Stewart tied Edwards in points and, by winning the championship, won a tiebreaker for most wins on the year.
It was refreshing to see someone else in contention after the streak Jimmie Johnson went on from 2006-2010. He won the championship for five straight seasons.
While it was nice to see some parity in the sport, who knows if we will ever be able to see a championship clash comparable to the 2011 season again.
The NASCAR drivers will be starting their engines soon. So let’s take a look at some preseason power rankings for the upcoming 2012 season.
1. Carl Edwards
Cousin Carl is the favorite to win the championship going into 2012—make no mistake about it. He led the points for 24 of the 36 weeks last year. He even finished the season tied for first place in points. He only to lost the championship on a tiebreaker.
There are no changes to the Roush Fenway 99 car except the paint job. Fastenal has come on as the primary sponsor to replace Aflac. Expect Bob Osbourne to keep the No. 99 team on their consistent path for 2012.
2. Jimmie Johnson
2011 was a weird year for Johnson. A few rare hiccups to the machine that is the 48 team put Johnson out of the contention for the championship early in the 2011 chase.
Don’t let the sixth-place finish fool you. Johnson was in the Top Three for 18 of the 26 races before the chase. Johnson will be a contender for his sixth championship in 2012.
3. Tony Stewart
The now three-time champion caught “lightning in a bottle” for the chase last year and won the 2011 championship.
Smoke squeaked into the chase in the 10th position. He hovered around 10th all year long, but it was a mediocre year up until the chase. One big change for Stewart in 2012 was the replacement of Darian Grubb.
The agreement to part ways was in place before the 2011 chase started. I just don’t know if they may be rethinking that decision now.
In 2012, Steve Addington is moving over from the No. 22 car to head No. 14. He should do well, but I just see a minor step back in 2013—or until the chemistry clicks for Stewart and Addington.
4. Kevin Harvick
Harvick was the third-place finisher of the 2010 and 2011 point standings and, aside from Carl Edwards having an unbelievable year, was the most consistent driver in 2011.
Harvick fell out of the Top Five in the standings only once after the seventh race of the season. It just always seems Harvick has that “dud” race.
The Childress crew chief swap is in full effect once again. He welcomed Shane Wilson from the No. 33 car, but lost Gil Martin who moved to RCR director of team operations.
While his 2012 season forecast looks bright and sunny, expect that black cloud to find Harvick once or twice at the worst time possible.
5. Denny Hamlin
2011 was just an off year for Denny Hamlin. He finished ninth in the standings. Joe Gibbs thought it was an off year as well.
Gibbs is shaking up the No. 11 team as well as the organization. He plucked the 2011 championship crew chief from Stewart-Haas Racing and merged the JGR engine shop with Toyota Racing Development.
While these are big changes for the No. 11 team, I think Hamlin will go back to form in 2012 with a stellar season.
6. Kyle Busch
The little shrub is a championship contender for 2012, but when will his actions catch up to him this year?
The short-tempered Busch was parked for a season and lost some sponsorship. He even missed running a Sprint Cup race.
The widely publicized incident with Ron Hornaday in the Camping World Truck Series cost Busch his ride at Texas last year. It lost him M&M Mars as a sponsor for the remainder of the season.
It seems NASCAR and his sponsors are giving him the warning to change his ways, now does Kyle change his ways? We will have to see.
The 2011 season was a turnaround year for Junior, finishing seventh in the points after a dismal 2009 and 2010 campaigns where he didn't make the chase.
He was in the Top 10 in points for 32 of the 36 weeks of the season. He went as high as third and fourth position seesaw for eight straight weeks.
It seems the Letarte/Earnhardt combination worked for 2011. They finished one spot behind Jimmie Johnson, the top Hendrick Motorsports car.
On the tracks where he normally finishes high, he did not do as well in 2011. Those tracks included Talladega, Daytona and Richmond. If he has typical finishes at those tracks, Junior could have an even better year in 2012.
8. Jeff Gordon
The “Drive for 5” continues for its 10th season. I must say it is hard to believe it has been 10 years since Gordon has won the championship, but it has.
Alan Gustafson returns for 2012; Gordon seemed to find success with him last year. Their season was a little better then the final standings indicate.
Gordon finally picked up a win after his longest drought in his career. He ended with three wins on the year. That being said, the chase races were not friendly for Gordon. He finished outside the Top 20 in five of the 10 races.
9. Greg Biffle
The 2011 season was out of the ordinary for “The Biff.” He didn't making the chase for the first time since 2007 and finished 16th in the points.
A change occurred halfway through the season, after the Kentucky race, when Mike Puccia replaced Greg Irwin. A turnaround season is inevitable for Biffle in 2012. I see Biffle back in the chase once again, scoring wins and landing some Top fives.
10. Kasey Kahne
Just cracking the Top 10 in the 2012 preseason power rankings is the new driver of the No. 5 car. Kenny Francis and Kasey Kahne are moving over to Hendrick Motorsports after Red Bull Racing closed up shop on their NASCAR operations.
This is the first time in years Kahne will be in some of the top equipment in the sport. Don’t be surprised to see Kahne and the Farmers Insurance Chevy running up towards the front in 2012.
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