2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Preview

Brad MorganContributor IFebruary 23, 2012

2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Preview

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    After a season in which the championship was determined by one point, 2012 has the feeling of a year where anything is possible.

    The offseason was very an eventful one. Several drivers, crew chiefs and sponsors moved around.

    This preview breaks down my predictions for how the top-20 drivers will stand after the checkered flag waves at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.

20. Paul Menard

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    In many ways, 2011 was a career year for Paul Menard.

    After signing with Richard Childress Racing following the 2010 season, he finished 17th in points. He also won his first Sprint Cup Series race at the Brickyard.

    Last year showed that Menard was able to run with the leaders at several tracks, and he ended the season with highs in average starting position (12.0) and average finish (18.0).

    RCR drivers aren’t strangers to success at Daytona and Talladega, and Menard was no exception. He led all drivers with a 10th-place average finish in restrictor-plate races.

    Menard was also able to take advantage of his new equipment on flat tracks such as Indianapolis and Pocono, a surface type that Childress cars have had success on in recent years.

    Despite a solid campaign in 2011, some of his on-track performance would suggest that Menard will have a hard time improving on what he did last year.

    While he showed potential on short-tracks last season (5th at Bristol), he has traditionally struggled in this area over the course of his career. He also has mediocre average finishes at the road courses, Infineon (23.5) and Watkins Glen (24.9).

    Despite his downfalls, he flirted with the Chase contenders for most of the 2011 season before finally fading.

    Shifts within RCR may help him improve even more in 2012.

    Over the offseason, Childress cut ties with Clint Bowyer and announced that the No. 33 team will no longer run a full-time schedule.

    This is beneficial to Menard because Childress teams have traditionally improved after the organization has made the move from four cars down to three. This move should give No. 27 team even more attention and resources.

    If an upswing occurs at RCR and Menard can improve upon his average finishing position, a spot in the Chase isn’t out of the question.

19. Martin Truex Jr.

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    2012 is a contract year for Martin Truex Jr., a driver whose career has had all of the highs and lows of a rollercoaster ride.

    In his second year with Michael Waltrip Racing, he was able to make positive strides in the form of three top-five and 12 top-10 finishes on the way to an 18th place finish in points.

    Despite failing to pick up a second career win, last year was, statistically speaking, the driver’s best season since his 2007 campaign with Dale Earnhardt Inc.

    The two-time Nationwide champion ended the year on high note, posting top-10 finishes in four of the final five races.

    In 2012, Chad Johnston will return as crew chief for the No. 56 Camry after partnering with Truex for 19 races last season. The driver performed marginally better after Johnston replaced Pat Tryson following the June race at Kansas Speedway.

    NAPA is returning to the car as the primary sponsor and will be entering its final year with the team under the current contract. Needless to say, this will be a make-or-break year for the New Jersey native.

    The arrival of Clint Bowyer is a double-edged sword for the inconsistent Truex.  Bowyer proved to be an excellent drafter during his time at RCR and could benefit Truex at tracks like Talladega and Daytona, where the NAPA driver has seen mixed results.  

    On the flip side, he could be under more pressure with a driver of Bowyer’s skill level now a member of the organization.

    After being signed by MWR following the 2009 season, Truex has been largely unable to live up to the expectations that made him a top free agent.  

    However, with two new teammates in Bowyer and the respected veteran Mark Martin, things could improve in a hurry.

18. Marcos Ambrose

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    Marcos Ambrose was no stranger to victory lane in his time as a competitor in V8 Supercars Australia, so it came as a surprise when the Aussie was unable to take first in a race during his first two full seasons of Sprint Cup action.

    Last August, however, he was finally able to enjoy a win after getting past Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski with two laps remaining at Watkins Glen.

    Ambrose went on to post career marks in both top-five (5) and top-10 (12) finishes before finishing 19th in the final point standings.

    Todd Parrot is expected to be back on top of the box for the No. 9 Ford Fusion in 2012.

