18 February 2012

2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Season Preview

This will be the first season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since 2006 that the defending champion is not named Jimmie Johnson. One of the greatest runs in the history of sports, Johnson's five consecutive titles, ended last season with Tony Stewart claiming the Chase, becoming the first owner-driver to do so since the late Alan Kulwicki did it in 1992. Following one of the wilder Silly Seasons in recent memory with a lot of driver movement, how will the 2012 Spring Cup Series shake out? Here's the B-FLO 360 2012 Sprint Cup season preview.

Nationwide Series Preview
Truck Series Preview

1. Carl Edwards, #99 Fastenal/Aflac/Subway Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
This is the year that Edwards finally wins the title he seems to have been poised to win for years now. Edwards did everything he needed to do to win the title last year, was the most consistent driver on the circuit all year, but Tony Stewart got hot at the right now and narrowly edged Cousin Carl. How close was the Chase last season? If in any Chase race Edwards finishes one place higher, he is the champion. His whole team is back intact and Edwards and crew chief Tom Osborne is one hell of a team. Plus Edwards finally decided to focus on the Cup Series and is running no Nationwide races, which I think will put him over the top.

2. Kevin Harvick, #29 Budweiser Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
I think that the driver most likely to emulate what Stewart did last season in the Chase, winning a lot of races in the Chase to get the title, it is Harvick. Harvick was the guy who seemed to do the right thing at the right time to get into victory lane and he's strong at a lot of tracks. Happy started off last season strong, was mediocre in the middle but ran strong at the end. He merged his team with RCR so now he can focus his energies on racing only and thus I think he will come just shy of a title.

3. Jimmie Johnson, #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
It seems that we have gotten used to entering a new NASCAR season with Johnson as the defending Cup champion but it was not to be and what is considered an off season for someone like Johnson, but still a great season nonetheless. Now while it appears that Johnson is vulnerable, he is still one of the top contenders as always. Don't surprised if you see an even more determining Johnson than ever in 2012. 

4. Tony Stewart, #14 Office Depot/Mobil One Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing
It's not often that you see changes with the series champion but Smoke decided to part with crew chief Darian Grubb and brought in Steve Addington to replace him. Risky decision but Stewart also made a brilliant move in bringing in his former crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, as competition director. What will be interesting to see if Stewart has a season where he is inconsistent through much of the season but then turns it on full throttle in the Chase.

5. Kyle Busch, #18 M&M's Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
I've said this countless times before and I will say it again, there is no driver more talented than Kyle Busch. Whenever he learns to control his emotions and show more maturity on the track. But that is a major if because while he did show some growth in maturity, there were still plenty of negative moments (getting in a scuffle with Kevin Harvick and his owner, Richard Childress, and then crashing Ron Hornaday, Jr. on purpose, leading to getting parked at Texas). Rowdy will win a bunch of races and will contend but he won't win the title until he matures.

6. Kasey Kahne, #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
I really am expecting a big season from Kahne. We know he has had the talent and he has won a bunch of races over the years but he has never had the stability that he has now nor the equipment and the teammates. Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis are a top team and Kahne really ended last season hot, and he was racing for a lame duck team. Expect him to find victory lane multiple times this season.

7. Jeff Gordon, #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports 
Gordon had a tale of two seasons last season. Alongside new crew chief Alan Gustafson, Gordon had a strong regular season with three victories and look to be a title contender heading into the Chase. But the Chase was a different story where he got off to a poor start and never recovered. But expect more of the former as he and Gustafson really meshed together well and injected some life in Gordon's career as the Drive for Five continues.

8. Matt Kenseth, #17 Best Buy Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
Kenseth would be higher in all likelihood but he does not have sponsorship for the full season. I think Jack Roush will cobble together sponsorship for the Wisconsin-native, who is coming off his best season in points and in wins since 2006. Kenseth is as consistent as they come and one of the best at the intermediate tracks. 

9. Denny Hamlin, #11 FedEx Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
It's not every day that you bring in the defending Cup champion crew chief to man the same position but that is the case for Hamlin, who welcomes Darian Grubb as his new pit boss after deciding to part ways with long-time crew chief Mike Ford. But after a disappointing 2011 and working with a new crew chief for the first time in a long time, don't expect a title contender just yet.

10. Brad Keselowski, #2 Miller Light Dodge, Penske Racing 
Before July, Keselowski was mostly an also-ran and had not yet made a name for himself in the Cup Series, even as he found victory lane via fuel mileage at Kansas. But starting in July, BK went on a tear through the series, rising from twenty-second to the Chase and kept that hot streak through the Chase, finishing fifth in the final standings. Keselowski is a budding star and expect more of what you saw in the summer-to-fall from Brad K.

11. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., #88 National Guard/Diet Mtn Dew Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
Still a disappointing season for Junior as while he did make the Chase and finished seventh, he still did not win a race and only led a little more than 50 laps. Expect more of what you saw last season, starting off strong while waning a little in the second half of the season. I do think he will end the winless streak this season, which is at now 129 races.

12. A.J. Allmendinger, #22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge, Penske Racing
I have high expectations for the Dinger this season and I really think he can make the Chase for the first time. We all knew about his talent and he has gotten better every season in the Cup Series. Now he finally is at a Chase-caliber ride with no worries about sponsorship and I really think he is going to shine. Expect him to find victory lane for the first time as well.

13. Greg Biffle, #16 3M Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
Biffle had a disappointing 2011, missing the Chase for the first time since 2007, winning no races for the first time and having his lowest points finish since 2004. He also had a midseason change at crew chief which did not have noticeable results either positive or negative. I think he will find victory lane again but I am not certain he will make the Chase this season.

14. Ryan Newman, #39 U.S. Army Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing
You know what you are getting out of Rocket Ryan, a consistent racer and one of the elite qualifiers in the sport. He is coming off a strong season, finishing ninth in points, with the most amount of top fives and tens since 2004. But I'm a big believer in trends and if you look at the last four seasons, he misses the Chase in even numbered years.

15. Paul Menard, #27 Menards Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
Menard is coming off his best season in the Cup Series as well as one where he got his first victory. Menard showed that he belonged in the Cup Series and can race, not just because of the sponsor of his ride. Look for more of the same in 2012, especially as RCR drops a team.

16. Jeff Burton, #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
Burton is coming off what was probably the worst season of his career. He had the lowest points finish since 1995 and it leads some to ponder whether his skills are on the decline. I'm not so sure about that but I'm not betting on a Chase berth for The Mayor.

17. Clint Bowyer, #15 5-Hour Energy Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
Bowyer did not have a great season last year amid questions about where he was headed for 2012 and he landed at a whole brand new team in MWR with a new sponsor and a new crew chief in Brian Pattie. Bowyer is a talent but I think he will make a Chase run next season as they will spend this season adjusting to his new surroundings.

18. Martin Truex, Jr., #56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
Truex had some of the worst luck in the sport last season as he seemed headed for a good finish when something bad, like a crash or an engine failure, would happen and ruin his day. I still don't think that MWR is a Chase caliber organization just yet but I do think this team will take a couple of steps forward. 

19. Joey Logano, #20 Home Depot Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
This is a major season for Logano in his career. Coming off a solid season in 2010 where he finished 16th in points, he took a step backwards last year and finished a really disappointing 24th in points. He's going to take a major step forward this year in a contract year if he wants to stay around at JGR.

20. Marcos Ambrose, #9 Stanley Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports
Ambrose had a career best season with his most top fives and top tens as well as his first career win at Watkins Glen. Ambrose continues to improve and while he will always be an elite road racer, he is coming into his own on the ovals as well. 

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