10 NASCAR Drivers Who Are in Make or Break Years in 2012

Hugo Olguin@@RealHugoOlguinContributor IIIDecember 29, 2011

10 NASCAR Drivers Who Are in Make or Break Years in 2012

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    The 2012 NASCAR season is going to be pivotal for a lot of drivers.

    With the economy hurting major corporate sponsorships, drivers have to be at the very top of their game to hold on to their jobs.

    Teams are always looking for the next racing superstar and there are more good drivers (both veterans and rookies) looking for rides.

    Here are 10 drivers who need to have good seasons or their Sprint Cup Series careers could be coming to a close.

A.J. Allmendinger, Driver of the No. 22 Dodge for Penske Racing

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    A.J. Allmendinger getting the No. 22 Penske ride is arguably one of the biggest stories this offseason.  

    He has come a long way from making his Sprint Cup debut in the No. 84 Red Bull car back in 2006.  He has gone from not making the 2007 Daytona 500 to being a contender for the Chase.

    Allmendinger has built his career up since when he began driving the Richard Petty Motorsports famous No. 43 car.  Allmendinger had his best career season in 2011, finishing 15th in points with one top-five and 10 top-10 finishes.  

    Now A.J. will have top-tier equipment when he gets behind the wheel for Roger Penske.  He will have no excuse for not being in good equipment. 

    He has a lot of pressure on him for 2012 and I believe he will get his first career win at least.  I believe in A.J. enough that he can make the Chase as well.

    Look for A.J. Allmendinger to take the next big step in his career.

Juan Pablo Montoya, Driver of the No. 42 Chevy for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing

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    Juan Pablo Montoya is going into the 2012 season with something to prove.

    The Colombian native had a disappointing 2011 season finishing 21st in points with two top-fives and eight top-10 finishes.

    He went into this past season as a favorite to make the Chase and battle for a championship.

    Montoya's only two wins came from Infineon in 2007 and Watkins Glen in 2010.  He has no wins on oval tracks during his five full-time seasons in the Sprint Cup Series.

    His temper has been known to cost him positions and cars.  He has been know to run up front in some races but fall out of contention late in races.

    Montoya's sponsor, Target, has been patient with Montoya's progression in NASCAR, but how long will they put up with bad seasons like the 2011 season?

    I believe Montoya can get his first oval win in 2012 with new rookie crew chief Chris Heroy, who comes from Hendrick Motorsports.

    I don't know if he can make the Chase, but I do believe Heroy's experience from Hendrick can give Juan the best chance to win an oval race.

Clint Bowyer, Driver of the No. 15 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing

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    A driver who has to be a Sprint Cup title contender in 2012 is Clint Bowyer.

    Bowyer is transitioning from the unlimited resources of Richard Childress Racing to the up-and-coming Michael Waltrip Racing.

    Clint is coming off of a season of just missing the Chase, finishing 13th in points, with one win, four top-fives and 16 top-10 finishes.

    Bowyer was put in a tough spot knowing he was losing his sponsor on the No. 33 car and not getting a deal in place with RCR.

    There appeared to be some tension between Bowyer and RCR.

    Fortunately 5-Hour Energy decided to sponsor Clint when he signed with MWR, who formed a new team to become a three-car team.

    Clint has the chance to show his talent by proving he can win without RCR.  

    Do I think he will be a major title contender? With MWR's lack of success to take on the top teams, I don't think Clint will be a contender.  I believe Bowyer will win a race, but not much more than that.

Jamie McMurray, Driver of the No. 1 Chevy for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing

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    Jamie McMurray had such a disappointing season after winning the Daytona 500 in 2010.

    McMurray had one of his worst seasons in 2011 with two top-fives, four top-10 finishes and five DNFs.

    Both McMurray and his teammate Juan Pablo Montoya had bad seasons for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. Jamie was never contending for wins this past season after winning three races in 2010.

    While his sponsors Bass Pro Shops and McDonald's appear to be coming back for the 2012 season, McMurray has to get back to victory lane and make the Chase.

    His career has been like a roller coaster, winning races and barley finishing races.  

    While it appears Jamie has a multi-year contract with EGR, both he and crew chief Kevin Manion need to have a rebound year to keep any sort of job security.

    I believe that Jamie will contend for a Chase spot in 2012 and get at least one win.  He is going to feel the pressure to succeed.  But having another season working with Manion will only be an improvement for McMurray.

Joey Logano, Driver of the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing

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    Does Joe Gibbs regret replacing Tony Stewart with Joey Logano yet?

    He might after Logano struggled in 2011 by finishing 24th in points with four top-fives and six top-10 finishes.

    Logano has been thought of as the next up-and-coming superstar.  He flew through the NASCAR ranks at such a young age.  The question comes up, does Joey Logano belong in the Sprint Cup Series?

    After earning his only career win during his rookie year in 2009, Logano has struggled to be consistent.  

    He goes into 2012 needing to step up and win.  He is driving for one of the best teams in NASCAR and he has just looked mediocre.  

    Logano lost his championship-winning crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who is now the competition director of Stewart-Haas Racing.  