    Stanley/Black & Decker will also return as a primary sponsor following his best year in Sprint cup, which could make things for the driver feel largely unchanged. Only this season, the Richard Petty Motorsports stable consists of Ambrose and Aric Almirola following the departure of A.J. Allmendinger to Penske Racing.

    In order to be a threat for the top 12 in 2012, Ambrose must show that he is capable of being a lead driver at RPM while becoming more consistent overall.

    Ambrose, already an accomplished driver on road courses, showed improvement on ovals as well. Despite finishing worse than 20th in 15 races last year, his stats have been gradually trending upwards on tracks that make up the majority of the schedule.

    He showed he is capable of improving upon those numbers by finishing 11th at Texas and posting top-10 finishes at Dover, Kansas, Charlotte and Phoenix all during the Chase.

    If he is able to duplicate those types of finishes consistently in 2012, it’s likely that he will be in the hunt for a Chase spot going into September.

17. Kurt Busch

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    Kurt Busch finds himself driving for Phoenix Racing in 2012 after being released from his Penske ride. His new, unexpected ride comes after a series of outbursts with the media, competitors and even his own team.

    Phoenix Racing’s single-car team is definitely a low-profile operation when compared to what’s going on at his former home. However, James Finch’s car should give the 2004 Sprint Cup champion a fighting chance at some tracks.

    Last season, Finch entered his car in all 36 races and averaged a 26th place finish thanks to drivers Landon Cassill, Mike Bliss, Boris Said and Bill Elliott.

    Reliability shouldn’t be huge concern for Busch in this new partnership. Despite being a one-car team, Phoenix Racing buys its engines from Hendrick Motorsports and finished 33 of 36 races last year. Meanwhile, Busch has completed all but five races over the past two seasons.

    With a championship and six previous Chase berths under his belt, Busch will bring valuable experience to a team that has only one win in its history (Brad Keselowski at Talladega in 2009).

    His resume makes it seem possible that Busch could finish in the top 20 in points, despite the fact Finch's team has yet to do so.

    If he can get a win at a restrictor-plate track or a road course, all places that have treated him well, he could be in line to clinch one of the final two spots in the Chase.

    Busch’s one-year deal might serve as a springboard back to more elite organizations if the driver puts together some impressive finishes and controls his temper.

16. Jeff Burton

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    Jeff Burton’s experience during the 2011 season was anything but stellar. The veteran posted his worst numbers since 1995 with two top-5 and five top-10 finishes on his way to a 20th-place finish in points.

    Burton hasn’t looked like his typical self for the past three seasons after making the Chase three years in a row from 2006-2008. His recent history suggests that he will have a hard time rounding back into form.

    His age could also become a factor. Burton turns 45 in June, and many drivers see a decline in ability during their late 40s.

    On a positive note, he saw more consistent results after Luke Lambert replaced Todd Barrier following a stretch of sub-20th place finishes midseason. In 2012, Drew Blickensderfer will call the shots for Burton. Blickensderfer is known for winning the first two races of the 2009 season as the crew chief for Matt Kenseth.

    Few drivers ended 2011 with more momentum than Burton. Of his five top-10s, four came during the season's last five races. That sort of success could propel him to a fast start in 2012, which is what he lacked last year.

    Like his teammate Menard, Burton may also benefit from the downsizing that took place at Richard Childress Racing over the offseason.

    Since Burton joined RCR in 2005, his worst finishes in the final standings have been in 2005 (18th), 2009 (17th) and 2011 (20th). Burton made the Chase in each of his other seasons as a driver for the organization.

    In 2009 and 2011, an argument could be made that his struggles were because resources and personnel were over stretched due to an expansion from three to four cars (in 2010 RCR returned to three cars).

    To achieve a fifth career Chase berth, Burton will need to pick up right where he left off last season.

15. Clint Bowyer

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    NASCAR’s “King of Consistency” is on the move for the first time in his seven-year Sprint Cup Series career. 

