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13 NASCAR Drivers Who Are Locks for Wins in 2012

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent IOctober 20, 2016

13 NASCAR Drivers Who Are Locks for Wins in 2012

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    The 2011 season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was proof positive of the high level of competition, with five drivers who found Victory Lane for the first time and a total of 18 different drivers had wins in the series.

    There is always the chance at any given race that any one of the 43 drivers could potentially be first in line when the checkered flag is waved on the final lap.

    It can be predicted that certain drivers are going to win races in 2012. Many of them primarily run in the Cup series and dip their toes into the Nationwide Series along with the regulars in the second tier.

    There are drivers with the premier teams who have a distinct advantage with top-tier equipment and elite technical support that are expected to garner wins, and they do.

    Some drivers in this slideshow face new teams and the challenges that go along with that. In the case of one Cup pilot, his ride is a dramatic upgrade, yet for another it is the opposite.

    There is young talent in the NASCAR Nationwide Series who made the cut for this list because of his talent behind the wheel and the first-class equipment afforded him.

    So in no particular order you will see 13 drivers that are extremely likely to visit Victory Lane during the 2012 season. There are no guarantees in NASCAR racing, but place your bets on this group.

1. Kasey Kahne

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    Kasey Kahne won the 35th race of the 2011 season under tough conditions with Red Bull Racing facing their dissolution after the last race of the season.

    Now Kahne finds himself the latest addition to Hendrick Motorsports as the pilot of the Farmers Insurance No. 5 Chevrolet.

    Kahne came to HMS with the crew chief that guided him at RBR, Kenny Francis. There is a great chemistry between these two and Francis has become a highly respected asset at the Hendrick operation.

    Kahne has 12 career wins in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and with his new top-tier ride you can bet Kahne will head to the front of the pack and get at least one win in 2012.

    It would a surprise if he doesn't make the Chase along with his three teammates.

2. Denny Hamlin

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    Denny Hamlin didn't exactly bounce back like he thought he would last season after being the runner-up to the 2010 Cup champion, Jimmie Johnson.

    Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, ended last year ninth in the point standings under the guidance of his crew chief, Mike Ford.

    Now, Ford is gone from that position and his new crew chief, Darian Grubb, just came from the explosive 10-week Chase as crew chief for Tony Stewart, who won five of those races and the Cup title.

    There is a new momentum and sense of confidence with the No. 11 team. The parts and pieces for a championship run for Hamlin are coming together and look for this driver to win races.

3. Austin Dillon

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    When a driver conquers a lower series and makes a move up, usually the first few years don't produce many wins.

    Austin Dillon may be the exception after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship in 2011, he is making the move to the Nationwide Series full time.

    Dillon will be driving the black AdvoCare/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet with the legendary No. 3. The car is out of his grandfather's racing complex, Richard Childress Racing.

    There is no denying the driving talent of this young man. He finds it a great honor to be the wheelman of the No. 3 and is committed to taking it to victory. Certainly his equipment will play to his advantage.

    Dillon is on the fast track to the Cup series, so winning and top finishes are critical to him in the second-tier series.

    Dillon will be running at least one race behind the wheel of a NASCAR Sprint Cup series car in 2012.

4. Brad Keselowski

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    Brad Keselowski proved to be one tough dude when he won the first of three races in 2011 immediately after breaking his ankle.

    He climbed from well in the double-digits of the points to make the Chase and finish fifth in the standings.

    As the driver of the Penske No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge, he and his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, seem to be the dynamic duo at Penske Racing.

    Keselowski is happy with his new teammate A.J. Allmendinger, and is confident about the solidarity and strength within the Penske Racing organization.

    Now, this Penske driver is the lead dog after the departure of Kurt Busch. Look for him to strut his stuff and make a few trips to Victory Lane on the way to the Chase.

5. Kyle Busch

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    Kyle Busch had a bit of a rough landing toward the end of the 2011 season when his sponsor, M&M's, could have easily dropped sponsorship after his poor judgment call at Texas Motor Speedway.

    He sat out the Cup race and watched his No. 18 Toyota be driven by another driver. His primary sponsor did take their name off the car for the last two races of the year, but they are back for 2012.

    Busch learned how quickly the dominoes fall when you put as much in jeopardy as he did. Now he is ready for 2012, a bit wiser and still as confident as ever.

    This is a driver that is driven to win and anything less is losing. He is trying to balance his attitude with those finishes that don't find him with the checkered flag.

    We will see this brash driver running for the Cup championship, which is his primary goal, after finishing 12th in the point standings last year.

    Busch will also drive some 13 races in the NASCAR Nationwide Series with his Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota sponsored by Monster Energy.

    His older brother, Kurt Busch, will drive the remaining races and they will be going for the owner's title.

    Look for this driver to be a double threat to win in both Cup and Nationwide races multiple times.

6. Kevin Harvick

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    Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, captured four wins in 2011 and finished third in the point standings for the second year in a row.

    Harvick made some changes in his life when he ceased operation of 10-year-old Kevin Harvick Inc. which had been a very successful racing operation.

    One of the driving reasons behind that move was to start a family with his wife, Delana. Now she is expecting their first child in July.

    At RCR, Harvick has a new crew chief, Shane Wilson, who replaced Gil Martin. The pair is committed to making a run for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

    Look for Harvick to continue his winning ways.

