Tuesday, February 21, 2012

2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Preview: Off season movers and shakers and top 10 contenders.

After a very busy off season and with the official kick off to the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, The Daytona 500 is just days away. NASCAR fans and media are still trying to get use to all of the names and faces that moved around during the off season as well as who are the top 10 contenders to watch in 2012.

The biggest movers and shakers was lead by Kurt Busch. Busch found himself out of a ride after being released by Penske Racing. But in 2012, he will go back to basics and move to a single car team, the #51 James Finch Chevrolet that has Hendrick Motorsports support.

The vacant #22 Shell-Pennzoil Penske Racing Dodge was rumored to be going to several drivers, however it would be A.J. Allmendinger who went from RPM and the #43 to Penske Racing and the #22 Dodge. 2012 does mark as sort of a make it or break it season for the dinger. But personally I think he will rise to the challenge and win his first Cup Series race later this season.

That left the #43 RPM Ford open and it would be a Nationwide regular to be called up to the elite series, Aric Almirola.

Michael Waltrip Racing make headlines not only during the end of the 2011 season, but during the off season as well as they would release David Reutimann, change the #00 to the #15 and add the former RCR driver, Clint Bowyer and 5-hour energy to the seat in a multi-year deal. MWR would also give Mark Martin what he wanted in a part-time 25-race schedule driving the #55 Aaron’s Dream Machine along with Michael Waltrip himself and a few other drivers filling in the remaining races.

But the biggest mover had to be the long awaited driver Kasey Kahne finally joining Hendrick Motorsports to pilot the flagship #5 Chevrolet. Kahne brings his long time crew chief with him.

And of course it isn’t just drivers that are on the move as two big named crew chiefs found new roles as well. Darian Grubb moves for SHR to be Denny Hamlin’s crew chief and Steve Addington takes on a new driver, Tony Stewart at SHR. This should be two very interesting pairings. Addington has his work cut out for him with Stewart, but they have already been jelling after a 2nd place finish in the Shootout.

The Top 10 contenders to watch in the 2012; (In no particular order)
1. Jimmie Johnson: The five-time Cup Champion is looking to rebound in 2012. Of course Johnson finished 6th in the final 2011 point standings. Predictions: 3 wins, making the chase and a top 3 finish in the final point standings
2. Tony Stewart: Stewart is looking to follow up from his 2011 Cup title and 5 wins and with another good season. But he will have to do it with his new crew chief Steve Addington. Prediction: Making the chase, 2 wins in the chase and a top 10 finish in the final point standings.
3. Kevin Harvick: Over the last few seasons, Harvick has been a huge threat for the Cup title as he has finished 3rd in the final standings in last two seasons now. But in 2012, he has a new crew chief and a good team behind him. Prediction: Making the chase, a few wins and another top 5 finish in the final point standings.
4. Kasey Kahne: Despite the fact that Kahne hasn’t made the chase in a while, he is now driving for Hendrick Motorsports driving the #5 Chevrolet and comes with his long time crew chief. But after winning a race for the now bought up Red Bull Racing team, he is poised to win races and make the chase in 2012.
5. Denny Hamlin: Coming off of a bad 2011 season not only for Hamlin, but all 3 JGR cars, 2012 comes with new engines, a new championship winning crew chief in Darian Grubb and no curse. I see Hamlin winning 2 races and making the chase in 2012.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Junior comes off an impressive 2011 season after making chase and contending for wins several times. And in 2012, I believe Junior will continue with his success by again making the chase and winning at least 2 races this season.
7. Brad Keselowski: 2011 was a very impressive season for bad Brad after winning 3 races, making the chase and finishing 5th in the final points standings and in 2012, I see him building on that by winning races, making the chase and contending for the Cup title.
8. Jeff Gordon: It’s the drive for 5, what else can you say.
9. Matt Kenseth: The quite one that is the best chance Roush-Fenway Racing has to win the championship this season and the most consistent. I never really know what to think of Kenseth, he isn’t on the radar, but by the end of the season, Kenseth will be a contender for the Cup title just like he was in 2011.
10. Kyle Busch: The most outspoken one. 2011 showed that Busch needs to change after even NASCAR decided they had enough with him and parked him at the fall Texas race because of a dangerous incident between him and Hornaday Jr. in the Friday night Truck race. As for 2012 and after winning last Saturday Night’s Budweiser Shootout, it would be a good year for Busch if could just stay out of trouble.
Next, the 2012 Daytona 500 on February 26th, 2012.