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2012 Sprint Cup contenders

Where they'll finish in 2012
Who will rise to the top of the Sprint Cup standings in 2012? SI.com's Lars Anderson breaks down the field of contenders.
 
1
Jimmie Johnson
2011 Stats: Two wins, 14 top-fives, 21 top-10s
2012 Outlook: More committed than ever, Johnson and his team will stick to their game plan, and should carry it out.

Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, committed several uncharacteristic mistakes during the 2011 Chase. Johnson ran out of gas on the final lap in the playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 19 (he finished 10th); he wrecked at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 15 after putting his number 48 Chevy in a precarious position (he wound up 34th); and at Talladega Superspeedway on Oct. 23 he waited too long to make his typical late-race charge from the back of the pack (he came in 26th). Yet Johnson, who at age 36 remains in the prime of his career, will certainly be a force in the Cup series for years to come. Knaus and all of Johnson's other key crew members are back on board for '12.

All that means one thing: Mr. Five-Time, who finished sixth in the 2011 final standings, will again be the driver to beat.

 
2
Carl Edwards
2011 Stats: One win, 19 top-fives, 26 top-10s
2012 Outlook: Increasing his win total, including taking a race or two in the Chase, is critical to Edwards's title hopes.

Except for failing to win one notable trophy, Edwards had a marvelously fulfilling season in 2011. He topped the standings for 21 weeks, raced to a series-best 19 top fives and had the highest average finish (4.9) in the history of the Chase. But the fact that Edwards took only one checkered flag all of last year ultimately led to his losing the Sprint Cup title to Tony Stewart, who took five in the Chase.

Edwards will be a contender again as his crew chief, Bob Osborne, and all the key personnel on his number 99 team will return. For Edwards to win his first championship, he'll need to improve his speed over the closing laps of races, and he can't settle for top fives when he has a shot at the checkers -- a lesson Stewart taught him last fall.

 
3
Matt Kenseth
2011 Stats: Three wins, 12 top-fives, 20 top-10s
2012 Outlook: Continued improvement on intermediate tracks may pay off for the unusually optimistic Kenseth.
Over his 13-year Cup career Kenseth has been one of NASCAR's most consistent drivers. Since 2004 he's qualified for every Chase but one ('09), and over that stretch he has more top 10s (143) than every driver except Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. While quietly finishing fourth in the standings last season, Kenseth showed dramatic improvement in qualifying (his average starting spot was a career-best 14.2) and on intermediate tracks. Though he's a pessimist by nature, Kenseth believes he has the equipment and crew to contend for his second title. "We had a chance to win a few more races [last year] than we actually did," he says. "As a team we're very close to where we want to be."
 
4
Tony Stewart
2011 Stats: Five wins, nine top-fives, 19 top-10s
2012 Outlook: He may not repeat as champion, but Stewart seems a lock to make the Chase for the sixth straight year.

Stewart's performance over the 10 races of the playoffs was the finest any driver has put together in the Chase era. At Homestead, Stewart passed a total of 118 cars ("I feel like I passed half the state of Florida," he joked), won his fifth Chase race (a record) and became the first driver-owner since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 to hoist the Cup trophy.

Now the question is this: Can Stewart maintain that mechanical edge in 2012?

It won't be easy. A few days after his driver won the title, it was announced that crew chief Darian Grubb was let go from Stewart-Haas Racing, and Steve Addington, who had been the crew chief for Kurt Busch over the past two seasons at Penske Racing, was hired to replace him.

Addington is widely regarded in the garage as an elite crew chief. His quiet, patient, calm demeanor should mesh well with Stewart, who, although he's entering his 14th Cup season, remains one of the fieriest drivers in the sport. The two worked together at Joe Gibbs Racing, from 2005 through '08, over which time Addington served as crew chief for several other drivers. Stewart has spaced his titles apart (the first two came in '02 and '05), but he should be a lock to qualify for this year's Chase. He's advanced to the playoffs in all three of his seasons at SHR -- and, as he showed in 2011, he's eminently capable of winning at every playoff track.

 
5
Kevin Harvick
2011 Stats: Four wins, nine top-fives, 19 top-10s
2012 Outlook: A new but familiar crew chief should help Harvick put the Happy back in his driving.
No driver in the Cup series had a more up-and-down 2011 than Harvick had. After winning three of the first 12 races and climbing to second in the standings, he sputtered over the summer months and fell to sixth. Harvick rebounded with a solid Chase -- he finished the season third overall -- but he and his car owner, Richard Childress, were so frustrated with the number 29 team's uneven performance that crew chief Gil Martin was replaced in the offseason with Shane Wilson, Clint Bowyer's former crew chief. Harvick and Wilson won the '06 Nationwide title together, and their familiarity with each other bodes well for their chances of reaching Victory Lane early this season.
 