    Clint Bowyer was not re-signed by Richard Childress Racing (RCR) over the offseason, a move that eventually resulted in a new three-year deal with Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) for the driver.

    Childress turned down a potential sponsorship from 5-hour Energy secured by Bowyer last summer.  As a result, the Kansas native brings his newfound sponsor to MWR and the No. 15 Toyota Camry for 2012.

    The change of scenery for Bowyer will create three full-time teams at MWR, a first for an organization entering its 11th season of Sprint Cup competition. The deal will also make him the highest profile full-time driver at MWR.

    The three-time Chase driver accumulated one win, four top-fives and 16 top-10s last season, but narrowly missed the playoffs because of late-season struggles at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond.

    Bowyer has never been with another team, so it is hard to predict how he will perform this year.

    Despite a new environment, the 2008 Nationwide Series champion will need to continue to run well at tracks where he has traditionally had strong results (restrictor plate tracks, road courses, and short tracks). 

    But if the past is any indication, he may be forced to up his performance because MWR cars have had a reputation for being less reliable than those at RCR over the last few years.

    Bowyer will also need to bond with new crew chief Brian Pattie and a freshly assembled pit crew that has never competed together as a unit.

    MWR has only two victories in its Sprint Cup history (both recorded by David Reutimann) and no Chase births.  If Bowyer can find victory lane and/or make the Chase in his first year with the No. 15 team, it would go a long way towards improving the relationship with his new boss.

14. A.J. Allmendinger

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    To "The Dinger" goes the spoils.

    A.J. Allmendinger signed a one-year deal with Penske Racing over the offseason and will drive the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Dodge Charger in 2012.  He fills the void left by Kurt Busch, whose antics led to the 2004 champion’s eventual departure from the team.

    Allmendinger was chosen for the ride by team owner Roger Penske over other drivers, including David Ragan and Brian Vickers.  He will transition from the No. 43 at Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM), a position held since 2009.

    The former open-wheel driver has seen continued success in the Sprint Cup Series following his rookie year in 2007.  He has progressively improved his average finishing position (22.4, 17.8 and 16.1) and final points rank (24th, 19th and 15th) in each of his first three full seasons.

    Last year, Allmendinger recorded a very pedestrian one top-five finish but maintained a consistent average finish in a car that many consider to be inferior when compared to his new gig at Penske.

    Numbers like these suggest that Allmendinger now has an opportunity to take his career to the next level and make a serious run at the Chase.  He will also be after his first victory in NASCAR, which has eluded him up to now.

    Driving for a stable of this caliber also means that an increased level of expectation will be placed on the driver.  He isn’t the only new member of the team that will be forced to cope with the pressure that comes with driving for an owner like Penske.

    Todd Gordon will be Allmendinger’s crew chief for the new campaign.  Gordon was also on the move over the offseason.  Last year, he played the same role for Penske driver Brad Keselowski in the Nationwide Series (a tandem that collected five wins).

    If Allmendinger manages to impress Penske, he could be looking at a long-term contract offer with an organization that appears to be on the upswing.

13. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Is it possible that Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggled through his best year since joining Hendrick Motorsports (HMS)?

    He raced his way into the Chase and by the end of the schedule found himself seventh in points.  On April 17, and from June 5 through June 19, Junior was third in the standings, his highest mark since being second following the Daytona 500 in 2010.

    All of this was done while leading a total of 52 laps over the course of the season.  This output was by far the driver’s lowest total since joining Sprint Cup full-time in 2000 and ranked him 22nd in that category.

    Earnhardt’s failure to run up front led to the continuation of a familiar problem for the veteran, as he was unable to break his 129-race winless streak.

    When will the streak end?

    That’s hard to say, but the North Carolina native’s chances to reach victory lane could be determined by how he begins the season.

