|Will Stewart defend his title or will NASCAR crown a new Sprint Cup champ in 2012? (US Presswire)|
With the 2012 NASCAR season nearly upon us, Pete Pistone and Brian De Los Santos weigh in with their predictions.
|1. Which driver will be this season's biggest surprise?|
Pistone: Greg Biffle. On paper, Biffle's 2011 effort was pretty disappointing. The Roush Fenway Racing driver went winless, missed the Chase and finished 16th in the final standings. But dig a little deeper and "The Biff" was just a shade the other way of perhaps mounting a run to get into the playoffs and perhaps challenge for his share of victories. Miscues on pit road, both from crew members messing up on fuel stops to Biffle himself speeding, shot the No. 16 team in the foot a lot last year. Biffle and crew chief Matt Puccia are determined to eradicate those kinds of mistakes and find more speed in the potent Ford engine program to get back to being competitive in 2012. The determination is there and Biffle certainly hasn't forgotten how to drive. The recipe is there for the former Nationwide and Truck Series champion to bounce back big time this year.
De Los Santos: Joey Logano. Apparently I learned nothing from last season, because for the second successive year, I'm pegging Logano as my breakout driver. Logano hasn't come anywhere close to meeting some very lofty expectations since taking over the No. 20 car from Tony Stewart, finishing 24th in the standings with only six top-10 finishes in 2011. Entering his fourth season, it would seem to be make-or-break time. Exit Greg Zipadelli as crew chief, enter Jason Ratcliff, who enjoyed a good amount of success in the Nationwide Series, winning the 2009 championship with Kyle Busch as driver. Maybe a new voice leading the charge will be the difference for the driver who was supposed to be the best thing since sliced bread.
|2. Which driver will be this season's biggest disappointment?|
Pistone: Carl Edwards. The last driver to come down to winning a championship only to come up short by the smallest of margins was Denny Hamlin in 2010. Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford never could find a way to put that disappointment behind them and the FedEx Toyota team basically imploded the following season. Now it's time for Edwards and Bob Osborne to prove they can beat the hangover effect after losing the 2011 title in a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart. The No. 99 team is still very strong and Edwards is at the top of the list of skilled talents in the sport. But my gut tells me the hangover of coming within a whisker of the crown is going to haunt Edwards and company like it did Hamlin last season.
De Los Santos: Brad Keselowski. Guess who I put in this spot a year ago? None other than 2011 Cup champion Tony Stewart. I really don't think I was that far off -- his "regular season" was far from championship material. But he squeaked into the Chase and caught fire, and the rest is history. So for Keselowski fans, maybe it's a good thing I'm picking him here, but here's my reasoning -- expectations are just too high right now because of that late-season spurt he had last season. Every year, there seems to be a driver who's put into the title conversation because of the success he enjoyed the previous season who ultimately falls flat. I think that's the territory Keselowski is entering. Over the long haul, I expect Keselowski will be a very good driver, but this season might prove to be a bit of a reality check.
|3. Which driver who changed teams in the offseason will have the most success?|
Pistone: Clint Bowyer. The addition to Michael Waltrip Racing's stable will give a lift to the entire operation. Bowyer is a five-time Sprint Cup Series race winner who has made multiple appearances in the Chase. He performed admirably in his final year at Richard Childress Racing even after knowing he would leave the organization. The pairing of Bowyer and crew chief Brian Pattie (late of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing) has the potential to be a potent pair if they can generate more horsepower and speed from the Toyota engines.
De Los Santos: Kasey Kahne. It seems almost too easy to pick Kahne in this spot as he moves to the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports organization, but if Kahne doesn't step up to the next level, this move will be considered a serious disappointment. Despite the fact he has finished in the top 10 in points only twice in his career (and never better than eighth), most would agree Kahne has the talent to contend for a championship. Now is his chance to prove it.
|4. Now that Danica Patrick is dedicated to NASCAR full time, how do you think she'll fare? Will she win a race?|
Pistone: The 10-race Sprint Cup Series schedule for Danica Patrick is nothing more than an opportunity for her to get seat time and accustomed to running at NASCAR's top level. Don't expect anything more than maybe a top-20 finish or two to be cause for celebration, although she could be in the mix at the restrictor-plate madness of the Daytona 500. But as for her Nationwide program with JR Motorsports, I expect Patrick to be much more competitive and continue the improvement she demonstrated last season. A concentrated effort on stock-car racing without the back and forth to her Indy Car program will help Patrick tremendously and there's no reason why -- with the kind of equipment she has at her disposal and the progress she has made -- a trip to Victory Lane won't happen. Don't look for her in any championship discussion, but also don't count her out of making history with a first NASCAR victory.
