NASCAR: 9 Bold Predictions for the Rest of the 2012 Sprint Cup Campaign

Tyler Ward@twardyyyAnalyst IMarch 11, 2012

NASCAR: 9 Bold Predictions for the Rest of the 2012 Sprint Cup Campaign

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    We're two races in to the 2012 Sprint Cup season, as we've seen Matt Kenseth take home his second Daytona 500 trophy, Juan Pablo Montoya hit a jet dryer, Danica Patrick and Jimmie Johnson wreck on the second lap of the Daytona 500 and Denny Hamlin win his first race with a new crew chief.

    It may not have been as exciting as last season, as we saw Trevor Bayne pull off one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history, but it's still been a fun two weekends. And to think, there's 33 more of these to go (after the Las Vegas race concludes Sunday).

    I guarantee that there will be some surprises this season involving many different aspects. We just get to sit back and wait for them to happen.

    There's no doubt about it, though, we're in for an exciting 2012 campaign. I don't know if it'll be better than last season, when we saw Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards tie for the championship and resort to a tiebreaker, but it should hopefully be pretty good.

    Only time will tell.

Greg Biffle Will Make the Chase

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    I'll be the first to tell you that I like Greg Biffle. I think he's a great race driver, but he's very inconsistent. He needs to become a consistent driver if he ever wants to become the only driver to win championships in NASCAR's top three series.

    Biffle won two races during the 2010 season, the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono and the Price Chopper 400 at Kansas. He made the Chase that season, eventually placing sixth in the final standings.

    However, last season, Biffle did not post the results he wanted. He finished the season with zero wins, along with just three top-5s and ten top-10s. He did not make the Chase and finished the year in 16th place in the final standings.

    But I believe Biffle can turn his luck around this season. After two third-place finishes to begin the year, Biffle is off to a great start. The only thing that'd be better is if he had won one of the first two races, but I believe it will happen fairly soon.

    Before the Sprint Cup's regular season ends after Richmond, I see Biffle winning at least two races, possibly three.

    Where he takes the checkered flags remains to be seen, but I believe it'll happen at his better tracks—such as Michigan, Darlington, Pocono and Dover.

    But regardless, Biffle will make the Chase at the end of the regular season. I think he has a very legitimate shot at winning the championship this season if everything goes right.

There Will Not Be a First-Time Winner This Season

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    Last season, we saw five drivers take home the checkered flag for the first time—Trevor Bayne at the Daytona 500, Regan Smith at the Southern 500 at Darlington, David Ragan at the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, Paul Menard at the Brickyard 400 and Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen.

    Many people expected A.J. Allmendinger to win a race last season, but it just didn't happen. After switching from Richard Petty to Penske Racing during the offseason, Allmendinger seems like a lock to take home his first Sprint Cup trophy.

    But honestly, I don't think it'll happen.

    He's a decent driver and he will win a race at some point, but I don't think it'll happen this year.

    There are only a handful of drivers in Sprint Cup who haven't won a race at some point, with Allmendinger being one of them. Others include his replacement at Petty Enterprises, Aric Almirola, along with Dave Blaney, David Gilliland, Landon Cassill, Travis Kvapil, David Stremme, Michael McDowell and Tony Raines.

    So, yeah, I can't expect any of those drivers to win a race this season, especially since they have inferior equipment. Maybe if they drove for powerhouses such as Roush-Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Penske Racing or Joe Gibbs Racing, they may wold have had a legitimate shot. But with the rides now, there's not a chance that they better the entire 43-car field for hundreds of laps to take home the checkered flag.

    There's also Danica Patrick, who will race in nine more races this season for Stewart-Haas Racing.

    Needless to say, there shouldn't be a first-time winner this season, outside of "The Dinger." The other drivers listed above may be talented drivers, but there isn't a strong possibility of them making it to victory lane. That is, of course, if rain doesn't cancel a race at some point or if Juan Pablo doesn't hit another dryer.