    He does get Jason Ratcliff as his new crew chief.  Ratcliff has had success in the Nationwide Series with Kyle Busch.  But will this young combination be successful?

    I don't think so.  I think Logano finally has met tough competition in the Sprint Cup Series.  He does not have an excuse for his lack of success.  

    2012 is a make or break year.  He needs to win and be a Chase contender.

Martin Truex Jr., Driver of the No. 56 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing

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    It is amazing that Martin Truex Jr. did not win a race in 2011.

    He came so close in a few races and would run in the top 10.  I was amazed that he finished 18th in points with three top-fives and 12 top-10 finishes.

    Truex is going into the 2012 season still looking for his second-career win.  The only time he won was back in 2007.  

    This is the definition of a make or break year.  Truex has to win a race and make the Chase to show he belongs in the Sprint Cup Series.

    I honestly don't think Truex will make the Chase in 2012.  I think he can win, but I'm not sure he will.  He does have to deal with being a driver for MWR and not a top team.  I do feel driving for MWR hurts Truex's chances for success.

    He does have decent marketing ability with his sponsor NAPA Auto Parts which could save him if he has another winless season in 2012.

    He looked to be on the brink of success last season, but he couldn't close the deal.  I think more of the same will be in Truex's future in 2012.

Denny Hamlin, Driver of the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing

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    After a disappointing performance in the Chase in 2011, Denny Hamlin needs to have a major rebound in 2012.

    Hamlin finished ninth in points with one win, five top-fives and 14 top-10 finishes.  A real fall from grace after winning eight races in 2010.

    Hamlin did not look like himself last season and completely fell apart in the Chase.  The collapse led to crew chief Mike Ford being released by JGR.

    Hamlin will go into the 2012 season with Darien Grubb as his new crew chief.  Grubb won the 2011 Sprint Cup title with Tony Stewart and his success was helping Stewart closing the Chase with five wins in the last 10 races.

    This is a make or break year for Hamlin to show that he will be a consistent title contender.

    I fully expect Hamlin to be a favorite to win the Sprint Cup title and win three races. Anything less would be another disappointing season for Hamlin.

Jeff Burton, Driver of the No. 31 Chevy for Richard Childress Racing

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    If there is one driver whose time in a top-tier car is running out, it's Jeff Burton.

    Burton is coming off a tough 2011 season finishing 20th in points with no wins, two top-fives and five top-10 finishes.

    Burton showed his age in 2011.  He just didn't seem to be able to keep up with the rest of the pack.  He has great equipment but I'm sure people are wondering how much he last left since he is 44 years old.

    His last win came back in 2008 when he won twice and finished sixth in points.  

    With car owner Richard Childress' grandsons Austin and Ty Dillion making their way up the NASCAR ranks, it is only a matter of time until he puts them in the Sprint Cup Series and that means Burton would be out.

    I don't think he's going to win a race in 2012.  Even with new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer coming from Roush Fenway Racing, I don't think it will help.

    Burton has had a good run in the Sprint Cup Series, but his time is about to run out as a serious contender.

Kyle Busch, Driver of the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing

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    I have never seen a driver with such great ability just mess it up as many times as Kyle Busch.

    Busch comes off a 2011 season finishing 12th in points with four wins, 14 top-fives and 18 top-10 finishes.

    Without a doubt, Kyle Busch can win and has the ability to win a championship.  He drives for a great team at JGR.  He has a good crew chief in Dave Rogers.  

    But this kid keeps getting in his own way. 

    His temper and lack of focus have cost him Sprint Cup championships more than once already in his career.

    This season alone, during a Camping World Truck Series race, he wrecked Ron Hornaday during a caution and got parked by NASCAR for the weekend. 

    That moment almost cost him his ride with JGR after M&M's was furious about Kyle's actions.  They even refused to sponsor the car for the last two races.

    2012 is a make or break year for Kyle Busch to stay out of trouble and win the championship.

    I don't think he will.  I think we'll see more of Busch getting in his own way and ruining his potential.

Kurt Busch, Driver of the No. 51 Chevy for Phoenix Racing

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    Kurt Busch has had an astounding fall from grace.

    Busch's 2011 season included finishing 11th in points with two wins, eight top-fives and 16 top-10 finishes.

    The former NASCAR champion looked to be having a great 2011 season, until his verbal tirades towards his team and the media cost him dearly.

    Busch had issues with crew chief Steve Addington which led to abusive tirades on the team radio, even yelling at car owner Roger Penske.

    He had run-ins with Jimmie Johnson on and off the track.  But the grand finale for Busch came at Homestead.  

    Busch's foul language and yelling at ESPN announcer Dr. Jerry Punch was recorded by a cell phone and went viral on the Internet.  

    After meetings with Roger Penske, both sides parted ways and Busch was out of the No. 22 car.

    Busch's career is on the brink of destruction and he is basically on his last chance with James Finch's team. 

    He still has good equipment driving Hendrick supplied cars, but the question will be if Busch can keep his cool.

    I don't think he'll completely keep his cool, but I do think he will win one race.  But there is no way he will make the Chase.

    Busch's career is at a crossroads and 2012 will decide where his career will end up.

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