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2012 Preview: Two with new rides, five '11 Chasers to fall short

January 05, 2012, ,

Five Chasers from 2011, champ included, also hard-pressed to meet expectations

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 Wednesday is which driver will fail to meet expectations in 2012.


Clint Bowyer made three Chase fields in six full-time seasons as a driver for Richard Childress, but he seemed doomed in July by back-to-back crashes at Daytona and Kentucky. That led to a 10-race stretch in which Bowyer failed to crack the top 10 nine times.

Oh, Bowyer!

Michael Waltrip Racing has a lot riding on Clint Bowyer. But first, Bowyer has to familiarize himself with his new ride.

Bowyer once called Michael Waltrip "the worst driver in NASCAR, period." But that's all water under the bridge, now that Bowyer finds himself driving for Waltrip in 2012. It's a move that may pay long-term dividends, but may require some short-term growing pains.

David Reutimann's best points finish for MWR was 16th, in 2009. Bowyer's teammate, Martin Truex Jr., wound up 18th last season and is still searching for his first victory with the team.

Facing a situation where he'll have to adjust to a new team, new equipment and a new crew chief, just cracking the top 15 at season's end would be a significant step in the right direction. Getting into the Chase? That'd take a giant leap.


If Clint Bowyer thought driving at Richard Childress Racing during down years was tough, wait until he gets a load of Michael Waltrip Racing. It's somewhat of an unfair comparison, since MWR is only entering its sixth full-time season in the Cup Series. But it has yet to show the consistency needed to compete at the top level.

Bowyer is a talented driver, but he certainly hasn't put up eye-opening numbers. Thirty-one top-10 finishes in 217 starts isn't the makings of a cornerstone driver, which is what MWR is hoping he'll be. He'll have solid help from Martin Truex Jr. and cagey veteran Mark Martin, but Bowyer is definitely the big name in this group.

He'll be working with Brian Pattie, formerly of the No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team. He has one victory in the Cup Series, with Juan Montoya during the 2010 season. Less than a year later, he was out of a job.

There will be a massive learning curve for Bowyer, with a new team, new manufacturer, new crew chief, new owner, new everything. And smart money says he won't come close to matching the numbers he's put up in recent years.


When your boss is coming off the series championship, and already had fired two of his top lieutenants along the way, there's no room for mollycoddling at Stewart-Hass Racing.

Tony Stewart didn't let friendship stand in the way of his dismissing competition director Bobby Hutchens midway through the season; he didn't let friendship stand in the way of telling crew chief Darian Grubb his services would not be retained at season's end -- at the halfway point of the Chase, no less.

So why should fellow Hoosier Ryan Newman be any different? In his three seasons at SHR, Newman's best points finish is ninth and he missed the Chase in 2010. Throughout his career, Newman never has finished in the top five in points.

Newman may make the Chase in 2012; in fact, he probably will. Really, that would meet my expectations; I expect him to make the Chase, then hover around eighth to last place during it. But my and Stewart's expectations aren't the same. Newman will have to do better to meet his boss's standards.


Tony Stewart's third NASCAR championship came thanks to a once-in-a-lifetime season, a 2011 campaign where he won a record five Chase races and nipped Carl Edwards on a tiebreaker after claiming the final event of the year. Odds of that happening again? Too small to merit a mention.

Now, that's not to say Stewart can't win a bunch more Cup titles -- goodness, he has a hat trick already -- but there's also no question his No. 14 team showed plenty of vulnerabilities before that historic dash to the championship. Heck, in late summer, on the doorstep of the Chase, not even Stewart himself thought he belonged. Halfway through the playoff, he fired his crew chief.

Can this Stewart-Haas team overwhelm people the way Jimmie Johnson did in previous years? Can it show the kind of end-to-end consistency runner-up Carl Edwards did in 2011? Maybe. But we still don't know, and it's difficult to imagine another miracle run producing a fourth NASCAR crown.


Make no mistake, Brad Keselowski had a dream season in 2011. Making the Chase along with three victories, 10 top-fives and 14 top-10s was something very few people saw coming. But now that Keselowski has pulled it off, can he do it again? My guess is no.