Danica Patrick Will Wreck in 4 of Her 10 Starts

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    During the offseason, it was brought to our attention that Danica Patrick would participate in 10 Sprint Cup races this season, starting with the Daytona 500. She would be driving the No. 10 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing in all 10 of those races.

    We know for a fact that Patrick will be racing at Darlington in May, Bristol in August, Atlanta, Chicagoland and Dover in September and Texas and Phoenix in November. Patrick also stated that she will skip the Indianapolis 500 and will instead race at the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.

    Her Sprint Cup career got off to a shaky start, as she wrecked in the first Gatorade Duel race. Her 16th-place finish in the Gatorade Duel gave her the 29th-place starting position for the Daytona 500.

    Patrick lasted just two laps before being involved in a crash with "Five-Time" Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, last year's winner Trevor Bayne and David Ragan. Danica would finish the race in 38th.

    Needless to say, Patrick did not have a good week and I don't see it getting any better from here.

    As stated above, she will be competing in 10 races this season. I firmly believe she will wreck in at least four of those races with a strong possibility of a fifth wreck.

    She already has one of the four, even though it really wasn't her fault. However, a wreck's a wreck and it unfortunately has to fall into that category.

    Patrick has continuously stated that she is not that great a driver when it comes to short tracks, as evident by her 21st-place outing at Phoenix in the Nationwide Series.

    I can see Patrick struggling mightily at Darlington, perhaps the toughest track on the circuit. I believe that track will tear her a new one when the series arrives there. I can also see her struggling at Bristol, also one of the toughest tracks on the circuit, mainly because of its length.

    Additionally, I believe that Dover will be tough on her. With the wreck at Daytona, I can see her exiting early at Darlington, Bristol and Dover. There's also the strong possibility that she could have some trouble at Charlotte during the Coca-Cola 600.

    But mark my words: Danica will wreck in three of her remaining nine races. Also, she will not have a finish better than 15ththat is, of course, if rain doesn't cancel a race early. She will not have a top-10 finish, but I can definitely see her posting multiple top-10 qualifying efforts before her season concludes.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Will End His Winless Drought

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    I'll be the first to tell you that I am not a fan of Dale Earnhardt Jr. I mainly believe that he is where he's at right now because of his father (rest in peace). Everyone thinks he's a great driver, but in reality he isn't. He has yet to win a championship, much less consistently win races. He does not strike fear in opposing drivers while on the racetrack, unlike his father.

    But I think there's a legitimate possibility that the driver affectionately known as "Junior" ends his winless drought this season.

    His last win came at Michigan in 2008, his first year with Hendrick Motorsports. He has gone over 130 races since that last win and has had a few close calls, including his near-win at Charlotte last year when he ran out of gas on the final lap.

    Needless to say, it was a heart-wrenching day for Junior, but I fully believe he'll be entering victory lane before the season concludes.

    His best shot will come at the second Daytona race and at the two remaining races at Talladega. Junior has consistently been one of the sport's best superspeedway racers, and as we all know, anything is up for grabs at those two tracks.

    Statistically, Earnhardt has also been good at tracks such as Michigan, Charlotte, Texas, Phoenix and Dover.

    This season is his best opportunity to take home a checkered flag, and if he doesn't do it this year, I don't know if he'll ever do it again. He's off to a great start, and as long as he's performing well, he has a shot. He just needs to solely focus on the racing aspect, rather than life outside the track.

There Will Be a First-Time Champion in Sprint Cup

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    Since 2001, the champions are as follows: Jeff Gordon in 2001, Tony Stewart in 2002, Matt Kenseth in 2003, Kurt Busch in 2004, Stewart in 2005, Jimmie Johnson in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 and Stewart in 2011. Needless to say, there hasn't been much parity.

    But I believe that changes this season.

    I'm not going to predict the championship winner right now, as you'll see my prediction in a future slide.

