Predicting the Top 20 in NASCAR Points in 2012
The eighth iteration of NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup may have been the most entertaining one since the format's debut in 2004. It came down to the very last race of the season, where Tony Stewart had to win the race to take the championship from Carl Edwards; despite Edwards winning the pole and leading the most laps, Stewart did just that.
This season, almost every major team in Sprint Cup will see some sort of change in 2012. Whether it's bringing on a new driver (Penske Racing with A.J. Allmendinger), a new crew chief (Stewart-Haas Racing with Steve Addington), replacing both (Hendrick Motorsports with Kasey Kahne and Kenny Francis), or starting a new team altogether (Michael Waltrip Racing with Clint Bowyer), the garage will look drastically different for some of the sport's top teams this season.
And yet, much of the cream of the crop remains the same. Chances are, if it's a household name involved, you won't see much fluctuation in results this season. That's part of why so many teams on the second rung of the ladder have made changes—nothing is changing in the top tier of the sport.
With all of that in mind, we're here to try and project the top 20 in Sprint Cup standings come Homestead in November. The list is broken up into five tiers based on projected performance, each comprised of four drivers who should have statistically similar seasons.
We'll start with the lower end and work our way up.
17-20. Wild Cards: Martin Truex Jr., Paul Menard, Regan Smith, Marcos Ambrose
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These drivers have an outside shot at making the Chase and probably won't take any wins unless they get lucky in the right circumstances. They have modest expectations for the season but may overachieve if they get hot at the right time.
The circumstances for each driver in this tier are wildly different from one another.
Truex will go from lead driver at Michael Waltrip Racing to second with the addition of Clint Bowyer, while Menard will become Richard Childress Racing's second-best option now that Bowyer is gone.
Ambrose is now Richard Petty Motorsports' top option with A.J. Allmendinger gone. Smith is part of a single-car team at Furniture Row Racing that hopes to take a big step forward in points this year.
The only driver on this list not to win last season was Truex, as each of the other three took their maiden Sprint Cup wins in 2011. Menard took the checkers at Indianapolis, while Smith won at Darlington and Ambrose triumphed at Watkins Glen.
13-16. Chase Cutoffs: Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, A.J. Allmendinger
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These drivers all have a decent shot at making the Chase and may take a win over the course of the season. Their teams may get hot enough to sneak into the Chase, but their ceiling may be the very fringe of making the banquet at season's end.
Of these four drivers, only Biffle remains with his 2011 employer Roush Fenway Racing. Allmendinger joined Penske Racing when a series of outbursts led to Busch's dismissal; he landed on his feet at Phoenix Racing.
Bowyer left Richard Childress Racing when the team failed to replace Cheerios as a primary sponsor and joined Michael Waltrip Racing as part of a new team.
The problem for each is getting over a hump that plagued them last year. For Busch, it's the temper issues; for his replacement, Allmendinger, it's finally taking a Sprint Cup win.
For Bowyer and Biffle, on the other hand, it will be putting together a consistent enough start to the season to get into Chase position.
9-12. Lower Chasers: Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin
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These drivers should make the Chase, have an outside shot at winning the championship and should each win at least one race. If they get hot at the right time next season, much like Tony Stewart did last year and as usually happens to somebody in every Chase, they could perform better than you might expect.
All of these drivers made it in last year, but of their combined five wins, Kenseth took three. Earnhardt Jr. hasn't even won a Sprint Cup race since 2008, last season ended a two-year streak of finishing outside of the top 20.
Hamlin and Newman, meanwhile, paled in comparison to the performances of their teammates; Kyle Busch won four races to Hamlin's one, while Stewart of course won the championship.
But that's what makes these drivers so intriguing in 2012. Stewart was in this category last season. He stated more than once in the wake of making the Chase that he and his team didn't deserve to be there, before ripping off a hot streak of five wins in 10 races and stealing the title from Carl Edwards.
There's a driver like that every season...and wouldn't it be huge for the sport if it was Earnhardt Jr.?
5-8. Title Challengers: Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon
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These drivers are almost undoubtedly going to make the Chase, have a decent shot at winning the championship and should each win at least two races. Their teams will be consistently strong, but they may each be a step or two away from elite status.
All four of these drivers have, or have had, Hendrick Motorsports connections in their career, cementing their reputation as the top team in the sport over the past decade. Save for Kahne, who spent 2011 in a holding pattern with Team Red Bull as he waited for Mark Martin's Hendrick contract to run out, all were legitimate title contenders last season, combining for 11 wins.
Two or three wins apiece shouldn't be out of the question for any of these drivers. Kahne and Gordon looked strong in Daytona preseason testing, while Keselowski is now the unquestioned leader at Penske Racing.
As for Busch, he'll have to be on his best behavior after his incident with Ron Hornaday in the Truck Series at Texas in November, and refocusing on Sprint Cup while limiting his extracurricular participation should help.
1-4. Cream O'the Crop: Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson
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These are the drivers who will probably dominate the season with their consistency and by winning a majority of races. There's a good chance that one of them will win the championship, and at least one of the others will be right there with him at Homestead.
Of these four, Harvick seems to have the best shot at finally taking the title. Though he hasn't been directly in the title hunt either of the last two seasons, he did finish third in both Chases and would have won the 2010 championship under the old format. Stewart and Edwards dueled for the last championship, while Johnson won the previous five titles.
Past results suggest that it's harder to defend than it is to challenge, and it's harder still to come back after missing out. That may be Harvick's key advantage here—he's still got something to prove under the Chase format and hasn't been involved in one of those Homestead one-on-one battles that always seems to lead to a year-long hangover for the loser.
Johnson's going to have a tough time winning his sixth championship as long as people are still gunning for him, while Stewart and Edwards will both need to dig deep to replicate last season's performances.