By Brant James
November 22, 2011
2012 Power Rankings
The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is so ... two days ago. There are only 95 days until the Daytona 500 and everyone except those mitigating their post-Tony Stewart championship hangover is already working on 2012. A look ahead to next season with the 2012 power rankings:
Jimmie Johnson
2011 Wins: 2
2011 Top-10s: 21
His streak of five consecutive championships broken, his final points standing a career-worst sixth (as a full-time driver), his wins total shrunken to a career-worst (two), Johnson is primed to take a breath, dig in and start all over again. At 36 years old next season, with his crew chief (Chad Knaus), team (Hendrick Motorsports) and all of his crew -- he expects -- intact, Johnson should have an intangible advantage for the first time since 2004: redemption.
Carl Edwards
2011 Wins: 1
2011 Top-10s: 26
The two-time series runner-up said all the right things after Stewart erased his three-point lead and snatched the title on a wins tiebreaker at Homestead on Sunday. He vowed to return a better, more prepared driver. That is harder than it seems. Even though Edwards didn't seem as mentally and emotionally ravaged as Denny Hamlin did after losing the championship lead in the 2010 finale, he will have hurdles. He didn't handle those same hurdles well after finishing second to Johnson by 69 points in 2008, but he was the hunter, not the quarry, in that pursuit. Granted, he is more experienced and more prepared to be a champion, team owner Jack Roush said. But he's also lost about a half decade of his prime to Johnson and now had a title taken away by Stewart. His will be an interesting case to study.
Brad Keselowski
2011 Wins: 3
2011 Top-10s: 14
The 27-year-old was the surprise of the postseason, launching himself into the Chase as a wild card with three victories despite breaking his ankle late in the regular season. Keselowski ultimately finished fifth in points, undone by three finishes of 20th or worse in the Chase. His emergence, and the maddening inconsistency and friction within the camp of teammate Kurt Busch, might make Keselowski Penske Racing's best hope for a first Cup title in the coming seasons.
Kasey Kahne
2011 Wins: 1
2011 Top-10s: 15
A perpetual contender-in-waiting, the perennial prospect, Kahne enters his next ideal situation, and does so with a rush of momentum. He assumes full-time duties in the No. 5 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Mark Martin, after posting five top-fives and a win in the last eight races with a Red Bull team slowing marching toward business oblivion. Kahne brings his longtime crew chief, Kenny Francis, and should be primed for that breakout year. But so, supposedly, was Dale Earnhardt Jr. when he joined Hendrick in 2008. Kahne, 31, has stumbled in these circumstances before, and Hendrick, like all mega-teams, has struggled to run all four cars at a championship-caliber level.
Jeff Gordon
2011 Wins: 3
2011 Top-10s: 18
He turned 40, turned his career around and was a completely sensible pick to win a fifth championship a decade after his last. But misfortune and missteps dogged him from the first race of the Chase, and he finished eighth in points. With Alan Gustafson back as crew chief, and Gordon reinvigorated, he should be able to at least recapture his 2011 form, with which he won three races for the first time since 2007.
Tony Stewart
2011 Wins: 5
2011 Top-10s: 19
The three-time champion had the look and feel of a brash-talking cowboy, swigging Schlitz and riding a runaway cannonball during the Chase. It was something to behold. And he did it after an admittedly frustrating first 26 races. Recapturing such swagger and performance will be difficult, even for one of the greatest American drivers of all time.
Kevin Harvick
2011 Wins: 4
2011 Top-10s: 19
He had six top-10s but could not keep pace with Edwards' consistency and Stewart's win total after entering the Chase as points leader. Harvick loses teammate Clint Bowyer, but perhaps Richard Childress Racing as a three-car outfit will benefit him.
Matt Kenseth
2011 Wins: 3
2011 Top-10s: 20
Roush said he will "endure the un-endurable" in fielding the 2003 series champion's No. 17 Ford unsponsored, if needed. There must be some corporate entity interested in aligning itself with an ultra-consistent, annual playoff-qualifier. Or maybe Mars executives will grow angrier with Kyle Busch, allowing Kenseth to drive a yellow M&M's car next year. Wonder if he has a peanut allergy? Kenseth might also benefit from a trimmer team with the currently expected demise of the No. 6.
Denny Hamlin
2011 Wins: 1
2011 Top-10s: 14
The 2010 Sprint Cup runner-up slogged through a miserable follow-up season of poor performance, engine problems and speculated chemistry issues with crew chief Mike Ford after their late collapse the previous season. Hamlin seemed to regain some confidence, managed some positive results -- despite tallying seven fewer wins than his 2010 total of nine -- switched to Toyota Racing Development's engines before the rest of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates and said he was content with Ford expected to return in 2012. Time to take stock and get moving, Ben Braddock.
Kyle Busch
2011 Wins: 4
2011 Top-10s: 18
All the talent in the world, but even more tumult. He's skilled enough and in solid enough a team situation at JGR to be in the top handful of contenders, but he has never finished better than fifth, in 2007, his last season before Hendrick jettisoned him. He began the Chase tied for the points lead and finished 12th after finishing 20th or worse five times in the playoffs. Making matters worse, NASCAR parked him for a race after he wrecked Trucks title contender Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution in Texas.

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