Keselowski had some great races, no question, but he also had long stretches of mediocrity. Let's not forget after 19 races this season, Keselowski had just two top-five finishes, four top-10s and was sitting 23rd in points, nearly 100 points out of 10th. It took an unbelievable run for Keselowski to get in the Chase, and I just don't see him being that dominant again next season.

Look at his Chase for the evidence. Sure, Keselowski had four top-fives, but he also had six finishes of 16th or worse, including the final four races of the season where Keselowski finished off the lead lap in three of them and finished no better than 17th.

Keselowski has the talent to compete in the Cup Series, but he's not a top-tier driver in the series. Will he be? I have no doubt he will, but not yet. Keselowski was a great story the second half of the season, but I think he will come back down to earth in 2012 and he won't be making a return trip to Las Vegas in December.


Yes, 2011 was a resurgence of sorts for Dale Earnhardt Jr. as he made the Chase for the first time in three years and for only the second time in the past six. But he failed to win a single race once again and now enters 2012 with a 129-race winless streak hanging over his race helmet.

The fact is, no 2011 Chase driver registered fewer top-five finishes (four) and top-10s (12) than Earnhardt. It was a decent season, yes. It was not a great one. Even though he finished a very respectable seventh in the final point standings -- his highest finish since finishing fifth in 2005 while still driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. -- there really are not many compelling reasons to believe 2011 will serve as a springboard to greater accomplishments in '12.

Car owner Rick Hendrick obviously feels otherwise, having awarded Earnhardt a contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports during last season. Unfortunately for the popular Earnhardt and his legions of Junior Nation fans, this was more a sound business move in terms of the exposure and sponsorship dollars Earnhardt can generate than it was a prudent move on the competitive side. Even with a supposed new-found chemistry with his latest "new" crew chief, Steve Letarte, Earnhardt will be hard pressed in 2012 to simply match his modest on-track accomplishments of '11.


Denny Hamlin may mesh well with incoming Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief Darian Grubb, who has the certified top-level credentials of a Daytona 500 winner and a Cup champion; but then again, Hamlin might not.

Expectations for Hamlin are high, based on the fact that he led the series in victories in 2010 and led that year's championship at the start of the season finale at Homestead before faltering and giving Jimmie Johnson his fifth consecutive title.

In 2011, despite having the worst statistical season of his full-time Cup career, Hamlin kept intact his streak of making every Chase that in which he's been eligible -- but just barely.

The chemistry he'd enjoyed with crew chief Mike Ford for his entire Cup career seemed to have evaporated and Hamlin was hard-pressed to put together many competitive full-length races.

In 2012, it remains to be seen what Hamlin's confidence level will be while working with a new crew chief, who no doubt will have a new operating style not only for Hamlin, but the entire crew.

Hamlin may be fine. But with all the uncertainties he's faced with, of all the top-level drivers in the series, Hamlin might be the one most likely to underachieve against his expectations. By the time five races are run in 2012, we should know what the overall state of his season will be.


Moving forward, anything short of making the Chase should be considered a bad year for Kasey Kahne, who arrives at Hendrick Motorsports with no excuses, top equipment and with longtime crew chief Kenny Francis.

His breakout season in 2006 yielded six wins, 12 top-five finishes, 19 top-10s and a finish of eighth in points. But five wins in the next five seasons doesn't exactly cut the mustard.

If Kahne is to be considered a legitimate championship contender, then he'll need a wealth of consistency to obtain the goal of competing at NASCAR's highest level in 2012. Much has been said about parity and if Tony Stewart proved anything last year, winning when it counts is paramount.

If Kahne returns to Daytona and embarks on a one-win, four-DNFs performance, with the knowledge he's in better equipment, he'll start to question his ability. Who wouldn't? So it's important that he start the first half of the season strong and gain some confidence with his new organization.

Make no mistake about it, Kahne can wheel a car, but until he proves he's up to the task of running out front and leading more laps, he'll fall into the category of good, not great. At Hendrick, also-ran won't sit well.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.