat and test time behind the wheel prior to Speedweeks at Daytona. Foremost, he and crew chief Paul Wolfe need to learn every little nuance they can about the new, so-called Generation 6 Car of Tomorrow.
The last thing Keselowski can afford to do is fall behind the learning curve, much like Jeff Gordon and several others struggled during the first advent of the COT in 2008. The more Gordon and the others struggled, the further they fell behind until things finally began to come together around mid-season, particularly when teams began revisiting racetracks for the second go-round of the year.
The other part of the equation is in the motor department at Penske Racing. Instead of developing and building its own engines as it did under the Dodge banner, Penske Racing will be receiving ready made and fully assembled Ford powerplants purchased from Roush Fenway Racing and master motor builder Doug Yates.
That’s the unknown that remains to be seen. Will Penske engineers and motor gurus try to tweak already potent Yates-built engines in the hopes of gaining a bit more muscle? Or will Penske officials stand pat and see what the Yates-built motors will do and how they’ll perform in the first several races of the new season?
Therein lies the rub of sorts. If Penske Racing takes a wait and see approach to essentially let the Yates-built powerplants sell themselves, that could spell potential trouble early on in the season for Keselowski and new teammate Joey Logano.
On the other hand, if the Ford motors are as powerful as they’re supposed to be, Penske Racing should have the same across the board power in theory as the lead organization in the Ford stable, Roush Fenway Racing.
Thus far, the powerplants in the Penske Racing Fords seem to be producing bountiful horsepower. But that’s only been in testing – and limited testing at that.
There will be more testing upcoming in January, including at Daytona, as teams continue to shake out the new style car, no matter if it’s a Ford, Chevrolet or Toyota. Teams will also have numerous one- and two-day tests at non-NASCAR tracks to continue gathering data on how the new chassis works and adapts to different conditions, as well as how the motors will work in them, as well.
Remember, the reconfigured body styles are more aerodynamic, slightly smaller and will have less aero push than last season’s cars. From a motor standpoint, that will require a bit of adjustment so that the motors don’t overpower the chassis, or vice-versa.
And that adjustment, especially during preseason testing, will likely spell a significant amount of difference in determining how teams will perform and adapt once the races start counting for points. Most teams are hoping that they have a handle on things and most elements figured out heading into Daytona, or by the third or fourth race, at the very least.
On paper, every team will be on the same page heading into the new season more so than they were heading into last season, as well. Which teams adapt the fastest and dial in the new car the quickest will have a marked advantage that will carry them through the early part of the season and potentially allow them to stay ahead for quite some time until the other teams catch up – if they can, that is.
So, getting back to our original question, can Keselowski repeat as Sprint Cup Series champ in 2013? Yes, he can. It will take a lot more preparatory work heading into 2013 with the new Fords than Penske Racing had to do with its Dodges going into 2012.
But given what it did with those Dodges as the only major organization to race them last season, something tells me that Penske magic will pick right up with the new Fords, too, next season.