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2012 Preview: Edwards the driver to beat, but field wide open

January 05, 2012, ,

Three writers like '11 runner-up; Johnson, Kenseth Gordon, Busch on radar

As Daytona inches closer on the calendar, the NASCAR.COM writing staff looks ahead to the 2012 season and offers up some predictions. The focus for Monday is which driver is the one to beat in 2012.


Yeah, yeah, the runner-up curse. Bit Denny Hamlin hard last year; bit Mark Martin two years ago, etc. But guess what? Carl Edwards is no Denny Hamlin. When Edwards himself dropped like a rock in the standings, from second in 2008 to 11th in 2009, that had more to do with Roush Fenway's struggles than anything of Edwards' doing.

While Tony Stewart was trying to psych Edwards out the same way Jimmie Johnson did Hamlin in 2010, Edwards stayed strong. After Stewart's victory at Martinsville, he spent the entirety of his post-race press conference setting his sights squarely on Edwards -- and Edwards met the challenge.

2011 Statistics

WinsFirst 26Final 10
Laps Led558345
Avg. Start10.56.4
Avg. Finish114.9

Edwards took a page from his teammate Matt Kenseth's book in 2011, riding consistency to a tie atop the standings. He finished 11th or better in every Chase race, including runner-up finishes in the final three. The pairing of him and Bob Osborne is one of the longest-running in the Cup garage, and their relationship has taken on a 'We don't need to speak to know what the other is thinking' quality. If Edwards can add a couple of victories to the one he totaled in 2011 -- his undoing in the championship battle with Stewart -- he's going to be looking at the entire field in his rear-view mirror.


Carl Edwards will be the driver to beat for the 2012 Sprint Cup Series championship for one simple reason: Edwards has done everything the past four seasons short of winning that championship, and everything he's done in that time has elevated him closer and closer to every racer's ultimate goal -- a premier series title.

Edwards has become the ultimate thinking-man's race-car driver, processing information, remaining calm and formulating plans, on the fly and in conjunction with his team and crew chief Bob Osborne that put them in the best position possible to end up in Victory Lane.

At the same time, Edwards hasn't lost one lick of that most important quality of a potential championship winner: sheer speed.

There's no question owner Jack Roush has already proven his commitment to providing everything possible for Edwards -- really for all his Roush Fenway Racing teammates -- to win a title.

Now, all that's left is to deliver. And with what Edwards and Osborne -- who without question has an equal amount of commitment and fire as Edwards and Roush to win that title -- have achieved the past several seasons, 2012 should be the year it most likely comes to fruition.


Had Tony Stewart not put together one of the most remarkable runs in NASCAR history during the Chase last season, Carl Edwards could have driven in reverse for all 267 laps at Homestead and taken home the title with ease.

Fast forward to Champion's Week and the most consistent driver all season made his feelings known: second place stinks! A gracious runner-up, Edwards sat patiently through the awards ceremony, but if you looked close enough you could see the disappointment turning into motivation. To be that close and not win a championship could wreak havoc on the mind of a young, inexperienced driver. But Edwards isn't young or inexperienced, and he's returning to the track with Bob Osborne, who kept the No. 99 setup to near perfection for most of the season.

Look for Edwards to improve on his single win from 2011, and if he comes anywhere close to his 4.9 average finish in the Chase last year -- a career best in his eight seasons with a Chase format -- Tony Stewart or someone else will have to do more than win half of next year's Chase races in order to contend with the likes of Carl.


Like some of my colleagues, I think the 2012 champion will come out of the Roush Fenway stable. But I don't think it's Carl Edwards, despite a tremendously consistent 2011 campaign. Instead, I'm going with the guy who was Mr. Consistency in 2003 -- and showed last season that he has the potential to be that driver again.

Not only did Matt Kenseth win more races -- three -- than he had since 2006, but he seemed to be running near the front every weekend, even at races where he's struggled in the past. Kenseth led at least three laps in 13 of the final 14 races, and 15 or more laps in 11 of those.

