This is the question that I've been reporting on in the last few weeks for an upcoming story in the magazine. Can anyone topple the Big Two of Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, who have combined to win the last seven Sprint Cup titles?
I think three drivers are in the best position to pull this off: Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne. I'll save the details of why this trio is best positioned to make a charge at the Big Two for the magazine, but clearly Edwards, Busch and Kahne all have the talent, the team and the equipment to take the checkered flag on a weekly basis.
But questions surround each driver. Can Edwards rebound from the heartbreak of 2011, when he lost the title to Stewart on a tiebreaker? Will Edwards become the next Denny Hamlin, who nearly won the championship in 2010 but then slipped into irrelevance in '11?
Can Busch finally grow up? He's been his own worst enemy for years now, but he's finally cut back on his Nationwide commitments, and now he swears you'll see a new and improved and more mature driver in 2012.
Can Kahne finally break through and become a legitimate title contender? After three years of bouncing between teams, Kahne has finally found a long-term home at Hendrick Motorsports, where he's replacing Mark Martin in the No. 5 Chevy. Now, for the first time in his Cup career, Kahne will be piloting the best equipment money can buy. As he told me a few days ago, "No excuses now."
Kahne, it should be noted, scored more points in the Chase last season than every driver not named Tony Stewart or Carl Edwards. I expect him to come charging out of the gate in 2012 with impressive speed and take a checkered flag as soon as race No. 2 at Phoenix, where Kahne won last fall.
Now, onto the questions ...
NASCAR will bring back the halfway money program at Daytona, giving a $200k bonus to the leader at Lap 100 of the Daytona 500. Should they bring this back for every race? Might inject a little excitement into the season.-- Charles Thomas, Atlanta, Ga.
My feeling is that this is fool's gold. Who cares who's leading at Michigan in June at the midway point? Or Pocono in July? The NFL doesn't award any bonus money for leading at halftime. You don't get anything special in the NBA for having more points than your opponent at intermission.
I'm not a fan of gimmicks like this in NASCAR. Yes, I understand that racing is different from stick-and-ball sports, but in the end, all athletic competition should be judged on one thing: how you finish.
Should NASCAR revisit owner point swaps? The system, designed to compensate team owners when a driver leaves in the offseason, is now a giant loophole rewarding drivers for someone else's hard work. Something about that seems un-American.-- Bryan, Detroit, Mich.
Yes. I'm with you 100 percent. I believe the fastest 43 cars should be in the field every week, meaning teams should qualify on speed. What happens, if say, Jimmie Johnson wrecks during qualifying? He doesn't race, simple as that.
If the threat of not making the show was real, qualifying would be far more compelling.
Historically, downsizing has helped organizations (see: Richard Childress). Do you think this will be the case with Roush Fenway in 2012?-- Martin Summers, New Hampshire
Here's what I think about Roush Fenway: The team will be just fine in 2012. I generally believe that the more resources an organization has the better it will do, but it wasn't like David Ragan was bringing a lot to the table last season.
It will be interesting to see how Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth perform in 2012 without that fourth team. This trio has been together for seven full seasons, and they all possess title-winning talent. Will they all make the Chase? It would surprise no one in the garage if they did.
Roush likely will add a fourth car in 2013, driven by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the reigning Nationwide series champion. Roush told me the other day that Stenhouse "will be as good as there's ever been in this sport," which is why Roush will make sure there's a sponsored seat waiting for Stenhouse next year.
Which new crew chief will have the biggest impact in 2012?-- Matt, Richmond, Va.
Darien Grubb. Grubb and Tony Stewart struggled together for much of last summer, and Stewart decided before the Chase that his crew chief would be let go at season's end. Shortly thereafter, Grubb discovered a setup secret in Stewart's No. 14 Chevy and -- voilà! --Stewart had the fastest car in the Chase, winning five races and the championship.
Now Grubb is at Joe Gibbs Racing with Denny Hamlin. This should be a great fit. Grubb is soft-spoken and calm, and Hamlin often needs to hear a soothing voice over the radio when things start to fall apart on the track. I think Grubb immediately makes Hamlin a title contender again in 2012.