NASCAR: Top 10 Drivers After Preseason Testing

Christopher Leone@ChristopherlionSenior Analyst IJanuary 18, 2012

NASCAR: Top 10 Drivers After Preseason Testing

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    NASCAR season is close at hand. Can you feel it?

    Okay, yes, the Daytona 500 is still over a month away. But as most of us froze last week, Sprint Cup drivers and teams spent much of that time down in sunny Florida working out the kinks at Daytona International Speedway in six testing sessions, aptly named Preseason Thunder.

    We learned that, at least on the super speedways, the two-car tandem is likely here to stay. But, with NASCAR taking plenty of preventive measures to try to encourage the return of pack racing and speeds consistently reaching the mid-200s (let that sink in for a minute), we should be all set for a season opener almost as exciting as last year's epic—somehow won by Trevor Bayne.

    The 10 drivers on this list have all put up some great speeds at Daytona testing. All 10 have a serious shot at claiming victory in the Great American Race come the end of next month. In fact, some might even be able to parlay the momentum into significant improvement in the standings this season. Without further ado...

10. Martin Truex Jr.

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    Despite lagging on Thursday when the test started, Martin Truex Jr. did his best work on Friday, posting the fastest speed of the morning session (204.782 mph) and ranking ninth in the afternoon (204.820).

    During both of those sessions, he was working with new Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Clint Bowyer, and the two seem likely candidates to pair up for the Daytona 500.

9. Jimmie Johnson

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    It must be strange for Jimmie Johnson to head to a Daytona test session without the label of "defending Sprint Cup champion" attached to his name. In response, Johnson and Chad Knaus put together one of the most consistent test sessions of any team.

    During three of six sessions, the No. 48 ranked sixth on the speed charts. His only bogus speed, the 29th-fastest posted on Friday afternoon, partially happened because Johnson decided not to participate in pack drafting.

8. Juan Pablo Montoya

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    Juan Pablo Montoya ranked 10th or better on the speed charts of four out of six sessions. Once he began consistently working with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray, both drivers were mainstays in the top 10.

    Montoya and McMurray are both Daytona winners—the former in the Rolex 24 and the latter in the Daytona 500; after a lackluster 2011, both will look to start 2012 off right by challenging for the first win of the season.

7. Mark Martin

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    Get used to the image of Mark Martin driving a Toyota for Michael Waltrip as he scales back to the part-time schedule that rejuvenated his career in the late 2000s.

    Martin posted some consistently respectable times over three days of testing, with only two setbacks: First, he spun drafting partner Clint Bowyer in the Thursday afternoon session, and second, he doesn't have owners' points to get into the race after Waltrip's deal to purchase Team Red Bull fell through.

6. Clint Bowyer

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    Clint Bowyer's best session came on Friday morning when he hooked up with new Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. to post the second-fastest speed of the session (204.722 mph).

    But, he also placed 10th or better on four of six occasions, including on Thursday afternoon while working with other new teammate Mark Martin. Bowyer may have the strongest car in the MWR stable come the start of the season.

5. Paul Menard

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    Paul Menard had a grand total of one sub-par session, placing 23rd in the final Saturday session of the three-day test. Beyond that, he was one of the fastest drivers all week.

    He came out of the box quick, posting the second-fastest speed (192.369 mph) in the Thursday morning session, and stayed near the top of the charts in the drafting sessions.

4. Kyle Busch

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    For the first time since the Ron Hornaday incident, Kyle Busch drove a Sprint Cup car with M&M's decals on it at Daytona.

    He must be taking their disapproval of his actions pretty seriously; he never ranked lower than 15th in any given session, posting the fastest speed on Thursday afternoon (202.402 mph) as drivers began to regularly break the 200-mile-per-hour barrier.

    His 205.813 mile-per-hour lap from the lightning-quick Friday afternoon session was the third-fastest lap of the entire three-day testing period.

3. Kasey Kahne

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    Kasey Kahne and Kenny Francis have taken their traveling roadshow to Hendrick Motorsports, and the results, so far, have been predictably strong.

    When the cars started settling into probable race speeds on Saturday, Kahne was up at the top of the charts; he ranked first in the morning session (201.545 mph) and fourth in the afternoon (200.481).

    The Kahne-Jeff Gordon drafting combination could make some serious waves on all of the superspeedways this season.

2. Kurt Busch

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    Kurt Busch's Phoenix Racing team packed up and went home after the Saturday morning session, but their performance in the first five was strong enough to excuse that.

    Busch's average place on the speed charts was sixth; he also "won" the fastest session of the week on Friday afternoon with a 206.058 mile-per-hour lap turned with old drafting partner Regan Smith on his back.

    The Busch-Smith combination will be even further encouraged this year, as both drive for single-car Chevrolet operations.

1. Jeff Gordon

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    Jeff Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson have every reason to be all smiles after Daytona testing.

    They posted the fastest speeds in the Thursday morning and Saturday afternoon sessions, placed fourth or better in two more and still ranked 12th on Thursday afternoon in their worst session. That's an average finish, if you will, of 4.6.

    The three-time Daytona 500 winner looks primed to secure his fourth Harley J. Earl Trophy as race winner this season in a continuation of a career renaissance that began last season when Gustafson took over his pit box.