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Five to watch: All eyes on these drivers for 2012

January 01, 2012, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

Five to watch for 2012: New teams, new roles, and a need for improvement

Whether an old face in a new place, a fresh face, drivers looking to build on limited success or find at least that much, here are five drivers to watch in 2012 -- and why:

1. Kasey Kahne. No driver switches teams with a more intense spotlight on him than Kahne, who left the now-defunct Red Bull Racing operation and will begin anew in the No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. Perhaps no bolder statement was made last season than the one Kahne delivered in the next-to-last race of the season at Phoenix, where he overcame his lame-duck status to register a victory for Red Bull. It was the 12th Sprint Cup victory of his career, but his first since winning twice in 2009. Crew chief Kenny Francis is moving to Hendrick along with him, so they shouldn't miss a beat and Kahne will be in top equipment. If the Kahne-Francis duo doesn't succeed in winning races and at least contending strongly for a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth, it will be a disappointment. Either way, all eyes will be upon them every mile along the way.

Career statistics | Season in Review | Aumann: Kahne leaves Red Bull in style | Kahne stays strong

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2. Marcos Ambrose. A popular first-time Sprint Cup winner last year when he finally prevailed at the Watkins Glen road course, Ambrose will enter this season as the undisputed top driver at Richard Petty Motorsports in the No. 9 Ford. With that comes increased expectations to get to Victory Lane on an oval and contend for a Chase berth. This will be just the fourth full-time Cup season for Ambrose -- but the last time he seemed poised to make a leap forward, he struggled through the 2010 season and eventually left JTG/Daugherty Racing for RPM as a result. This year he seems better prepared for what may lay just ahead. If he can contend again on the two Cup road courses and finally get it done on at least one oval, his closely-watched season will be considered a success.

Career statistics | Season in Review | Credited for RPM's rebirth

3. Paul Menard. Like Ambrose, Menard was a first-time Cup winner last season and he did it in style, winning the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Like Ambrose, he technically is moving up a notch in the pecking order at Richard Childress Racing -- with Clint Bowyer departed to Michael Waltrip Racing and Jeff Burton looking to rebound from a horrible season. (Kevin Harvick remains top dog in the RCR stable). Menard thankfully seems to be moving past the point where he's scrutinized -- and often criticized -- for being in the sport supposedly only because his father backed him with buckets of sponsorship dollars. While there still is some truth to the premise that he's been given more opportunities because of this, Richard Childress is not in the habit of putting just anyone in his race cars -- and Menard has earned the chance to see if he can now take his career to the next level.

Career statistics | Season in Review | Caraviello: For Menard, a validating victory at Indianapolis

4. Joey Logano. Remember when Logano was tabbed as the next great driver? That was three full seasons ago. He's won one rain-shortened race during that time span. Now he'll be adjusting to a new Cup crew chief in Jason Ratcliff, although insiders at Joe Gibbs Racing are hoping that proves to be just the spark Logano needs. The two have worked together occasionally on the Nationwide Series side, and Ratcliff was crew chief for 36 wins in 11 Nationwide seasons (33 of which came with Kyle Busch driving). As much as Logano, all eyes will also be on Ratcliff to see if he can make the successful transition to the big leagues. To do so, though, he will have to find a way to prepare the cars more to Logano's liking than veteran crew chief Greg Zipadelli was able to do -- which as much as anything contributed to the frustration Zipadelli felt before bolting to become competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Career statistics | Season in Review | Logano goes from victory to despair at Pocono

5. Danica Patrick. She'll run only 10 Cup races in 2012, starting with the season-opening Daytona 500 where Zipadelli will be atop her pit box. But whenever and wherever she runs a race in a stock car, she draws attention. She's likely to struggle this season, especially on the Cup side (she's also running a full-time Nationwide schedule). But it won't be for a lack of effort and every move she makes, good and bad, is going to be scrutinized by media, fans and fellow competitors alike. One of her strengths, however, is that she seems not only to be able to handle such scrutiny, but that she almost seems to thrive on it. And in Patrick's case, limited success doesn't equal limited exposure as with virtually every other driver. Limited success would equal huge exposure, delighting her sponsors and positioning her for a full-time run in Cup possibly as early as 2013.

Career statistics | Danica discusses 2012 Cup schedule | Six Pack: Patrick looking forward