(Edwards will be doing flips over a Sprint Cup Series championship before too long)
Tony Stewart is enjoying his third Sprint Cup Series championship after prevailing in the most dramatic title race the sport has ever seen.
Stewart’s thrilling drive to this year’s crown derailed Carl Edwards’ shot at taking his first Cup title and sent the Roush Fenway Racing driver into a bittersweet offseason.
But Edwards can take solace in that he’s a member of a club that includes some pretty impressive names all still searching for Sprint Cup championship No. 1.
Edwards leads the list of top ten current drivers never to have won the title at NASCAR’s highest level and appears to have the best chance to erase his name from that roster:
If the old adage of having to lose one before winning a championship applies then Edwards is a shoo-in for a Cup crown. The experience of being involved in the closest title race in NASCAR history will help Edwards cope with the pressure when he contends again, which should come as soon as next season. Edwards is the lead dog at Roush Fenway Racing and with a brand new contract, hefty sponsor support and all of the organization’s resources at his disposal, "Cousin Carl" will be on the preseason favorite list for several seasons to come.
Like Edwards, Hamlin knows the disappointment of coming so close to NASCAR's Holy Grail only to fall bitterly short. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver followed up his championship run of 2010 with a disappointing season chock full of mechanical issues and engine problems. JGR’s commitment to eradicate those power plant gremlins is key to Hamlin returning to championship form in 2012.
Despite scoring multiple victories and making solid runs at the championship the last two years, Harvick reportedly pushed for a change at crew chief and sent veteran Gil Martin packing as season's end. Shane Wilson gets moved over from inside the Richard Childress Racing stable to call the shots for the No. 29 team next season but the question of whether or not Harvick can make a serious run for the title still lies behind the wheel. Harvick's fiery personality and emotions need to be held in check to some degree for a title shot to come to fruition.
"The Biff" is still trying to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win titles in the Camping World Truck Series, Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series. He has the talent to do contend and the Roush organization’s resources behind him. But Biffle will have to find a way to be much more consistent that the wild roller-coaster seasons he has had in recent years.
This was to be the year Busch finally became a legitimate Sprint Cup title contender and put to rest the doubts that have plagued him since he first moved to the top level of the sport. Despite coming into the Chase as the number one seed on the strength of his four regular season victories, Busch once again faded in the playoffs and saw the wheels completely come off with his emotional meltdown in the celebrated truck series incident with Ron Hornaday at Texas. Unless Busch can finally harness those emotions he will never be able to win a Cup title pure and simple.
Easily one of the hottest drivers down the stretch of the 2011 season, Kahne's move to Hendrick Motorsports next year provides the best opportunity to challenge for a Sprint Cup crown. It may not come in 2012, but Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis have the look of a tandem that can work their way to the top of the mountain sooner rather than later.
His breakout season of 2011 was not a mirage. Keselowski matured tremendously this past season and the chemistry he shares with crew chief Paul Wolfe is among the best in the Sprint Cup garage. The nurturing hand of team owner Roger Penske will help guide Keselowski’s ascension to championship contender in years to come.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The clock is ticking on Earnhardt's quest for a Sprint Cup championship. He made vast improvement in 2011 and struck a nearly perfect chord with crew chief Steve Letarte. Just making the Chase was a stellar achievement for a team that ended last year floundering. However more gains need to be made in a hurry for Earnhardt to join the ranks as title contender.
At times Newman demonstrated a perfect balance of wins and consistency this past season, showing he was capable of both. But it was short-lived and a string of disappointing performances ended any chance to contending for the crown early on in the Chase. He's a member of a championship-winning organization at Stewart-Haas Racing but at this point is light years behind his boss and teammate Tony Stewart on the title radar.
Had Bowyer remained at Richard Childress Racing, his championship caliber stock would have remained higher than it is now with the move to Michael Waltrip Racing. Although MWR has made adjustments in hopes of bringing the organization to the next level including the hiring of form RCR cog Scott Miller as Director of Competition, Bowyer will have his hands full trying to compete for wins and a title early on as the team tries to sort things out.
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