By Steve Pouliot - 26 February 2012: The green flag for the NASCAR Sprint Cup season is delayed, kicking off Monday at 12pm. The race season is a long marathon to Homestead, longer than any of the "four major" sports. A great deal will transpire between now and then. Will the Busch brothers regain some of their luster after both finished the 2011 season on sour notes? Will Carl Edwards finally break through and grab his first championship? Can Smoke repeat? What about the Hendrick teams? Is this the end of the road for Junior? Will one of the smaller teams move to the front of the pack? Let's take a look at the contenders for the 2012 championship, broken down into classes: Hall Of Fame, Victory Lane, Lap Leaders, The Pack, and Start and Parkers.
Hall Of Fame
Carl Edwards: Edwards looks to be in championship form, grabbing the pole for the Daytona 500. He drives for one of the "superteams" in Roush Racing, and he's hungry to make that next step, coming historically close last season. He'll have the full power of FoMoCo behind him as well.
Tony Stewart: Smoke's 2011 "regular season" was mediocre at best, barely qualifying for the chase. His "post season" was one for the books, including the edge of your seat, head to head battle for the win with Carl Edwards, one that quite literally came down to the final lap. Stewart book-ended Jimmie Johnson's championships, and looks to notch another as driver/team owner. Smoke can win on any track, at any time, and likely will not struggle to make the chase. He could easily defend is title. (yes, I know, it's never easy to defend)
Jimmie Johnson: Speaking of easy to defend. Johnson won five Cups in a row. Johnson drives for perhaps the premier owner in the game in Rick Hendrick. Jimmie's partnered with crew chief Chad Knauss, a partnership that ranks up there with Gordon/Evernham and Earhardt/Shelmerdine. These guys know how to get it done, and will be in the mix for the 2012 title.
Jeff Gordon: Gordon had a return to form last season, but just wasn't a factor enough in the chase to battle with Edwards and Stewart. Due to his ability to win on "any given Sunday", and the fact that he has premier equipment, Gordon can't be underestimated. The only question is whether or not he has too much on his plate, as a father, driver, part team owner, and philanthropist.
Kyle Busch: Kyle Busch has also proved he's a factor on any track on the Sprint Cup schedule. He's capable of winning on Friday in a truck, Saturday in a Nationwide race, and Sunday in a Sprint Cup car. The only thing seemingly holding back Busch is the guy in the mirror. Rowdy is a bit like Cole Trickle, as Harry Hogge said; "Hell, if he listened to me, we'd hardly lose a race!" It's this fact that keeps Busch from the above category, along with the fact that the driver's ahead of him have gotten it done. Busch needs to redeem his talent and prove that he belongs among the elite of NASCAR. The only thing stopping him is himself.
Denny Hamlin: Hamlin is also a factor week in and week out. He also has a premier car owner in Joe Gibbs, and a big time sponsor in FedEx. Hamlin will need to bounce back from a sub par 2011 season, where he only had one win and five top fives. He's good enough, and the team is good enough, to do that. He should be a factor.
Matt Kenseth: Matt's a been there, done that kind of guy. He's coming off a fourth place championship finish, and was the last guy to win a championship in the old format, in 2003. He's got plenty of sponsorship on board, with Best Buy and Zest Soaps, and a team that's used to competing in Roush. The #17 team is one that quietly finds their way to to the front with consistency.
Kevin Harvick: Happy battled for the 2010 championship with Jimmie Johnson, where he stated he learned a great deal on what it takes to win a championship. He finished third behind Stewart and Edwards, 58 points back. This off season, Harvick sold off his other race teams that he co-owned with wife Delana. Harvick will be focused like a laser on the 2012 championship, and will likely be in the mix at Homestead in November.
Greg Biffle: The Biffer comes off a tough season, missing the chase and finishing 16th in the chase. No wins and three top fives will need to be improved upon. He's off on the right foot, starting on the front row today for the Daytona 500.