    But with drivers such as Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and others, it's bound to happen. There are also dark horse picks such as Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    I refer to this as roulette. When you play that addictive "game," you mainly have to choose between the colors red and black. The Sprint Cup reminds me of someone sitting at a table and for many, many times in a row, it lands on black. It's bound to land on red at some point; the odds are in your favor. That's what the championship seems like. We haven't seen a first-time championship winner since 2005, when Johnson claimed his first of five titles—before then, it was Kurt Busch in 2004.

    The odds are in our favor. It's bound to happen, and I believe 2012 will mark the era of a new champion.

    There will be a first-time championship winner this season. Mark my words.

A Road-Course Guru Will Not Win Either Race

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    When I refer to a "road-course guru," I mainly consider a driver like Marcos Ambrose or Juan Pablo Montoya to fall into that category. Of course, there are also the drivers who just fill in for the two events, such as Boris Said, Ron Fellows, Robby Gordon, Jacques Villaneuve (if given the chance) and so on.

    But I don't think one of those drivers will with at Sonoma or at Watkins Glen.

    Ambrose shocked the NASCAR world when he won his first Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen last season, holding off Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex, Joey Logano and others. But I can't see that happening this year.

    A popular prediction I've seen lately is that many people have Ambrose sweeping both road events and making the Chase solely based on those two wins. But I think he gets stopped short and doesn't win either. And instead, by the time the race at Richmond concludes, Ambrose will not have a spot in the Chase.

    I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if a driver like Jeff Gordon, a former popular pick of road courses, came in and dominated (even though I really cringe when I say that). Or if someone like Tony Stewart, who has been historically good on road courses, takes home at least one checkered flag.

    But don't rule out Kyle Busch, either. At Watkins Glen, since his 2006 campaign, Busch has posted finishes of ninth, seventh, first, fourth, eighth, and third at the track. He's also won at Sonoma in the past, so I can definitely see him winning one of the two races this year. I believe Kevin Harvick has a solid chance at winning one of the races, too.

    A.J. Allmendinger is also mildly good at road courses and it may be his best opportunity to take home his first Sprint Cup trophy.

    Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that a "regular" will win both races. A driver like Ambrose or Montoya (who will never win on an oval, I'm just saying) will not win at Sonoma or at Watkins Glen. But there is still plenty of time to see what transpires.

Michael Waltrip Racing Will Visit Victory Lane

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    Michael Waltrip has already visited victory lane twice as an owner with David Reutimann at the 2009 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and at the 400 at Chicago in 2010.

    There's no doubt that his team is up and coming, and after luring away Clint Bowyer from Richard Childress Racing, Waltrip's team looks to be destined for greatness. Bowyer, of course, will be driving the No. 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota for the 2012 campaign.

    Waltrip's stable also consists of Martin Truex Jr., who currently pilots the No. 56 NAPA Toyota. Truex has just one career victory on his resume, but I firmly believe he will win a race this season. He's already gotten off to a decent start after posting a 12th-place finish at the Daytona 500 and a seventh-place showing at Phoenix.

    He has undoubtedly done a great job this season, and with the way things are going Truex will be visiting victory lane at some point this season for his second career victory (or maybe more).

    The third car in the stable, the No. 55 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota, is mainly piloted by veteran Mark Martin, who is one of the best drivers ever, in my opinion. Martin will drive the car for 24 races this season, according to The team's owner will pilot the No. 55 for four races—both Talladega races, Kentucky and the second Daytona race.

    The team recently announced that Elliott Sadler would drive in six races, but due to other conflicts, his name was pulled out of the hat. Instead, Waltrip hired Brian Vickers for those six races that Sadler was supposed to run.

    At a later date, Michael Waltrip Racing will announce who will drive the two road course races.

    But regardless, I predict that Waltrip will visit victory lane once again. Martin had a strong showing at Phoenix last weekend but was unable to take home the checkered flag. Truex has driven exceedingly well this season, as Bowyer has been a slight disappointment. But things can change drastically.

    If I were to go with anyone, I'd say that Truex has the best shot at winning a race for the team. Bowyer, if he can get things together, could also receive a solid shot at taking home a checkered flag.

