MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Each new season brings a new priority list of drivers to watch and 2012 is no different.
For the sake of expediency, I'm keeping this list to drivers in NASCAR, the IZOD IndyCar Series and Formula 1 -- the three top-tier forms of racing that will compete in the United States in 2012. Formula 1 is set to return to the U.S. for the first time since the 2007 U.S. Grand Prix, while NASCAR hopes to continue the momentum of an incredible Chase for the Championship. The IZOD IndyCar Series is prepared to enter a brave, new world with a new car for the first time since 2003, one that returns turbocharged engines to the Indianapolis 500 for the first time since 1996.
So let's ring in the New Year with SI.com's 10 Drivers to Watch in 2012.
His stunning five-year reign as NASCAR Sprint Cup champion came to a sudden end midway through the 2011 Chase for the Championship when he was involved in a massive crash late in the fifth race, at Charlotte on Oct. 15. Although Johnson had a season that fell far below his expectations -- he hit Victory Lane only twice -- he remains the greatest driver of this young century by virtue of his incredible career accomplishments. He has 55 career wins, five Cup titles and nine finishes of fifth or higher in the championship since he joined the Cup Series as a rookie in 2002. In fact, 2012 was the first time since 2002 that he finished outside of the top five; he finished sixth.
And while his streak may have come to an end in 2011, there is no reason he can't regain his championship form in 2012. He drives for the top team in the series in Hendrick Motorsports, with the most innovative crew chief in the garage area in Chad Knaus. Knaus' creativity may sometimes go over the NASCAR line rulebook-wise, but this remains the top driver/crew chief combination in the business.
By virtue of not winning the title in 2011, Johnson and Knaus should be hungrier to regain supremacy in 2012.
Edwards did everything he could to win the championship in 2011 -- except win races in the Chase. Because of that, expect the Roush Fenway driver to be even more determined in 2012 to claim the elusive title that Tony Stewart took away from him by virtue of tie-breaker (most wins). Edwards was NASCAR's most consistent driver in the Cup Series last season, but he won just one race (March 6 at Las Vegas). He is one of NASCAR's brightest, smartest and most articulate drivers. In addition to being the most physically fit driver in the sport, he may also be the most cerebral. That is why he will take the lessons he learned in championship defeat and use it as motivation to get the crown in 2012.
Look for Edwards to win more races in 2012 in an attempt to make sure if the Cup title falls into a tie breaker, he will have the wins to back up his effort.
For the second season in a row, Power was one of the most dominant drivers in IndyCar, but he faltered in the final race of the season and lost the championship to rival Dario Franchitti. Because the actual final race of the season at Las Vegas was canceled after Dan Wheldon was killed in a massive 15-car pile-up, which also included Power, the final race of the IndyCar season was technically Oct. 2 at Kentucky Speedway.
"It was still a good year for us," Power said. "Eight poles and six wins is definitely a good year. The season ended in a very unfortunate way and Dario and I didn't get to battle it out. But we are taking a hard look at the things that didn't work out for us and cost us some points and we are building on the things that were good for us and keep at it."
Power is certainly IndyCar's "King of the Road" with his prowess on street and road courses, but he did break though to score an oval victory in 2012 when he won the second race of a double-header at Texas in June. Power has the sheer determination and speed to be a prolific winner at Team Penske, but he must find a way to avoid the late season pratfalls that cost him the championship in 2011. If he can stay out of trouble, Power should win his first IndyCar crown in 2012.
The talented Red Bull driver from Germany staked his claim at the 2011 world championship, winning six of the first nine races. It was one of the most dominant seasons in F1 history, and with little technical changes to the series expected in 2012, look for Vettel to remain at the top of his game. America will get a chance to see Vettel in 2012 when F1 comes to Austin, Texas, on Nov. 18. It will mark the first U.S. Grand Prix since 2007. If Vettel gets off to another fast start in 2012 it will be a different season, same ending in Formula 1.
After winning his third NASCAR Cup title in 2011, Stewart will defend his championship in 2012. But he will do it with a new crew chief in Steve Addington and a new competition director in his former crew chief, Greg Zipadelli. Last year's Cup winning crew chief Darian Grubb was let go at the end of the season and has moved on to become Denny Hamlin's crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing. Because the championship team underwent some major changes in the offseason, keep an eye on Stewart to see whether the moves make the team stronger or knocks it into neutral.
This two-time IndyCar Series champion and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner is one of the best drivers in the series but has gotten off to some notoriously slow starts in recent seasons. He has somehow battled through the slow starts to contend for the title the last three seasons, only to fall short at the end. If Dixon can avoid trouble in the season's early races, look for him to be a leading contender for the 2012 IndyCar title.
When it comes to getting into trouble, nobody in NASCAR does it better than the Busch Brothers. After younger brother Kyle was suspended for a race and heavily fined by NASCAR for intentionally crashing Ron Hornaday in a Camping World Truck Series race at Texas in November, Kurt went one better.
He cost himself a ride at Penske Racing after a season-long battle with team management and then-crew chief Steve Addington, who has since moved on to work for Stewart. Although the departure was termed "mutual," there is little doubt that Busch's bitter attitude cost him the spot at Penske. So to get a fresh start, he has stepped down in the ranks to compete for team owner James Finch at Phoenix Racing. Busch is talented enough that he could get the No. 51 into Victory Lane a time or two in 2012. And while there is little doubt Busch is a winning race driver, his success will be measured by his anger management.
The talented driver from England had the worst season of his career, both on and off the track in 2011. Hamilton was expected to battle Vettel for F1 supremacy, but visits to the race stewards' office and post-race altercations largely derailed those dreams. The New Year couldn't come at a better time for Hamilton, who looks to get a fresh start as he returns to McLaren F1 in 2012.
But before he can challenge Vettel for the championship he has to beat out his McLaren teammate, Jenson Button, who drove to victory in a four-hour marathon in the rain in the Canadian Grand Prix in 2011. Hamilton is simply too good to endure another disappointing season like he had in 2011, so expect a big rebound from the Briton who won the Formula 1 world championship in 2008.
Franchitti won his third straight IndyCar title in 2011, and the only reason he's not riding a Jimmie Johnson-like streak is that he was competing in NASCAR during the 2008 season. The Scotsman knows how to win championships and he's looking to continue his impressive run in 2012 as he returns to the powerful Target/Chip Ganassi Racing team. But IndyCar's new turbocharged engine/chassis formula may present a new challenge. Franchitti is the best in the business at closing out a championship but will his streak finally come to an end in 2012? Only time will tell.
And finally, there is America's Princess of Speed, Danica Patrick, who has left the IZOD IndyCar Series to become a full-time NASCAR competitor. She will compete for the championship in the entire Nationwide Series schedule while running eight to 10 NASCAR Sprint Cup races for Stewart-Haas Racing, beginning with the 2012 Daytona 500. As if NASCAR's biggest race needed even more hype, Patrick's participation will add a new level of interest to the Great American Race. For those fans who want to see more of her in Sprint Cup, her schedule is heavily loaded on the back end. But one thing is certain -- where there is Danica Patrick, there is plenty of attention.