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2012 Preview: Busch favorite to exceed expectations after move

January 05, 2012, ,

Allmendinger, Ambrose, Biffle, Junior picked to improve on 2011 numbers

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 Tuesday is which driver will exceed expectations in 2012.


My choice is Kurt Busch and I say this only in the sense that he starts the season with no expectations, outside of the James Finch camp. A few good finishes here or there will stand out. Staying in the wild-card hunt will do that, too.

There are no surprises in NASCAR. No small-market or moribund team coming out of nowhere to make the playoffs. NASCAR has its upper echelon, its middle of the pack and its third string. In the past several years, drivers rarely have strayed from one of those categories. In NASCAR, you are what you are.

Busch is where he is because of what he is ... or was -- his own worst enemy. If he makes good on his personal makeover, and if that translates into performance on the track ... he might just have the little car that could in 2012. It's really all NASCAR has because everyone else will simply fall into place.


The expectations are automatically lower for Kurt Busch this year, but his driving talent level is as high as ever. With his past champion's provisional in addition to the Phoenix Racing No. 51 finishing in the top 30 last year, Busch is guaranteed a spot in the field meaning the team can focus on race setups instead of worrying about qualifying during practice.

However, this season will be a challenge unlike any Busch has faced before. New owner James Finch has already gone on the record saying he's not going to put up with Busch's infamous radio rants directed at his pit crew and, in the past, his owner. The pit crew at Phoenix isn't one of the top crews in the garage, not on par with the big-money teams, and seeing how Busch handles the challenges will show how much his work with the sports psychologist has and will pay off.

But right now, no one's expecting Busch to challenge for the Cup title, or run as well as he has in the past several seasons. Tony Stewart's title shows that some changes to a previously backmarker team can lead to success. While Busch obviously doesn't have the power at Phoenix that Stewart does as co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, he's still a supremely talented driver with the ability to do more with a car than most people in the field. His ability alone will put him ahead of where the No. 51 has been in recent years.


Kurt Busch. Yes, the same Kurt Busch who -- ahem -- mutually parted ways with Penske Racing for the likes of James Finch and the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet. Busch's fall from grace to a much smaller organization would naturally lower expectations in 2012.

But that may be just what the doctor ordered. Seeing a sports psychologist has its merits, but Busch's real therapy may come from Finch, who doesn't seem to mince words and has made it clear that he won't tolerate any shenanigans from the radio sweetheart. This owner wants to win and he's put it all on the line by hiring a driver who, despite his lack of tact, has a wealth of talent behind the wheel.

With engines, chassis and technical support from Hendrick Motorsports, and finishing 30th in owner points last season, Busch and his new team can focus on dialing it in and accomplishing their main objective: winning!

Landon Cassill didn't claim any top-10 finishes last season, but was able to show that Phoenix Racing could run with the big boys on more than one occasion. And if you look back to 2009 at Talladega, the team proved they can win with the right driver behind the wheel.

We all have our demons and right now, Busch is dealing with his. Sometimes in our darkest hours, if a man can humble himself, realize his potential and be willing to work with others to reach a common goal, great things can happen.


Marcos Ambrose finally broke through in 2011 for his first Sprint Cup victory at Watkins Glen. Now it's time for the Tasmanian devil to take that next step and make his first Chase.

All the pieces are in place for Ambrose to do just that. Heading into his second season with Richard Petty Motorsports, he should be more comfortable with the team, the equipment and crew chief Todd Parrott. The only race Ambrose didn't finish in 2011 was the season finale, when he had engine trouble.

Based on his road-course racing background, Ambrose is favored at places like Sonoma and Watkins Glen. But what fans may not realize is how good he's become on intermediate ovals. Ambrose finished fourth at Las Vegas, sixth at Texas, posted a pair of top-10s at Charlotte and was ninth at Kansas in the fall. And he's dynamite on concrete, with three top-10 finishes at Bristol and Dover.

If Ambrose can improve at the tracks of two miles or longer, he'll be right in the thick of things by the race at Richmond in September.