Brad Keselowski: Kez was the surprise of the 212 season, finishing 5th in points, notching timely wins at the end of the regular season that propelled his team to the chase with a ton of momentum. It's no fluke, the kid can drive, and he's got a deep pocketed owner and sponsor. The question is whether or not he's got enough support from teammate AJ Almendinger to get the information necessary to compete with the likes of Hendrick, RCR, Roush, and Gibbs.
Ryan Newman: Newman seems to be just on the outside edge of the super teams like Hendrick, Gibbs, and Roush. He qualifies great, but seems to be missing the "it" factor that other championship contenders have. Can't put a finger on it, but he seems to be one of those guys that make the chase, but never really battle for the title.
Kasey Kahne: Kahne makes a major move into contention this year, getting behind the wheel of the #5 out of Hendrick Motorsports. He could battle with the big names this year. No one would be surprised to see him in the thick of the championship hunt in October and November.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: It's really a make or break year for Junior. Does he step up this year and show he's got championship mettle, or does he fall back into the pack? One has to wonder how long Hendrick will let the #88 team stay as constituted. There's only one thing left to change. Junebug, as DW calls him, was winless last season, after a promising spring. He's going to have to focus on winning if he's going to compete with the heavy hitters of the sport. Otherwise, he's just a popular driver with a great name.
Jamie McMurray: McMurray followed his 2010 win at Daytona and Indy with a very disappointing 211 season, coming home 27th in points. Not good, and he'll rebound this season.
Clint Bowyer: Clint leaves RCR for Michael Waltrip Racing this year. MWR has to prove they can run up front week in and out before FVP will consider any driver out of that garage a title contender.
AJ Almendinger: Great team owner and sponsor gives the driver of the yellow double deuce a chance. He could be the Brad Keselowski of 2012.
Paul Menard: Menard runs up front from time to time. Driving for RCR doesn't hurt that fact. Needs to be more consistent.
Martin Truex Jr.: See Clint Bowyer. The feeling here is he's better than the MWR team results show.
Jeff Burton: Burton drives for RCR and should be much better than his 2011 season results. Two top fives and 5 top tens aren't good enough for a guy this talented and a team this good.
Kurt Busch: How the mighty have fallen. Busch's well publicized tirade at Dr. Jerry Punch likely moved Busch out of the #22 and into a second tier ride with Phoenix. He's looking to rebuild his rep, and nothing will do that better than making the chase. Of course, he could be nice while he's doing it. Busch is one of those "God, Team, Sponsor" guys that say the right thing when the camera's on 'em, and then show their real colors when the lights are off. It will be interesting to see if a leopard can change his spots.
David Ragan: Ragan's out at Roush, moving over to Front Row Motorsports and the #34 Ford. Unfortunately for Ragan, the team likely won't have the resources that Roush had.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr: Takes over for Ragan in the #6 for Jack Roush. With Factory Ford livery in his corner, he's an up and comer. He'll likely break through and get to victory lane. Making the chase is a lofty goal.
Marcus Ambrose: Amrose was surprisingly close last season, with a win, and 12 top tens. It would a lot of fun to see him bring the #9 to the chase for Richard Petty Motorsports. If he were to repeat last season's results, and things broke just right for him, it's not inconceivable to have Ambrose in the chase.
Juan Pablo Montoya: One of these season, Montoya's going to put it all together and move up to elite status, right there with the the Stewarts, Edwards' and Johnsons of NASCAR. That fact that he's still back here show's you how difficult it is to make the switch from open wheel to stock cars.
Joey Logano: Joey came to Joe Gibbs as a can't miss kid. Well... Still a very young guy, but some of the luster is off the driver of the #20 Home Depot car.
Start and Parkers:
These guys really have no shot at a championship, and will likely be thrilled to get to victory lane. Among them are: Regan Smith, Bobby Labonte, David Reutimann, Dave Blaney, Mark Martin and Danica Patrick. Now before you lose your mind about the last two, remember they are part timers at this point of the season. Martin is slated to drive a minimum of 25 races, and Patrick is running ten races.