    Junior’s best seasons with HMS have come when he gets off to a fast start.  For instance, last year he was eighth in the standings following the April 3 race at Martinsville and never fell below 10th afterwards.  Meanwhile, his worst seasons have occurred when he gets off to a slow start and never recovers.

    Perhaps the inclusion of Steve Letarte was a reason behind a more consistent Earnhardt. 

    Letarte replaced Lance McGrew as crew chief for the No. 88 following a sub-par year in 2010.

    Diet Mountain Dew will replace AMP Energy and appear alongside Army National Guard as a primary sponsor for the HMS machine.

    Earnhardt will push for a win early in 2012, but he can’t get stressed if it doesn’t happen.  The key for Junior this season is to replicate the sort of cool consistency he displayed last year.

12. Ryan Newman

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    Newman was a model of consistency in 2011.  He was able to run with the leaders and compete for wins on the way to a 10th-place finish in points.  The veteran was able to finish in the top 20 in 27 races and finished worse than 25th only twice.

    As in past seasons, the “Rocket Man” was extremely fast in qualifying.  He won the Coors Light Pole Award on three separate occasions, while collecting one win, nine top-fives and 17 top-10s.

    Because the 2002 Rookie of the Year was so reliable over the course of the season, his slight dip in production during the Chase was only noticeable after a second look.  He encountered five sub-16th place finishes during a seven-race stretch from Loudon (Sept. 25) to Fort Worth (Nov. 6) that ended his chances for a championship.

    He has usually been dependable on short tracks and at venues such as New Hampshire, Phoenix and Pocono, but last season Newman was also able to avoid any major letdowns on tracks deemed “cookie-cutters.” 

    In order for the South Bend, Ind. native to see the same type of success in 2012, the driver will need to avoid mistakes and intelligently manage fuel mileage on the intermediate tracks that make up the bulk of the Sprint Cup schedule.

    Newman’s chances this season will also depend on his team, which remains largely unchanged.  Tony Gibson will return as the crew chief for the No. 39, in addition to many of the primary sponsors from last year.

    The only major alteration that could have an impact on Newman is the addition of former championship crew chief Greg Zipadelli as Competition Director for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).

    2012 is a contract year for Newman, who will need to impress after SHR celebrated its first-ever championship last season.

11. Greg Biffle

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    Greg Biffle suffered through a disappointing season in 2011.  For a driver who is used to competing for wins and a Chase birth, three top-5s and ten top-10s isn’t cutting it.  To make matters worse, Biffle finished 16th in points and missed the Chase for the first time since 2007.

    The driver’s misfortune arguably stretched from a crash in the Daytona 500 all the way through a blown engine in the final race at Homestead.  The 2002 Nationwide Series champion never reached the top-10 in points.

    Perhaps the only bright spot for Biffle was a career high three Coors Light Pole Awards.

    The Roush Fenway Racing driver could however benefit from the organization downsizing to three cars over the winter.  This might bring about a return to form for a veteran, who has always shown a certain level of regularity in results.

    Although the Vancouver, Wash. native didn’t win in 2011, he has been to Victory Lane on 16 different occasions over the span of his career. 

    At a time when many of the sport's top-flight teams are on the rise, Biffle might to scrape together a few wins to insure a spot in the 2012 Chase.

    His best shots will come at short tracks and flat tracks, types of venues where he has been highly competitive over the years.

    The return of crew chief Matt Puccia may assist Biffle in making a return to the front of the pack.  Strangely, the driver collected all three of his poles after Puccia took over following Greg Erwin’s departure after the July 9 race at Kentucky.  Other then that, there were no major changes for the No. 16 team over the offseason.

    Biffle’s new contract could take pressure off the driver as he prepares for another run at the Chase.

10. Kasey Kahne

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    Expectations have never been higher for Kasey Kahne.  The driver who finished 2011 with one win, five top-5s and seven top-10s over the final eight races is making the much anticipated move to Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) after a delay of almost two years.

    It has been a long time coming for Kahne; in April 2010, the announcement was made that he would be joining HMS after Mark Martin parted ways with the organization following the 2011 season.