    We'll see what happens.

At Least One Superstar Will Miss the Chase

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    When you watch the Sprint Cup Series, there are a number of superstars. If you first began watching Sprint Cup right now, the first names you would know would be defending champion Tony Stewart, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski. As of right now, those are superstars of our sport, and yes, I'm considering Keselowski a superstar, mainly because of his infamous tweeting at Daytona.

    Additionally, there's the second tier of drivers such as Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano and Juan Pablo Montoya. Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte, both of whom used to be superstars, could also fall into that category.

    But regardless, the point I'm trying to make is that I consider there to be 11 "superstars" in the Sprint Cup Series. For the Chase, there are only 12 drivers who can make it. And not all 11 stars are going to make it in the field.

    Two of the 12 spots are "wild cards," as in the two slots are filled by the drivers with the most wins outside of the top 10 in points. For instance, a driver could be 25th in the standings but win three races and make the Chase because of that reason.

    And I fully believe that there will be a drivers such as Kahne, McMurray, Biffle and Newman who could win multiple races this season and make the Chase because of that aspect.

    So with that being said, which drivers will be left out of the Chase? Well, to answer that question, I will give you the 12 drivers to make the Chase, in no particular order: Stewart, Johnson, Kyle Busch, Harvick, Kenseth, Edwards, Keselowski, Hamlin, Earnhardt, Biffle, Kahne and Newman.

    By deduction, that means that of the superstars, Gordon and Kurt Busch will be left out in the cold. But of course, we won't find any of this out for many more months. We'll see what happens.

Kyle Busch Will Claim His First Sprint Cup Championship

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    There is no doubt in my mind that Kyle Busch is the most talented driver in NASCAR right now. The kid can flat-out drive a car and has done many amazing things behind the wheel. It's truly remarkable to see some of the things he does with a race car.

    Since arriving in NASCAR, the phenom has collected 104 victories across the sport's three major series—23 in Sprint Cup, 51 in the Nationwide Series and 30 in the Truck Series. And even though he's done all of this, he's only been able to take home one championship, which was the Nationwide title in 2009.

    Busch began racing full time in the Sprint Cup Series in 2005, one year after the "Chase for the Cup" was implemented.

    He made the Chase during his second season in Sprint Cup, after winning a race and posting 10 top-5 finishes, along with 18 top-10s. He would go on to struggle in the Chase and finish 10th in the standings.

    Two years later, in the 2008 season, Busch led the series with eight victories, all coming in the first 22 races. He seemed to be a lock to take home the championship, but when the Chase started, it all went downhill.

    To start off the Chase that season, Busch posted finishes of 34th, 43rd, 28th and 15th. After the fourth race, he was already 11th in points. He'd then go on to post finishes of fourth, 29th, fifth, sixth, eighth and 19th, eventually finishing the year 10th in points. It was definitely a forgetful second half of the season for Busch, as he was undoubtedly the best driver for the first 26 races.

    In 2009, Busch won four races but missed the Chase. The following season, No. 18 collected three more victories but struggled in the Chase yet again with finishes of ninth, sixth, 21st, 35th, second, fourth, 25th, 32nd, 13th and 32nd. He finished the season eighth in points.

    Last season, Busch won four races and made the Chase yet again. But like every other year, he struggled when it came to the Chase races and as we all know, he let his anger get the best of him during a Truck race at Texas involving Ron Hornaday. That led Busch to be suspended for a race and thus, ended his championship hopes even though he was practically eliminated at that point anyway.

    But I believe Busch takes care of all those issues this season and goes on to collect his first Sprint Cup Championship. I believe he will win at least two races in the Chase and run up front for the majority of the races. He just needs to be consistent in that 10-race span, something he hasn't been able to do since arriving in the sport's top level.

    There's no doubt that Busch has the potential and the ability to win a championship, but he just needs to actually do it. I believe 2012 will be his season for the taking.

    (And if not Busch, I believe it will be Kevin Harvick to take home the title.)