6
Kasey Kahne
2011 Stats: One win, eight top-fives, 15 top-10s
2012 Outlook: Now that he's driving for Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne will make the Chase for the first time since '09.

Once again Kasey Kahne has a new boss. For the fourth time in five seasons he will be driving for a different Sprint Cup team, which means another transition period of becoming acclimated to new teammates, crew members and support personnel, of learning faces and memorizing names.

Yet Kahne could not be happier. That's because his latest move is to powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, with its vast resources and impressive collection of championship banners. Kahne takes over for Mark Martin in the number 5 car, joining Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a star-studded stable of drivers.

Suddenly Victory Lane -- and the Sprint Cup championship -- seem a whole lot closer for the 31-year-old Kahne, who finished 14th in the 2011 standings while driving for Red Bull Racing. "This is exciting. It feels good," Kahne says of his new NASCAR home. "They've given me such a good opportunity, I need to take full advantage of it and perform. It may take a little time to figure everything out, but I think we can get off to a pretty quick start."

-- Cary Estes

 
7
Kyle Busch
2011 Stats: Four wins, 14 top-fives, 18 top-10s
2012 Outlook: He has talent, but Busch will have to win the battle against his temper in order to contend.
Busch once again was his own worst enemy in 2011. During a Truck series race at Texas Motor Speedway on Nov. 4 he intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. during a caution, prompting NASCAR to suspend Busch for that weekend's Nationwide and Cup events. Busch, who has a history of road rage, then finished last among the playoff drivers (12th) and may now be one more mistake away from losing his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing. No one in the garage questions Busch's ability to win at every type of track -- "I think Kyle Busch has as much natural skill as anyone in NASCAR," says Tony Stewart -- but until Busch stops committing heat-of-the-moment blunders, he won't contend for a championship.
 
8
Denny Hamlin
2011 Stats: One win, five top-fives, 14 top-10s
2012 Outlook: Results may not come right away this season for Hamlin, who'll be breaking in a new crew chief.
The biggest disappointment in NASCAR last season was Hamlin, who in 2010 narrowly lost the Sprint Cup championship to Jimmie Johnson while winning a series-high eight races. Hamlin's number 11 Toyota was down on speed for most of last year, as he and his crew chief, Mike Ford, struggled to find a setup that made Hamlin feel comfortable behind the wheel. In early December, Hamlin's car owner, Joe Gibbs, fired Ford and hired Darian Grubb, the crew chief who led Stewart to the title last season. While it might take some time for Grubb and his new driver to click, expect more top fives from Hamlin this season.
 
9
Brad Keselowski
2011 Stats: Three wins, 10 top-fives, 14 top-10s
2012 Outlook: Unlike last year, the confident Keselowski is now primed to be a contender from the get-go.

At 27, Keselowski won three races, qualified for the Chase and finished fifth in the point standings, one spot ahead of five-time defending champ Johnson.

No driver improved during the second half of the 2011 season as much as Keselowski did. Over the first nine races the No. 2 Penske Racing team failed to crack the top 15, capped by a dismal 36th-place finish at Richmond in late April that left Keselowski in 28th place in the standings. "There were some dark days," Keselowski says. "Certainly after Richmond, that was a miserable, miserable day. I was surrounded by good people who didn't let it get us down or let me get down. We were able to just keep plugging away and get better."

Did they ever. Beginning in early June, Keselowski had nine top-five finishes and 13 top-10s over a 20-race span to jump all the way to third in the standings. That extended surge -- despite a minor slump over the season's last four races -- means that Keselowski enters 2012 as a real contender for the Sprint Cup championship, riding momentum as well as new-found confidence.

-- Cary Estes

 
10
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2011 Stats: Zero wins, four top-fives, 12 top-10s
2012 Outlook: Having broken out of his long slump, NASCAR's most popular driver will speed to a second straight Chase.

For the first time since 2008, Earnhardt -- now 37 and a 13-year Cup veteran -- qualified for the Chase. Though he ultimately finished seventh in points and is currently sitting on a 129-race winless skid (his last win came at Michigan more than three years ago), the 2011 season was clearly a step forward for his number 88 team. "We're getting closer to where we need to be, and that's contending for wins and, ultimately, contending for championships," Earnhardt says. "Steve has been the perfect crew chief for me, and I think our future together is pretty damn bright. We just have to find a little more speed in our cars, and we'll be right where we need to be."

