So, I have reached the final installment of my 2012 NASCAR predictions. Here are the top 10.
10. 2-Brad Keselowski; Penske Racing Dodge
2 wins; 10 top 5s; 19 top 10s
The summer of 2011 will be remembered for the sudden emergence of Keselowski. We really were not surprised, as we all were aware of his talents. However, the timing was impeccable. After winning at Kansas, Keselowski still seemed to be less than Chase material. When he injured his foot in a practice crash, many wrote him off as a Chase contender. Nevertheless, he would embark upon a memorable late summer run, which included victories at daunting tracks such as Pocono and Bristol, as well as a runner up at the road course of Watkins Glen. In 2012, Keselowski will be healthy, and he has that swagger that champions possess. While I believe he is a year away from serious championship contention, he’ll be back in victory lane on multiple occasions, and back in the Chase field.
9. 39-Ryan Newman; Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet
1 win; 9 top 5s; 18 top 10s
It can be easy to overlook Newman sometimes. After all, his teammate is defending champion Tony Stewart, as well the media darling Danica Patrick. Many may forget that Newman was outperforming Stewart as the 2011 Chase began. Newman and his team faltered in the Chase, but were able to salvage a top 10 effort. This team is quietly dangerous and consistent. Very few consider them contenders, but at the end of the day, they usually find themselves near the front. If Newman can find some consistency in the autumn months, he could be a sleeper.
8. 17-Matt Kenseth; Roush Fenway Racing Ford
2 wins; 10 top 5s; 20 top 10s
If not for an untimely feud with Brian Vickers, Kenseth may have made the 2011 championship chase a 3-horse race. Kenseth, as usual, was quietly consistent in 2011, winning three races. Expect another solid season for Kenseth and the Roush Fenway group. Kenseth seems to have regained that comfort level with the guy on the pitbox. His best years were when Robbie Reiser was his crew chief. Now, several crew chiefs later, he has jelled with Jimmy Fennig. Expect another solid season for Kenseth.
7. 24-Jeff Gordon; Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2 wins; 11 top 5s; 22 top 10s
Gordon responded to his winless season of 2010 rather well, winning almost out of the box at Phoenix by virtue of an aggressive pass on Kyle Busch. Gordon won three races, most in one season since 2007. He seemed to be an image of his championship-form…and then, the Chase began. Gordon stumbled in the Chase, was was never really a factor. Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson seem to have the a connection that is vital between driver and crew chiefs. Expect another multiple-win season for Gordon, and another Chase appearance.
6. 11-Denny Hamlin; Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
2 wins; 10 top 5s; 21 top 10s
Hamlin was one of the major disappointments of 2011. After nearly winning the title in 2010, Hamlin and his No. 11 team fell flat on their faces in 2011. Therefore, a crew chief change highlighted this team’s off-season. Darian Grubb, who led Tony Stewart to the 2011 title, will take over for Mike Ford atop the No. 11 pitbox. Hamlin should thrive under Grubb’s leadership. Grubb was able to succeed with both Stewart and Jimmie Johnson as a driver. Hamlin’s personality lands somewhere in between the fiery Stewart and collected Johnson. This pairing should put Hamlin back near championship contention.
5. 18-Kyle Busch; Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
4 wins; 13 top 5s; 21 top 10s
Has Busch finally learned his lesson? Will we finally see a kinder and gentler Busch? We should find out in 2012. Busch, as talented as he is behind the wheel, nearly lost everything after an ill-advised retaliatory hit on Ron Hornaday in a Truck race at Texas. The same pieces are in place for Busch that led him to four victories last year. Expect a similar season statistically for Busch. If he can keep his cool, he may have a say in this year’s championship chase.
4. 99-Carl Edwards; Roush Fenway Racing Ford
3 wins; 11 top 5s; 24 top 10s
Edwards was the model of consistency in 2011. However, he was not rewarded with his first Sprint Cup trophy. Expect a more aggressive Edwards if he is put in a similar position this fall. Edwards will likely win multiple races in 2012, and should be one to watch when the season reaches its final stages. Nevertheless, I am not so sure he will put together another nearly unblemished 10-race run as he did in 2011. It will be interesting to see how Edwards and the No 99. team respond to the championship defeat. Will they fall like the No. 11 team in 2011, or will they rise like the No. 48 team in 2006.
3. 29-Kevin Harvick; Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
3 wins; 10 top 5s; 25 top 10s
Harvick has emerged as one of the most consistent drivers in NASCAR over the course of the last two seasons. I see no reason for that to change in 2012. Harvick has cleared himself from much distraction by selling off his Nationwide and Camping World Truck teams. Harvick appears more determined than ever to capture the first title for himself, and first for RCR since 1994. This could be the year for Harvick and RCR. Expect another stout year from Harvick and the No. 29 team.
2. 48-Jimmie Johnson; Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
3 wins; 13 top 5s; 26 top 10s
Johnson was finally hurled from his lofty throne in 2011. After five years, the dragon was slayed. The defeat, however, may motivate the tenacious duo of Johnson and Knaus to fight harder than ever to return to the top of the mountain. I know the anti-Johnson fans are celebrating, but try to refrain from counting them out. Expect them to emerge as consistent winners again, and be right in the thick of the championship bout.
1. 14-Tony Stewart; Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet
4 wins; 12 top 5s; 23 top 10s
I do not know of any experts who are projecting Stewart to repeat his championship performance. They say that the loss of Darian Grubb could hinder this team. However, they are gaining Steve Addington, who Stewart has worked with in the past, as well as Greg Zipadelli, who teamed with Stewart for titles in 2002 and 2005. This team may be stronger than they were in 2011. That could be mean trouble for the rest of the field. Expect a more balanced season from Stewart, and another shot at a championship.