    At the time, the Enumclaw, Wash. native drove for Richard Petty Motorsports, where he spent the majority of the 2010 season before being released and promptly signed by Red Bull Racing (RBR) following the Bank of America 500.  After racing for RBR during the 2011 season, the time has finally arrived for the journeyman driver to take Martin’s place in the No. 5 Impala fielded by HMS.

    Over the past two seasons, Kahne has compiled a total of one win, 15 top-5s and 25 top-10s. 

    While somewhat impressive, this level of efficiency won’t cut it at HMS where drivers must produce at a high level in order to keep their rides.

    Kahne has shown flashes of the driver that won six races in 2006, but has also struggled with consistency while managing two Chase appearances in eight seasons.

    The 2004 Rookie of the Year now drives for a team that’s built to succeed. 

    His car will feature Farmers Insurance, Quaker State and HendrickCars.com as the primary sponsors, giving the Impala a new look.  In a positive move, Kenny Francis will continue his duties as crew chief for Kahne after following him to HMS.

    Kahne will need to closely mirror his incredible run during the 2011 Chase in order to stay off the hot seat at an organization with 10 drivers’ championships and tons of pressure.

9. Brad Keselowski

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    After 2011, it’s hard not to anoint Brad Keselowski as the next big thing.  Roger Penske seems to think along those same lines; the team owner offered his driver a new two-year contract extension following a season with three wins, 10 top-5s and 14 top-10s.

    Following a win at Kansas Speedway on June 5, “Bad Brad” was nothing less than elite.  The 2010 Nationwide Champion showed the ability to dominate at almost every track on Cup schedule during his hot streak. 

    He caught fire over the summer months and clinched the eleventh Chase spot because of wins, after rallying from 25th in points at the beginning of June.  Keselowski would go on to finish 5th in the final standings, a career best.

    After making the Chase, Keselowski seemed primed to make a run at the championship.  He came up just short, rising as high as 3rd in the standings before slowing down over the final four races.

    Despite finishing 17th or worse in each of the last four races, Keselowski continued to turn heads during the Chase.  The conclusion of 2011 gives the driver something positive to build on entering the new campaign.

    Can Keselowski build on his most successful season?

    The answer may be out of his control.  While there’s little doubt that the driver has the skill to compete at the next level, it remains unclear whether the “Blue Deuce” can also make that move. 

    While Penske cars haven’t suffered widespread mechanical malfunctions in recent years, they also haven’t been as consistently fast as the championship-winning teams’ entries.  Last year, both Keselowski and former teammate Kurt Busch finished worse than 16th in seven races.  

    However, the organization still managed to have its best season since 2005 by helping both drivers make the Chase.

    If Penske Racing can continue to make positive strides, and Keselowski capitalizes on last season, the sky is the limit.

8. Jeff Gordon

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    Jeff Gordon enters 2012 hoping that he can conclude the latest version of the “Drive for Five” campaign with the Sprint Cup Trophy in hand.

    2011 resulted in three wins, 13 top-5s and 18 top-10s for the past champion, but the 8th place finish in points isn’t enough to please a driver of Gordon’s caliber. 

    Even though he has come up short of a championship in each of the past 10 years, the four-time Cup winner showed signs of a return to form last year.

    Three victories is Gordon’s highest win total since accumulating six in 2007, a year the driver finished 2nd in points.  The arrival of crew chief Alan Gustafson prior to the 2011 season might have accounted for the improvement. 

    Gustafson’s experience dealing with talented drivers at Hendrick Motorsports (Kyle Busch and Mark Martin) showed at times as Gordon looked strong for long stints during races at Atlanta (Sept. 6), Bristol (Aug. 27), Indianapolis (July 31), Loudon (Sept. 25), Martinsville (Oct. 30), Phoenix (Feb. 27), and Pocono (Aug. 7).

