Power Rankings: Johnson holds the No. 1 spot heading into Daytona

by | CBSSports.com NASCAR Blogger

Stewart is relaxed heading into the season, which could be a bad sign for his competition. (Getty Images)  
Stewart is relaxed heading into the season, which could be a bad sign for his competition. (Getty Images)  

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The 2012 Sprint Cup Series season is ready to start, with every driver and team beginning with a clean sheet of paper.

Everyone is confident, positive, enthused and re-energized, and all believe wins and championships are within reach.

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In reality the herd will be thinned in short order as the grind of the NASCAR season kicks in, but for now hope springs eternal.

"This has been a pretty crazy offseason for a lot of teams with all the changes and moves some have made," said Jimmie Johnson, who is the media's preseason pick to win this year's championship. "We didn't make too many personnel changes, but our attitude is a lot different since last season ended."

Johnson's five-year title run coming to an end was a major wakeup call for the Hendrick Motorsports driver, who said he's used what happened in 2011 as a learning process to change things up.

"It's tough to leave a successful road map, and [crew chief] Chad [Knaus] and myself and the team have been very good at trying to reinvent ourselves each year," Johnson said. "But until the streak was broken -- now looking back this offseason at what we've been through and trying to rebuild the team and make sure we're looking at everything we can -- we've gone to different depths, different levels of focusing on my interaction with the team, how I provide information to the team, what information I'm looking at.

"There's a lot of things that I haven't done in the past, and I felt like I was one of the most in-depth drivers out there. I'm trying to even take that a step further now. Because of the loss, we've been able to dig deeper and look and get away from the road map that we've built, and challenge ourselves more."

In addition to the No. 48 team, those planning to challenge last season's title winner, Tony Stewart, for the crown include Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Johnson's Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon.

"If you talk to [crew chief] Alan [Gustaffson] -- man, is he fired up," Gordon said. "We now have a year of working together under our belts, so our communication should be better and we should be stronger. We have a belief in one another, and that has me all fired up too.

"If we're not battling for this year's championship in the final race of the season, it'll be a disappointment."

There surely will be disappointments before the final checkered flag of the 2012 season waves in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But let's not spoil anyone's optimism just yet.

1Brad Keselowski2
Took over the Chase lead by 20 points thanks to a sixth place finish and Jimmie Johnson?s misfortune. This is now the Penske Racing driver?s championship to lose.
2Jimmie Johnson1
Saw his seven point lead evaporate thanks to a cut tire and trip into the wall on Sunday. Johnson now must hope a similar such fate happens to Keselowski next week at Homestead to have any shot at a sixth title.
3Kyle Busch4
Nearly ran the table in Phoenix by leading all practices and taking the pole had he been able to win the race. But a poor decision on lane choice for a late restart cost Busch a shot at Victory Lane.
4Kasey Kahne5
Ending the year on a positive note but wasn?t able to match his Phoenix victory of last November. Still a solid day with a fourth place performance.
5Clint Bowyer3
Was the victim of Jeff Gordon?s revenge that completely eliminated Bowyer from championship contention. He wasn?t an angel in the turn of events but Bowyer definitely got the worst of the situation.
6Denny Hamlin8
Hamlin?s second place finish in Phoenix a welcome rebound from two weeks of disappointment for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver. He?ll be a factor for a win next Sunday in Homestead.
7Kevin Harvick12
Snapped a 44-race winless drought with Sunday?s win ironically coming on the weekend when reports of his evacuation from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 broke out.
8Greg Biffle6
A decent day for ?The Biff? in Phoenix, who was able to dodge all the last lap craziness to bring home his Roush Fenway Racing Ford seventh.
9Joey Logano13
Minding his own business until getting swept up in the Gordon-Bowyer fight. Logano was on his way to a nice effort to follow up his ninth Nationwide Series win on Saturday.
10Ryan Newman14
Rough way to earn a fifth place finish as Newman was one of the unfortunate souls to get caught in the last lap crash on the main straightaway.
11Tony Stewart9
Not a god day at all for Smoke who spun late after making contact racing for position. A 19th place finish for Stewart.
12Matt Kenseth11
Will make the final Sprint Cup start of his career for Roush Fenway Racing next week at Homestead on the heels of a 14th place effort in Phoenix.
13Martin Truex Jr.10
His race was over nearly before it started with a blown engine. After a stellar regular season Truex Jr. has suffered mightily throughout the Chase.
14Carl Edwards15
An 11th place finish for Edwards as he brings to a close one of the most disappointing seasons in his career.

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