Let's be honest -- no matter what you think of the guy personally, Kurt Busch can wheel the heck out of a race car. Twenty-four career victories, a championship, and six Chase berths in eight years are damn near Hall of Fame numbers. So it's going to be difficult, if not impossible, for A.J. Allmendinger to slide behind the wheel of that No. 22 car next season and immediately be the equal of his predecessor at Penske Racing.

But even lowering the bar of expectations to a more reasonable level, it's more than logical to believe that the career breakthrough Allmendinger has long sought is now within reach. There's no question, he's now in equipment capable of winning races, at the very least.

Allmendinger is a guy who has long knocked on that door, but never been able to bust it down. Now he has his best chance ever to assert himself as a winner on the Sprint Cup Series, and looking at some of the promising results he turned in with a lesser Richard Petty Motorsports team, it's only natural to think he's capable of taking the next step in his new surroundings.


It's not often Greg Biffle would qualify for this category, but after a dismal 2011 that saw Biffle miss the Chase for the first time in four years, the driver of the No. 16 finds himself on the outside looking in when it comes to Chase contenders in 2012 -- and that would be a mistake.

Statistically, Biffle had one of his worst seasons in a Cup career that spans a decade. But if you look closely, it wasn't as horrible as it seemed.

For starters, Biffle had one of his best seasons qualifying, so that shows the No. 16 cars were capable of being out front, but for one reason or another, unable to stay there. Biffle also had just two DNFs, so he was on the track until the finish, just not up front.

But to be honest, he wasn't that far behind. While Biffle had a seven-year low 10 top-10s, Biffle had 10 more finishes between 11th and 15th, including four times in the Chase. So while Biffle wasn't great, it wasn't as bad as it seemed.

Most importantly, crew chief Matt Puccia will return to the box after taking over for Greg Erwin following the race at Kentucky. Biffle's season improved once Puccia took control and a full season together could catapult Biffle back where he belongs -- in the Chase.


How did A.J. Allmendinger end up in the driver's seat of the No. 22 Dodge vacated at 2011 season's end by Kurt Busch? Well, honestly he did more with less at Richard Petty Motorsports than other candidates. David Ragan, for instance, was considered at one point to be the frontrunner for the job -- but he finished 21st in points last year while driving for Roush Fenway Racing, even with a victory. Allmendinger didn't win any races, but he landed 15th in points on the strength of some consistent runs in Ford equipment that wasn't necessarily always Ragan's equal.

The feeling is that now Allmendinger is poised to finally get to Victory Lane. He's in a car that reached that magical place twice last season and made the Chase with the volatile Busch behind the wheel, so the equipment is stout enough. Conventional wisdom may call for it to take some time for Allmendinger to adjust to his new surroundings and a new crew chief in Todd Gordon, but he says he's wanted to drive for Roger Penske since his days as an open-wheel racer and the adjustment isn't likely to take as long as many suspect.

Allmendinger has the know-how and experience to take a quantum leap as a driver this year. Now he has the team and Dodge power behind him. There is no reason whatsoever that he can't become the Brad Keselowski of 2012, winning multiple races and vaulting himself into title contention for the first time in his relatively young career while benefitting from the expertise of Penske and Dodge engineering staffs that have to focus only on making two cars right.


Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been in the midst of a maddeningly-lengthy rebuilding process that has taken the better part of three years -- or actually, since he won his first race for Hendrick Motorsports in June 2008.

Team owner Rick Hendrick executed a radical shuffle with his drivers in 2011, with Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon being the biggest beneficiaries after moving to work with different crew chiefs and their respective crews.

Earnhardt responded to being paired with crew chief Steve Letarte with Earnhardt's first Chase entry in three seasons and his most competitive performances, statistically speaking, since 2008. His improvements included more top-five and top-10 finishes and the most lead-lap finishes since 2006.

Expect things to get even better for Earnhardt in 2012. With his confidence bolstered by what he and Letarte were able to achieve in 2011, Earnhardt could challenge for multiple victories -- which he hasn't achieved since 2004 -- and even more top finishes.

The bottom line is Earnhardt will make his second consecutive Chase, which he's never done in his career, and he should be a contender all season long. How quiet he's been, for as long as he's been, may have lowered many people's expectations for Earnhardt, but he's in position to far exceed them in 2012.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.