    But, this new driver/crew chief tandem will need to continue to improve their race day chemistry in order to keep Gordon at his peak performance level consistently.

    The 20-year veteran will be more successful this year if he can maintain the same intensity over the summer months that landed him in the Chase last season.  His worst finishes occurred at the beginning of the year and near its conclusion.  Including the Daytona 500, Gordon had four sub-20th place finishes over a two-month period that contributed to a slow start.  At the end of the season, he encountered a similar stretch of finishes during a nine race span from Chicago (Sept. 19) to Phoenix (Nov. 13).

    This is an important season for Gordon because it will show whether he is capable of winning the Sprint Cup, or if he’ll be stuck at four championships for the foreseeable future.

7. Denny Hamlin

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    Expectations were high for Denny Hamlin entering 2011 after the driver finished runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in the 2010 Chase.

    Unfortunately, “Hambone” struggled to find his stride last year despite finishing 9th in points.

    If you discount Hamlin’s final position in the standings, 2011 was arguably his worst season.  While managing one victory, he set career lows with only five top-5s and 14 top-10s.  He concluded the season with a career worst 16th place average finish and led only 450 laps, less than half of his 2010 total (1184).

    Hamlin finished the year with five top-12 finishes over the final 10 races, somewhat salvaging an otherwise disappointing season.

    As a result, Mike Ford is out as crew chief of the No. 11 car after seven seasons with the team.  He will be replaced by Darian Grubb, who takes over after parting ways with three-time champion Tony Stewart following the season.  Grubb has encountered a great deal of success while working with elite drivers like Stewart and Jimmie Johnson.  He helped fuel “Smoke” during a magical run in the Chase, and enters 2012 on a crew chief hot streak of sorts.

    Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) has formed a partnership with Toyota Racing Development (TRD) in conjunction with its engine shop.  With the switch to TRD motors, Hamlin potentially benefits from gained reliability on race day.  Last season, TRD supplied engines for Micheal Waltrip Racing, Red Bull Racing, and JTG Daugherty Racing.  Those teams suffered three blown engines combined in 2011 compared to JGR’s six (Hamlin accounted for one).

    Everything Darian Grubb touches seems to turn to gold.  If the crew chief can work his magic on Hamlin, the driver will have a chance to rise to the high-water mark he set in 2010.

6. Tony Stewart

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    No driver had ever won five races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup until Tony Stewart accomplished the feat last year in route to his third championship as a driver, and first as an owner.

    Already considered a top-tier talent, he was able to take his skill to another level during the season finale at Homestead-Miami, coming from behind to upset pole-sitter and title runner-up Carl Edwards.

    Entering the Chase, it was hard to imagine that Stewart would be in contention for the championship, given that he never created the impression that he was capable of doing so.  The Columbus, Ind. native didn’t lead a single lap during the final six contests before the opening race of the Chase at Chicagoland Speedway (his first victory of the year).

    He finished the year with five wins, nine top-5s and 19 top-10s.

    So how will "Smoke" respond during his 2012 title defense?

    The answer likely lies with the freshly formed relationship between Stewart and crew chief Steve Addington. 

    The experienced crew chief should have no problems getting along with the three-time champion (he’s the former crew chief for both Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch), but he will need to assist in igniting the type of success that Darian Grubb helped generate in last year’s playoffs.  Addington has developed a reputation for having trouble during the Chase because of past collapses while leading both Busch brothers.

    Stewart will also need to challenge himself to stay sharp this season. 

    Following his previous championships, the driver/owner has answered with some of his most disappointing seasons.  He finished 7th in 2003 following his title the prior year, and 11th in 2006 despite collecting five wins.

    If Stewart can avoid a semi-usual slow start, he could cement a Chase spot earlier than usual, putting himself into a position to repeat last year’s clutch performance.

5. Kyle Busch

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    Kyle Busch seems to have conquered nearly every hurdle a professional driver faces except for one, his maturity.