Can Earnhardt develop into a bona fide title contender? The statistics suggest he has a ways to go. Last season he had just four top-five finishes (though it was his best total since 2008), and he led only 52 total laps -- the fewest of his career. But he did spend eight weeks of the regular season ranked fourth or higher in the point standings, and more significant, he committed fewer mistakes behind the wheel than he did in '10.

It will be important for Earnhardt to come out of the gate fast in 2012. Doing that last year boosted his confidence. His best chance to break his winless streak will likely come in the season-opening Daytona 500. Earnhardt has two career victories at Daytona International Speedway, and he's still considered one of the top restrictor-plate drivers in NASCAR. He also should be very fast on April 1 and Oct. 28 at Martinsville Speedway, where he finished second last spring.

 
11
AJ Allmendinger
2011 Stats: Zero wins, one top-five, 10 top-10s
2012 Outlook: He has never won a Cup race, but improved equipment could change that for the sixth-year driver.
After struggling on second-tier race teams for the past five seasons, Allmendinger will get his dream opportunity in 2012. Shortly after Kurt Busch left Penske Racing in December, owner Roger Penske signed Allmendinger to pilot the number 22 Dodge -- one of the most coveted seats in the Cup series. Allmendinger, who last season finished 15th overall while driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, is widely considered in the garage to be an elite talent. In '06 he won five races in the Champ Car World Series -- he came in third in the final standings -- and last year, despite average equipment, he had 22 top-15 runs. Look for the 30-year-old Allmendinger to be the breakout driver of the season.
 
12
Jeff Gordon
2011 Stats: Three wins, 13 top-fives, 18 top-10s
2012 Outlook: Despite last year's late fade, the former champ should be faster throughout this season as he and his crew chief continue to jell.

Can Gordon win one more championship? Many in the garage thought so in the days before the start of last season's Chase. Gordon, who after a winless 2010 finished the '11 regular season with his highest win total since '07 and ranked third in the standings, was a popular pick to charge to his fifth title. But Gordon faded with astonishing speed. During the Chase he had five finishes of 20th or worse?matching his total from the 26-race regular season -- and puttered to an eighth-place finish.

Yet two things were clear about Gordon last year: At 40, he still possessed elite car control, and he still excelled at diagnosing handling problems in his number 24 Chevy. He led more laps (922) than he had led in four years and Gordon, who won the most recent of his four titles in '01, is entering his second season with veteran crew chief Alan Gustafson, who's one of the most respected pit bosses in the sport. This is a combination worth watching closely as the season progresses because as Gustafson continues to learn precisely what Gordon likes in his car's setup, they should become faster. Says Gordon, "[We're] in position to have a great year."

 
13
Greg Biffle
2011 Stats: Zero wins, three top-fives, 10 top-10s
2012 Outlook: Biffle should be able to capitalize late in races when he and his team couldn't last season.
To hear Biffle tell it, he had the car to beat in several races in 2011 but never reached Victory Lane due mostly to bad luck. "There's probably a solid four wins that we were in control of, and something just not normal happened and we got a bad finish," Biffle said in September. Given that, there's reason to expect Biffle to make a strong run at the Chase after failing to qualify for the playoffs (and finishing 16th overall) in '11 for the first time in four years. On July 11, Matt Puccia replaced Greg Erwin atop the number 16 pit box. Biffle and Puccia meshed well?they led laps in five of the last seven races -- and they treated the final month of the season as an extended test session, which could pay dividends early in '12.
 
14
Ryan Newman
2011 Stats: One win, nine top-fives, 17 top-10s
2012 Outlook: After a consistent showing last year, Newman should be on the bubble to make the playoffs.
Newman had one of the best seasons of his career in 2011. His success was easy to overlook -- especially late in the year when his teammate, Stewart, dashed to the title -- but Newman, 34, piloted his number 39 Chevy to more top 10s (17) than he has had since '03. Like Stewart, Newman excels at driving a loose race car (meaning the back end slides up the track through the corners). Because they have similar driving styles, Newman and Stewart are constantly swapping ideas about lines around the track, which was one of the secrets to the success of Stewart-Haas Racing in 2011. Newman, who finished 10th in the final standings, should contend for at least a few wins.
 
