Six Predictions for 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

by Ryan Isley

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will get underway this Sunday at Daytona International Speedway when the running of the 54th Daytona 500 goes green just after 1:00pm ET. With that in mind, I decided to make a few predictions for the upcoming season.

1 – Kurt Busch Most Likely 2011 Chase Driver to Miss the Chase in 2012:  

After making his third straight Chase for the Sprint Cup and finishing 11th in points in 2011, Kurt Busch was released by Penske Racing following the season. The reason for Busch being shown the door wasn’t so much for his on-track performance, but his antics off the track.

In September, Busch had a confrontation with reporters, most notably Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press. When he was asked about a comment he had made, he denied ever making said comment. When Fryer said she had the transcript, Busch went over and ripped the transcript up and dropped it back on Fryer’s lap.

Then in November at the final race of the season, Dr. Jerry Punch of ESPN attempted to interview Busch once Busch was forced out of the race with car problems. Punch was attempting to talk to Busch beforehand and the driver went crazy on the reporter, dropping expletives and f-bombs like they were sitting at a bar having a conversation like old friends. You can see the video here, but be warned – the language is harsh.

Following his release from Penske Pacing, Busch signed with Phoenix Racing to drive the No. 51 TAG Heuer Chevy Impala in this season’s NASCAR Sprint Cup season. Phoenix Racing is just a single car operation and has gone through five drivers in the last two seasons.

For Busch, it could be a difficult year. Not only is he with a new team and doesn’t have any teammates, but he will have NASCAR watching his every move after what happened at the end of last season. All of this may prove to be too much and cause the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion to miss out on the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

2 – A.J. Allmendinger Will Make the 2012 Chase:

While the offseason was not a great one for Kurt Busch, it could not have gone much better for Allmendinger.

As I wrote for More Than A Fan last week, Allmendinger is the driver who benefits from the Kurt Busch fiasco. Allmendinger will drive the No. 22 Shell Oil Company/Pennzoil Dodge for Penske Racing, replacing Busch.

The 30-year-old Allmendinger has made a steady climb through the NASCAR Sprint Cup Standings in the last four seasons, going from 36th in points in 2008 to 24th in 2009 to 19th in 2010 and then to 15th last season.

Driving for Penske Racing will only benefit what Allmendinger has already been able to accomplish. He will be in the same racing stable as Brad Keselowski, who came from the virtual unknown to finish 5th in points last season.

Allmendinger also has experience in competing for championships, as he was the champion of the Barber Dodge Pro Series in 2002 and then won the Toyota Atlantic Series in 2003 while he was racing in the satellite series for the Champ Car World Series. This experience could help him down the stretch if he is on the verge of making the leap into the Chase.

3 – Danica Patrick will Challenge Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for Popularity:

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has won NASCAR’s “Most Popular Driver” award for nine straight seasons and while Danica Patrick is not eligible to win the award in 2012, she will challenge his popularity when she drives in 10 races in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Both drivers are known more for their popularity than for their success on the track. Earnhardt, Jr. received a contract extension from Hendrick Motorsports for his popularity and Patrick earned her seat for those 10 Sprint Cup races because of hers.

Everywhere you turn this offseason and during the Daytona Speed Weeks, Patrick seems to be the talk of the town. They are talking about her on every show and each time the Daytona 500 is mentioned. Fox even interviewed her during the Budweiser Shootout, a race in which she was not even driving.

Add in that she is one of the most marketable drivers in NASCAR and her face is everywhere at the track and on television. Not only are the television crews, media and marketing companies clamoring over Patrick, but there are a lot of fans who love her as well.

What that shows is that each time Patrick is involved in a Sprint Cup race, she will be the main topic – something once reserved for Earnhardt, Jr.

4 – Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Will End His Winless Streak:

It has been since June of 2009 that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has taken a car to victory lane in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – a streak of 129 races entering the 2012 season. After coming so close to winning last season on a couple of different occasions, this is the season Earnhardt, Jr. finally breaks through and adds to his career total of 18 wins.

Earnhardt, Jr. started 2011 with a new crew chief, as Hendrick Motorsports announced following the 2010 season that Steve Letarte would sit on the box for the No.88. With Letarte, Earnhardt, Jr. had his highest average finish in three seasons and his second highest in five seasons in 2011, when he averaged a finish of 14.5. He also had more top-5 and top-10 finishes in 2011 than he has had since his first season with Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.

Now with 36 races under their belt and a few near misses to learn from, Earnhardt, Jr. and Letarte will be celebrating in victory lane at some point this season. I think the real question is not if they will win, but how many they will win.

5 – Hendrick Motorsports Will Have Three Drivers Finish in the Top-5:

That’s right – Hendrick Motorsports is going to dominate the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2012.

Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt, Jr. will all finish in the top-5 when the final standings are set after the last race at Homestead in November but the question is in what order will they finish?

Heading into last season, Johnson was the five-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion and was looking to win his sixth straight. Johnson not winning the championship last season may have been the most dangerous thing that could have happened to the rest of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers because it will make him more focused plus take some of the pressure off Johnson with the streak no longer intact. Plus don’t forget that while winning those five championships, Johnson was dominant on the Chase tracks. If he gets back to that form, he is almost unbeatable.

Gordon picked up three wins last season after not winning at all in 2010 and having only one win early in the 2009 season and headed into the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup in 3rd place, just three points back. After hitting a rough road in the Chase, Gordon could be poised to make another run at the championship, looking to add a fifth Sprint Cup Championship to his trophy case.

Earnhardt, Jr. finished 7th in points last season – his best finish since 2006 – and will only get better this season as he and Letarte get more acclimated to working together. Like Gordon, Earnhardt, Jr. struggled a bit in the Chase last season, but it was the first time he had even qualified for the Chase in three seasons and he moved from 10th when the Chase started to 7th when it was over. That experience will help Earnhardt, Jr. and Letarte this time around.

6 – And the Champion is…

The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship after 36 races will be hoisted by the driver of the No.24 Hendrick Motorsports Drive to End Hunger/DuPont Chevrolet – Jeff Gordon. It will be the fifth championship for Gordon – his first since 2001.

The rest of the standings will look like this (Chase drivers only):

2 – Carl Edwards

3 – Jimmie Johnson

4 – Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

5 – Brad Keselowksi

6 – Kyle Busch

7 – Tony Stewart

8 – Denny Hamlin

9 – A.J. Allmendinger

10 – Matt Kenseth

11 – Clint Bowyer

12 – Greg Biffle

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