Sprint Cup racing isn't quite the Grand National circuit of NASCAR's heyday. There are so many good teams these days that rampant fluctuation in the standings from year to year isn't just common, it's expected. A top team from the previous season is likely to fall to the edge of the Chase, as Denny Hamlin fell last year; meanwhile, a team that didn't do much last year could have the goods this year, a feat that Carl Edwards has managed more than once in his career.
Well, we're going to be optimists today and think about the drivers that should have a decent chance at improving on their 2011 results. A lot of these drivers seriously underachieved last year, so a shot at redemption in 2012 will be more than welcome for them all. And while a couple of them made the Chase, they both dropped off in a big way last year from where they were in 2010.
Without further ado, expect these 12 drivers each to step up their game in 2012:
So much for creating the "wild card" in the Chase last year by winning three prestigious races and missing the 2010 edition; McMurray ranked a dismal 27th in points last year. Undoubtedly, he'll be looking for redemption all season long in 2012, with the goal of breaking back into the win column.
Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis pulled out a popular, gutsy win in their penultimate race with the folding Team Red Bull before moving to Hendrick Motorsports for this season. Kahne is Hendrick's driver of the future, but has been around the block long enough to be his driver of the present, too.
Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford had a very hot and cold relationship, but new team leader Darian Grubb will look to add stability to the equation after an underachieving 2011. The new combination has already produced a win and currently leads the points standings.
Biffle currently ranks second in points after alternating up and down seasons for the past half decade. The good news for Biffle and crew chief Matt Puccia is that last season was one of the down ones, and the team has looked very strong to start the season.
Logano has begun to see a sports psychologist to change his attitude on race weekends, and after underwhelming for the past few seasons in the No. 20 that defending champion Tony Stewart made famous, he may very well need it. "Sliced Bread" will work towards the top 20 in points with a new crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, who has led Joe Gibbs Racing's flagship Nationwide team for the past seven years.
The 'Dinger moved from the famed No. 43 at Richard Petty Motorsports to Penske Racing for this year, replacing the departed Kurt Busch. This car made the Chase for the Sprint Cup last season, so expectations are high, and the ex-Champ Car star should finally get his first Cup win this year.
Traditionally, Burton performs better when Richard Childress Racing is running three full-time cars than when they've got four. With the subtraction of Clint Bowyer and only minimal time spent campaigning the No. 33, RCR can devote more resources to Burton and new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer.
Blaney may have gotten more exposure than he ever has by leading the Daytona 500 under delay for two hours in prime time, but things are looking up even beyond that in 2012. In exchange for owner Tommy Baldwin giving up Blaney's top 35 spot in owners' points to Danica Patrick, the team receives vital technical and pit support from Stewart-Haas Racing that will help raise the quality of their runs.
Daytona theatrics notwithstanding, Montoya has a shot at completely re-inventing his No. 42 team this season with new crew chief Chris Heroy atop the pit box. Montoya hates losing, and a 21st-place finish in points last year should encourage him to run even harder this season.
Johnson may be the only driver in NASCAR history who will ever understand what it feels like to go into a season as a non-defending champion after having won the previous five titles. He and Chad Knaus, once they get a painful Daytona weekend and likely suspension behind them, can focus on doing what they do best: scoring consistent finishes to make the Chase, and kicking it into high gear once they get there.
Martin was clearly in a lame-duck situation with Hendrick Motorsports last season, as he and crew chief Lance McGrew basically kept the No. 5 seat warm for Kasey Kahne and Kenny Francis, respectively. But with Michael Waltrip Racing offering him another limited schedule, Martin should be charged up enough to challenge for wins this year.
Smith finally broke into the Sprint Cup win column (officially) last season, but could only manage a 26th-place points finish. Smith will have to build upon his strong runs at some of the series' largest tracks and carry the performance over into a more consistent season.