15
Jeff Burton
2011 Stats: Zero wins, two top-fives, 5 top-10s
2012 Outlook: A third crew chief in two years will need to get fast results to boost Burton in the standings.
Are Burton's best days behind him? Last season the 44-year-old had his fewest number of top 10s since 1995 while finishing 20th in the standings. Burton went through two crew chiefs in 2011 (Todd Berrier and Luke Lambert), and he'll have a new face on his pit box in '12, Drew Blickensderfer. Last season Blickensderfer was teamed with David Ragan at Roush Fenway Racing, an organization that flourished on the intermediate-length tracks. Burton struggled on these 1.5- and two-mile venues last year, and he believes that Blickensderfer will make him more competitive on these tracks, which form the backbone of the Cup schedule. But Burton's still a long shot to make the Chase: He has four wins in the last decade.
 
16
Clint Bowyer
2011 Stats: One win, four top-fives, 16 top-10s
2012 Outlook: Bowyer's new team doesn't promise to make him a postseason contender.
After spending the first six years of his Cup career at Richard Childress Racing, Bowyer moved in the offseason to Michael Waltrip Racing, where he joins drivers Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin. Bowyer, who wound up 13th in the final standings, has advanced to the Chase three times in his career. Can he make it a fourth in 2012? Unlikely. MWR has never had a driver qualify for the playoffs, and Bowyer will likely experience the growing pains that go along with being on a new team and working with a new crew chief (Brian Pattie). But look out for Bowyer on May 6 at Talladega Superspeedway, where he has led laps -- and won twice -- over the last three races.
 
17
Jamie McMurray
2011 Stats: Zero wins, two top-fives, four top-10s
2012 Outlook: McMurray hopes his team's off-season shake-up will help him regain speed.

Last season could not have gone much worse for McMurray. A year after winning two of the most prestigious races on the Sprint Cup schedule -- the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 -- McMurray, 35, had zero victories and finished 27th in the standings. His free fall was so unexpected that his team owner Chip Ganassi told SPEED channel in August that he was "heartbroken" over the failure of his entire Earnhardt Ganassi Racing operation.

So what happened? "We didn't seem to have the speed," McMurray said in October. "Not only didn't we have the speed, we were breaking engines, getting caught up in accidents." Predictably, at season's end Ganassi shook up EGR, cutting loose the organization's competition director and team manager. (The latter position has been filled by Max Jones.) Will these changes trigger a rebound for McMurray in 2012? If he doesn't contend for wins and a Chase berth, he may need to dust off his résumé and look for a new team in 2013.

 
18
Paul Menard
2011 Stats: One win, four top-fives, eight top-10s
2012 Outlook: He may not be Chase-ready yet, but Menard has taken strides toward making the playoffs soon.
Menard continued to show steady improvement in 2011. He won his first Cup race (in July at Indianapolis Motor Speedway), had a career-best eight top 10 runs (including one in the Chase at Phoenix) and came in 17th in the final standings. Entering his sixth full season Menard, 31, will benefit from the fact that Richard Childress Racing is reducing the number of Cup cars in its stable from four to three, which should mean more resources will be devoted to finding speed in the Wisconsin native's number 27 Chevy. Menard is still at least a season away from contending for a spot in the playoffs, but expect him to reach Victory Lane at least once this year.
 
19
Joey Logano
2011 Stats: Zero wins, four top-fives, six top-10s
2012 Outlook: Joe Gibbs will need to see results from Logano, or the fourth-year driver could be demoted.
What happened to Sliced Bread, that 18-year-old star in waiting? Three years after entering the Cup series full time with as much hype as any rookie in recent memory, Logano, now 21, has yet to show he's capable of consistently running in the lead pack. Last year he came in 24th overall -- a career low. Logano possesses impressive car control, but he struggles to make in-race adjustments once his number 20 Toyota becomes difficult to handle. His team owner, Joe Gibbs, has been patient with Logano, but if the young driver doesn't show dramatic improvement in 2012 -- and there's little evidence to suggest that he will -- then he may be forced to take a ride in the Nationwide Series in '13.
 
20
Juan Pablo Montoya
2011 Stats: Zero wins, two top-fives, eight top-10s
2012 Outlook: Success on road courses alone may not be enough to keep Montoya racing in the Cup series.
Montoya appeared to regress in 2011, guiding his number 42 Chevy to fewer top fives than he had in any season since '08. The former Formula One driver excels on road courses (he grew up racing on winding tracks in Bogotá, Colombia) and at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (where he won the Indy 500 in '00), but Montoya, 36, has struggled at virtually every other track over the last two years. He finished 21st in the final standings in '11 and appeared uninterested at times. This will be a critical season for the ultra-aggressive Montoya. If he continues to flounder in the back of the pack in NASCAR, his eyes may start to wander to another racing series: IndyCar.
 
 

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