If not for his run-ins with Brian Vickers at Martinsville and Phoenix -- leading to finishes of 31st and 34th -- it very well could have been Kenseth's Cup to claim at Homestead. And if he can build on the strengths of 2011, he'll have his second championship ring.


Go ahead, poke the bear. Let that simmering talk that began to manifest in the latter stages of the 2011 season come to a boil now that 2012 is upon us, and cars soon will roar as large as all outdoors in the coming weeks at Daytona.

That's just what they want. The streak is over. Back to parity, and fun in NASCAR. No more Jimmie Johnson dominating week to week, year to year. They've even given you the ammunition: Two wins in '11, the fewest of any full season; 14 top-fives (yawn) and only 21 top-10s, the latter tied for his single-season worst with his rookie year of 2003.

But I recall shortly after Johnson and Co. fell short again, in 2005, how the talk was they might never win one. Short of a come to Jesus meeting, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus had the next best thing: A come to Papa H meeting. The rest is NASCAR history.

Oh, by the way, one last thing: The driver to win the championship in 2005, leaving Johnson to stew in the offseason? Yep ... Tony Stewart.


Yes, he finished eighth in final points this past season, but this is one case where it's important to look beyond that number. In 2011, Jeff Gordon enjoyed his best season since his championship near-miss of 2007 -- he broke a long winless streak, reached Victory Lane three times, and was viewed in many eyes as the favorite entering the Chase.

No question, his playoff was a disappointment, but fuel mismanagement had a lot to do with that, and that's hardly a quality on which to judge a race team. Gordon returned to form in what was supposed to be a transition year, one in which he was supposed to get comfortable with crew chief Alan Gustafson and lay the groundwork for 2012. The No. 24 team exceeded those expectations last year, and are well ahead of schedule as this now-seasoned group move to the front of the pack of championship contenders for the season to come.

Gordon can be easy to look past, especially in light of the more impressive 2011 seasons turned in by Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson, likely the odds-on choices in '12. Don't fall into that trap. Gordon's points finish may not have tabbed him as a leading contender for next season, but every other statistic from a year ago does.


Want to see a great redemption story in 2012? Look no further than the polarizing driver of the No. 18 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing. Kyle Busch ended 2011 disgracefully and would like nothing more than to put November in the rear-view and have a rebirth in 2012.

While Busch's 2011 will be remembered for his Texas suspension and other hiccups both on and off the track, let's not forget just how dominating the younger Busch brother was in 2011. His four wins and 14 top-fives were second to Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, respectively, and Busch's 18 top-10s were sixth-highest. Plus, Busch led 1,455 laps in 2011, more than 300 more than his nearest competitor. Let's be honest, the kid flat-out knows how to drive.

Busch will make fans forget about all the drama, all the demons from 2011. Make no mistake, Busch knows if he is to become a Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon, he needs to grow up ... and fast. That time is now, because Busch's second-chances are running out. Expect to see a more focused, more grounded Busch in 2012. Drama will be at an all-time low surrounding the 26-year-old and victories and points will be on the rise. Busch will make the Chase again, and this time he will be in the title conversation at Homestead.


Yes, he slipped in 2011 and failed to win the Chase for the Sprint Cup. But the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports won the five previous championships in such dominating fashion that folks began to wonder if anyone else would ever win another title.

While it was inevitable that Jimmie Johnson eventually would be thrown from his throne, it's just as inevitable that he will win another championship -- and probably sooner rather than later. He still has arguably the most creative and hard-working crew chief in the garage in Chad Knaus, and despite some rough patches last year that some took to mean the chemistry between the pair has become frayed and therefore flawed, the fact is both are eager to continue working together to prove exactly the opposite.

Let's examine last year's "off" 2011 season for Johnson a little more closely: He still won two races. He posted 14 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes while finishing sixth in points. Carl Edwards was the only driver with more top-five and top-10 finishes on the books for the season (Busch tied Johnson with 14 top-fives). The No. 48 team is not lurking as far from its customary top spot as many prognosticators might think, and it's not much of a stretch to think a driven Johnson-Knaus combination might very well be more formidable than ever in 2012 -- especially if other teams tend to overlook them at first and let them fly under the radar more than they've been able to do in years.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.