De Los Santos: I so want to be wrong on this; I would like nothing more than for Patrick to have some success. I think it would be a great story. But I have no faith she can be consistently good in a stock car. She might have her moments here and there, but I don't envision top-10s week in and week out. I think she'll be a sideshow, for the most part. As long as there are restrictor-plate races on the schedule, she'll have a shot at winning, but outside of those crapshoots, I don't see it happening. I predict somewhere in the range of 10 top-10s.
|5. Will Kurt Busch contend for a Chase berth with Phoenix Racing or will frustration set in again and cost him another ride?|
Pistone: Kurt Busch will be competitive at least four times this season when the series competes at Daytona and Talladega. The Phoenix Racing team has always run well at restrictor-plate tracks and Busch is one of the best running in the draft -- both the old pack and current two-car tandem variety. However it's the other 32 races that are question marks for the team and whether Busch's talent alone can elevate the organization past its finish of only 30th in the owner standings in 2011. When the meat and potatoes of the season kicks in after Daytona and struggles happen at Phoenix, Las Vegas, Bristol, etc., that's when the question of whether Busch can truly keep his cool will be answered. The guess is his handshake deal with owner James Finch will allow Busch to take another ride at a higher-profile team when a seat inevitably opens up during the season. I would be surprised if Busch spent the entire 2012 campaign in the No. 51 ride and will leave the team -- one way or another.
De Los Santos: Well, like my comment for Danica Patrick, there's always the restrictor-plate tracks. I just don't see this going well. I do believe Kurt Busch is one of the top drivers out there, but I don't see how this single-car team can keep up with the multi-car franchises. I also don't think he'll blow a gasket in frustration -- he has to know what he's getting himself into. It's just not an ideal situation for a driver with his competitive spirit. This season is about repairing his reputation, as much as anything. If he can finish in the top 20 in points and stay out of trouble, consider this season a success.
|6. Which new crew chief will make the biggest impact this season?|
Pistone: Jeff Burton is determined to shake the dismal performances of the past two seasons and return to being a competitive driver in the Sprint Cup Series who can win races and contend for a Chase spot. He has the right person to help that quest with the addition of crew chief Drew Blickensderfer. The former Roush Fenway Racing member helped guide David Ragan to his best season a year ago, including a first-time Cup victory at the July Daytona race. He is a knowledgeable and talented crew chief who seems to fit perfectly working with Burton's style. Look for the No. 31 RCR Chevy to build off the solid end-of-season run to have a much-improved 2012, thanks in no small part to Blickensderfer's contributions.
De Los Santos: Well, per my answer to No. 1, it better be Jason Ratcliff. The combination of Logano and Zipadelli, the longtime crew chief for Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 20 car, never quite jelled. Zipadelli has moved on, reuniting with his old driver, Tony Stewart, though in a management capacity at Stewart Haas Racing rather than crew chief. The one concern is that Ratcliff and Logano have worked together in only four races in the Nationwide Series, so it's not as if they have a lengthy relationship. But Ratcliff feels he knows what has been holding Logano back, and that he can communicate with him in a way Zipadelli couldn't.
|7. Will there be a first-time winner in the Cup Series in 2012? Who?|
Pistone: A.J. Allmendinger was the most logical choice to be the next driver to join the first-time winner list last year, when five other newbies found Victory Lane. It didn't happen for Allmendinger despite his strong performance with Richard Petty Motorsports but he'll be in even better position to pull it off this season. Allmendinger hops into the Penske Racing Shell/Pennzoil Dodge that won twice last year with Kurt Busch behind the wheel and made the Chase. He'll have his best chance to finally take his first career Sprint Cup checkered flag and, although there won't be nearly as long a list as last season, Allmendinger will be on it.
De Los Santos: I have to agree with Pete here. All the stars seem aligned for Allmendinger to break into the win column. The former open-wheeler has improved every year he has been in the series, earning a career high 10 top-10s and a 15th-place finish in the final standings in 2011. Now he's with a proven winner at Penske Racing and away from the circus that Richard Petty Motorsports has been the past few seasons. There aren't many other good options to choose from as far as first-time winners go. Outside of Daytona and Talladega, which are always good for a surprise, there aren't any non-winners with strong enough teams who I see being able to compete for victories.
|8. Which drivers will make the Chase? Who wins the championship?|
Pistone: My favorite time of the year -- trying to predict the truly unpredictable. Last year's wild-card berths really threw the prognosticators for a loop, and this year won't be any easier, but here goes -- my dozen Chasers for 2012:
1. Jimmie Johnson; 2. Brad Keselowski; 3. Tony Stewart; 4. Kyle Busch; 5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.; 6. Kasey Kahne; 7. Carl Edwards; 8. Clint Bowyer; 9. Greg Biffle; 10. Jeff Gordon; 11. Kevin Harvick; 12. Denny Hamlin.
De Los Santos: We knew Jimmie Johnson's stranglehold of the championship had to be broken sooner or later, but was it merely a one-year hiatus or will he come back with a vengeance in 2012? It's tempting to pick Johnson, but I'm going to with another driver who has knocked on the door the past few years only to fall just short -- Carl Edwards. Last year he was a close as one can get without actually winning the title. Will fate continue to be so unkind? I don't know what to think about Tony Stewart's chances of repeating, but I'm not feeling it. Of course, I've been wrong about him before.
1. Carl Edwards; 2. Jimmie Johnson; 3. Matt Kenseth; 4. Denny Hamlin; 5. Jeff Gordon; 6. Kasey Kahne; 7. Kevin Harvick; 8. Kyle Busch; 9. Tony Stewart; 10. Joey Logano; 11. Jeff Burton; 12. Clint Bowyer.