    Last year, the driver many fans call “Rowdy” once again failed to control his temper. The most notable incident was a Camping World Truck Series run-in with Ron Hornaday at Texas which cost Busch a start in the crucial Sprint Cup Chase race at the venue, ending his hopes of a championship.

    As a result, the Las Vegas, Nev. native finished the season ranked 12th in the standings, last amongst the Chasers. After participating in 35 of 36 races, Busch had compiled four wins, 14 top-5s, and 18 top-10s.

    Over the years, NASCAR’s fines and sanctions have done little to change the driver’s on-track mentality, although Busch now sports a more understanding attitude during interviews.

    While considered one of the most talented drivers on the circuit, the 2005 Rookie of the Year has encountered poor Chase results similar to last season’s fiasco throughout his career. He has been in the top three in points entering the Chase in each of his last three playoff births only to falter in one way or another down the stretch.

    Winning races isn’t an issue for Busch. The 26-year-old has found victory lane 23 times over the course of his eight year Cup Series career. But, when will he take the next step towards winning a title?

    The problem isn’t with the equipment or team. Crew chief Dave Rogers kept the No. 18 car at the front of the pack in 2011 (Busch led 1455 laps, the most of any driver); and with three owner’s championships in the series, Joe Gibbs Racing is considered one of Sprint Cup’s premiere organizations.

    The Answer lies with Busch himself. Can he refrain from letting his emotions get the best of him during the seasons most crucial moments? Only time will tell.

4. Kevin Harvick

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    Ask a NASCAR fan who they believe the best closer in the sport is. Similar to a closer in baseball, racing’s usage of the term is applied to the driver who seemingly appears out of nowhere in the final laps of a race to achieve victory.

    Kevin Harvick made a strong statement for being the best driver during the closing laps in 2011. During races at Fontana (March 27), Martinsville (April 3) and Charlotte (May 29), he took the lead away with four laps remaining or less in order to win. In all, he scored four wins last year to go along with nine top-5s and 19 top-10s.

    How close was Harvick to winning the Sprint Cup last season?

    He finished 3rd in the standings for the second time in a row, this year behind Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. Normally a driver would be able to live with that sort of result. Harvick on the other hand became tired of coming up short in the title hunt and talked with team owner Richard Childress about making a change after the Kobalt Tools 500 (Nov. 13).

    As a result, Gil Martin will be moved to director of team operations for Richard Childress Racing (RCR), and Shane Wilson will step in as the new crew chief of the No. 29 team beginning in 2012. Wilson was the crew chief for Harvick during the driver’s 2006 Nationwide Series championship run.

    The aforementioned downsizing operation (see Jeff Burton and Paul Menard) that took place at RCR over the winter may also have a positive affect on the 2001 Rookie of the Year’s chances this season.

    All of the pieces are in place for the Bakersfield, Calif. native to make another serious run at the Sprint Cup championship. If Harvick can continue his closing laps heroics, he’ll likely have a shot to grab the title.

3. Matt Kenseth

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    Matt Kenseth is a driver who has built a solid career from his ability to stay consistently fast and avoid trouble at most tracks.

    In 2003, Kenseth took home the championship while managing only one victory.

    Last season, wins weren’t a problem for the Cambridge, Wis. native. He won three races (his highest total since 2006) while collecting 12 top-5s and 20 top-10s.

    On paper Kenseth’s 4th place finish in points doesn’t look bad. But, it’s a wonder that he was able to finish that high after adding in several misfortunes that the driver encountered during the Chase.

    At Chicago (Sept. 19), he ran out of fuel on the final lap before coasting to a 21st place finish. During the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville, Kenseth had run-ins with Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers, eventually finishing 31st.

    Later at Phoenix (Nov. 13), he suffered a DNF after another incident with Vickers. Outside of this series of mishaps, his playoff run looks similar to that of teammate Carl Edwards.

    The 14-year veteran will have a new look for 2012 after Crown Royal parted ways with the team. The No. 17 Ford Fusion will be sponsored by a variety of companies including: Best Buy, Valvoline, Zest and Ford EcoBoost.