7. Tony Stewart

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    Tony Stewart, the driver known as "Smoke," was on fire in the 2011 Chase when he captured wins in half of the 10-week run. He was crowned the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.

    It would have seemed everything was perfect at Stewart-Haas Racing after such an accomplishment, but Stewart released his crew chief, Darian Grubb, who guided him to the victories.

    Now the driver of the No. 14 Mobil1/Office Depot Chevrolet has assembled a crew that he feels will make the organization even stronger.

    Steve Addington is his new crew chief, and his good friend and former crew chief from Joe Gibbs Racing, Greg Zipadelli, has reunited with him as competition director.

    The three-time Cup champion has 44 career wins and is sure to find Victory Lane in 2012. He will be driving a RCR prepared car, sponsored by Oreo, in the Nationwide race at Daytona.

    Stewart is no stranger to the winner's circle at Daytona in the top two series of NASCAR. He could be another driver who is a threat to win in both series and it may just begin at the "Great American Race."

8. Jimmie Johnson

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    Jimmie Johnson drove his No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet to five consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup titles, but in 2011 he finished sixth in the point standings, though he had two wins and 21 top-10 finishes.

    It was a much calmer offseason for Johnson without the duties of a champion, but he is ready to rumble in 2012 to not only win races, but go for that sixth championship.

    Johnson spent a lot of time during the winter thinking about how he could be an even better player on the No. 48 team and analyzing the things that went wrong in 2011.

    Look for this Hendrick Motorsports driver to be back in Victory Lane pretty quick into the new season. He is in as good a shape as he has ever been and really wants that sixth title.

9. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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    Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship in 2011 with his No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford.

    Stenhouse will once again be running for the title in NASCAR's second tier of racing. He has shown he can do battle against the Cup drivers who infiltrate the Nationwide races.

    The goal of this driver is to make it to Cup racing, but he knows not to make the move to fast. Jack Roush has taught this young man a lot, especially when he pulled him out of his ride in 2010.

    He is expected to pilot the No. 6 for RFR in the upcoming Daytona 500. It will be his first time to compete in the "Great American Race."

    Stenhouse is a driver who is sure to win races and be a tough competitor in 2012.

10. Carl Edwards

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    Carl Edwards only won one race with his No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford in 2011, but he gave Tony Stewart a run for his money during the Chase.

    The two ended tied in points, but Stewart got the championship by virtue of his wins.

    Edwards claims he will not be racing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2012 despite past successes; he wants to concentrate on running for the Cup title.

    Look for Edwards to be a bit more aggressive this year under the guidance of crew chief Bob Osborne.

    Edwards will be adding to his 19 Cup series wins. He understands after the 2011 season that though consistency is important, he will need to take more risks if he is to contend for the title again.

11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Okay, we have predicted a win for Dale Earnhardt Jr. for three years, but he has remained winless for 129 races.

    The driver of the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet bonded quickly with his crew chief, Steve Letarte, at Hendrick Motorsports in 2011.

    Earnhardt improved his performance last season and nearly won a couple races, but close doesn't count in NASCAR. He did finish seventh in the point standings after making the Chase.

    Letarte doesn't treat his driver like the celebrity that he is and the more disciplined regime Earnhardt must follow is making him a better driver and building his confidence.

    The two now have a history together and a year's worth of notes to build on. Earnhardt and Letarte work well together and this will be the year Junior will win a race or two.

    Earnhardt is running a limited number of races with his Nationwide car out of JR Motorsports, so it would not be a surprise to see him win in that series, especially at Daytona.

12. Jeff Gordon

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    Jeff Gordon drove his No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet to three victories in 2011, but at season's end he found himself eighth in the point standings.

    Gordon secured his 85th win that vaulted him to third in all-time wins for Cup drivers behind Richard Petty and David Pearson.

    This Hendrick Motorsports driver has four Cup titles, but he really wants that fifth title to tie him with teammate Jimmie Johnson.

    Gordon, 40, is at a good place in his life and the fire in his belly still burns for those wins. He has shown he can get pretty aggressive on the track, as we saw in 2011.

    Gordon will be winning races in 2012 under the guidance of crew chief Alan Gustafson.

13. Kurt Busch

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    Kurt Busch just wasn't having fun at Penske Racing any longer and it led to expletive-laced rants over the in-car radio and some other behavior that was less than flattering, to say the least.

    Busch and Roger Penske decided it would be mutually beneficial if they parted ways.

    Now, he is the driver for a low budget, old school Phoenix Racing, where he is not only the driver, but works on the car as well. He claims he is having fun now.

    Busch will be the driver of the No. 51 Chevrolet with Hendrick Motorsports engines, chassis and some technical support.

    It is the goal of this driver to return to a top-tier team in 2013 unless he discovers he is having too much fun at Phoenix Racing and is winning races as well.

    Busch will drive a Nationwide car for Phoenix Racing at Daytona, but then he will drive the races that his brother, Kyle, does not drive in the Kyle Busch Motorsports Monster Energy car.

    Look for the elder Busch brother to win a race or two in the Cup series on either a superspeedway or short track. The intermediate tracks may prove to be problematic for the team with a limited budget.

    Whether it is Cup or Nationwide races, you will see this Busch in Victory Lane.

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