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Top 5: Something to prove in 2012

December 29, 2011, Joe Menzer,

From new team to new attitude, these five drivers will have spotlight on them

The weeks that followed the conclusion of the 2011 Sprint Cup season included a flurry of activity that led to a number of driver and crew chief changes within the garage.

But not all drivers with something to prove are with new teams. Here are five drivers who will enter 2012 with something to prove, and why ...

1. Kurt Busch

Out of the No. 22 Dodge he drove for six years at Penske Racing, the elder Busch brother embarks on a new phase of his career driving the No. 51 Chevrolet full-time for owner James Finch and Phoenix Racing. Let's be clear on this: Finch is no Roger Penske, at least in terms of the resources he can provide for his Sprint Cup team. But Finch is a demanding, accomplished, competitive owner known for doing more with less than many other owners. He's also known for being a no-nonsense kind of guy who isn't likely to put up with the kind of verbal abuse that Busch regularly directed toward fellow employees and even, on occasion, the owner himself when Busch drove for Penske. It's time for Busch to finally prove he's grown up as a driver, and that means first he'll have to grow up as a person. The first time he blows up inside the car or outside of it after a mediocre run -- and there will be more of those now than he had to endure at Penske -- might be the last time for this latest of his relationships.

More: Busch out at Penske | Busch to drive No. 51 | Video: Season in Review | 2011 Highlights

2. Kyle Busch

After actually showing great strides at times in terms of maturity last year, Busch threw away all his gains in a few moments when he let his temper get the better of him. None was more obvious than late in the season at Texas when, early in a Camping World Truck Series race, he totally lost his composure and deliberately wrecked Ron Hornaday during a caution period. That earned him a parking by NASCAR for the remainder of the weekend, putting a merciful end to any very slim hopes he had remaining in the Chase. It's time for the younger Busch brother to carry over the gains he makes during the first part of a season, when he often dominates, and display the kind of composure during difficult times that is required of a true Cup championship contender.

More: Season came crashing down | Video: Season in Review | 2011 Highlights

3. A.J. Allmendinger

There are no more valid excuses for Allmendinger to not start winning some races now that he's taken over Kurt Busch's old ride at Penske Racing. Busch won two races in 2011 and made the Chase for the fourth time in five years -- so even though Allmendinger will be outfitted with a new crew chief in Todd Gordon and a new pit crew, he should have all the resources he needs to finally get to Victory Lane and contend strongly for a Chase berth. Driving last year for Richard Petty Motorsports, Allmendinger finished 15th in the points and ran up front more than he ever has -- but he never sealed the deal. The expectations this year will be much higher, both from himself and from those who expressed confidence in him by hiring him away from RPM.

More: Allmendinger hopes to take 'next step' | Video: Season in Review | 2011 Highlights

4. Clint Bowyer

A run of four Chase appearances in five seasons came to a close when Bowyer failed to make the 2011 post-season party. That failure was followed quickly by Bowyer's departure from Richard Childress Racing to Michael Waltrip Racing, where he hopes to take his career to a new level. The fact is that Bowyer has been solid but not spectacular since his surprising 2007 finish of third in the points, and there is some question about whether or not he's going to an organization that's going to give him more tools to improve on the job than the one he just left. Like most new arrangements, it's going to take some time. But if Bowyer isn't contending for race wins and the Chase by the second half of the season, both he and MWR will be greatly disappointed.

More: Bowyer, Miller find mutual admiration at MWR | Video: Season in Review | 2011 Highlights

5. Denny Hamlin

Armed with a new crew chief in Darian Grubb, who moves over to Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota after helping Tony Stewart win the 2011 championship, Hamlin needs to prove once and for all that he's truly over the heartbreak and headaches that left him just short of the title in 2010. Last year he seemed to be lacking some of his usual swagger from the start, and he never really gained his stride during a season that produced one victory and, in the end, left him ninth in the points. Hamlin won a series-high eight races in 2010 and is looking to get that groove back. Grubb might just be exactly the guy to help him find it.

More: Chance at title sent Grubb to Hamlin | Video: Season in Review | 2011 Highlights