    Qualifying has never been Kenseth’s strength, but in 2011 the tides began to turn as he posted a 14.2 average starting mark, which is the best of his career. He has always been a driver who can gain and maintain position after the green flag drops, but if his qualifying speeds continue to trend upwards, the driver’s job will be much easier.

    Crew chief Jimmy Fennig could be a major reason behind his driver’s recent upsurge. After taking over for Todd Parrott halfway through the 2010 season, Kenseth has once again been amongst the series best drivers on a constant basis.

    If this driver-crew chief duo picks up where they left off in 2011, Kenseth will be a major contender for the Sprint Cup.

2. Jimmie Johnson

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    Did "Superman" Jimmie Johnson finally lose his cape?

    It’s easy to be skeptical of Johnson after 2011. The five-time champion had the worst season since his rookie year in 2002.

    For a driver who’s grown accustomed to sitting onstage at the NASCAR Drivers Banquet, two wins, 14 top-5s, and 21 top-10s is way off pace. The statistics weren’t the only thing missing from a lackluster campaign.

    Johnson finished 6th in points also a career worst. Usually, the Chase is the No. 48 team’s stomping grounds (Johnson has 20 career wins during the Chase). But last season, the talented driver had no such luck during the final ten races. His hopes of an unprecedented sixth championship were dashed after a hard crash ended his night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

    What did Hendrick Motorsports do to correct last season’s letdown? Besides altering the color of the car to a dark blue and white pinstriped design, they didn’t change very much.

    The pairing of the driver Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus is perhaps the most potent matchup in the sport today on a regular basis. The two have been together since the beginning of Johnson’s career, and the offseason has given them some needed time apart.

    The best thing that the 2010 Driver of the Year could have possibly done over the offseason is to learn to forget. But, the pressure of being a defending champion has now been lifted from his shoulders, meaning Johnson should be at his best.

    He also has a new reason to be motivated. After failing to capture a sixth championship, the driver now wants to prove that he can win again as a driver for what is possibly Sprint Cup’s best organization.

    Johnson’s first goal will be to knock off the rust that halted his run during the second half of last year’s Chase. His second goal will be to recapture the title and climb a step closer to Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt on the all-time championships list.

1. Carl Edwards

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    One point is the only thing that separated Carl Edwards from being crowned the 2011 Sprint Cup champion.

    Because he finished runner-up to Tony Stewart by the closest margin ever, Edwards should simply continue to take the same approach when preparing for races in 2012. After all, it couldn’t happen again right?

    The 19 top-5s and 26 top-10s that the 2007 Nationwide Series champion collected are easily good enough to have won the championship any other year. Perhaps the only thing holding the No. 99 team back was its inability to win. In 2012, Edwards should attempt to be more aggressive in order to improve upon the single victory he had last season.

    Winning more races wouldn’t hurt his chances, and the driver’s most successful seasons have come when he is able to take the car to victory lane more often.

    From an organizational standpoint, the biggest change from last season is the downsizing operation that took place over the winter.

    While there a positives to a smaller organization, a move like this also carries potentially negative consequences. RFR lost at least 100 workers, some of which have been hired by other NASCAR teams. These former employees carried the knowledge they learned about RFR to their new organizations. This leak of information could hurt Edwards during the new campaign.

    Otherwise, few changes were made over the offseason, making a repeat performance from last year all the more likely for the Missouri native.

    The driver’s Roush Finway Racing (RFR) Ford will once again feature a bevy or sponsors including: Fastenal, Best Buy, UPS, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Cheez-It, Aflac, and Subway; the resulting designs will give the car a different look almost every week. Bob Osbourne will return as the crew chief for the Fusion for the ninth consecutive year.

    No matter the situation at RFR, Edwards has proven that he can drive well at virtually every track. This versatility should help him in the quest for his first Cup Series championship.




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