12 drivers to watch in 2012

The 2012 NASCAR season is about to begin, and after a silly season of all sorts of driver and crew chief changes, drivers are ready to get back in their cars for racing. Here are 12 drivers I’m watching in the ’12 season - some are obvious, others may surprise you.  

1.  Danica Patrick has always been surrounded by media hype. Since her debut in stock cars, she hasn’t had the chance to race under the radar because the media has had their eyes on her since day one, and they won’t be looking away soon. Though not the first woman to race in the elite Sprint Cup Series, Patrick is arguably the highest-profile woman to race in NASCAR. She will be racing her GoDaddy.com No. 10 car part-time for Stewart-Haas Racing, who partnered with Tommy Baldwin Racing to secure her spot in the Daytona 500. Patrick will pilot her No. 7 for JR Motorsports full-time in the Nationwide Series. I wouldn’t be too quick to predict that she can win the Brickyard 400, but I wouldn’t put it past her either. Though I believe that she will win races, I don’t think this is the year she'll brag about in the future.

Allmendinger joins Penske Racing in 2012.
Credit: Jamie Squire / Getty Images
2. AJ Allmendinger is a driver who, unlike Patrick, had the chance to start his Cup career under the radar, to hone his skills and talent in a Cup ride. This year started out with a bang, putting him under the spotlight. The newest member of the Penske team won his first Rolex 24 at Daytona after six years of trying. Allmendinger is on fire now and the candle may not burn out anytime soon. He’s full of energy and ready to get racing. Because he scored 15th in driver’s points at the end of the 2011 season, he gets a chance to race in the Bud Shootout on Saturday. In recent testing at Daytona this January, Allmendinger and teammate Brad Keselowski drafted together, and the two seemed to be a pair made in race heaven. Allmendinger is working with a new crew chief, Todd Gordon, who is new to the Cup Series. This may hold him back from winning a race, but not for long. A win is in this man’s near future, possibly in Dover, or even in Charlotte. Let’s also remember that he’s an experienced road course racer, so a trip to victory lane could happen in Sonoma, Watkins Glen or even at the Brickyard 400. He may even be fortunate enough to finish in the top 12 come season’s end. 2012 may not be Allmendinger’s "best" season, but it surely will be the start to a bright future and a more successful career in the coming years.

3. Kasey Kahne is already a successful driver with the crew chief that hasn’t left his side for six years. Kahne is finally at Hendrick Motorsports in the No. 5 Farmers Insurance car. A lot of great things are in store for this driver who was the only one to win the All-Star Race (in 2008) after being voted in, and who has a history of winning a race after starting on the pole. Kahne’s talent is sure to shine in HMS equipment. I do believe Kahne will have more than one win this season. He could very well be the first HMS guy to win a race, thus giving his new boss Rick Hendrick his 200th team victory. I predict he will be in the top 12, maybe top 10 at the end of the year. Kahne is championship material; he may surprise us with a higher season finish, but I think it’s more likely to happen in 2013. 

4. Carl Edwards did tie for first in points last season, but he had to accept second place because he only won one race, and opponent Tony Stewart won five, including the season finale. Edwards is ready to get back in his car and make this season better than last. To think he was first in points for 23 out of 36 weeks in 2011 means he understands consistency is key, but had to learn that winning more often pays off in the end. A top-five finish is certainly realistic for Edwards.

5. Brad Keselowski finished his first season in the No. 2 Miller Dodge fifth in points. That’s one spot ahead of the five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Keselowski does have hopes to keep his momentum going, and to have an even more successful season this year. He has the potential and talent to finish in the top 10.

Kenseth flies under the radar but is Mr. Consistency.
Credit: Jamie Squire / Getty Images
6. Matt Kenseth: First and foremost, my deepest sympathies are with the Kenseth family at this time for the recent loss of Kenseth’s mother, Nicola. Second, don’t overlook this NASCAR champ. Something tells me he will surprise us all with more major wins, and may score another title soon. He could finish second this season.

7.  Jimmie Johnson is now more motivated to win another championship than ever before. He’s not broken yet. He spent the off-season resting more, as did his crew chief Chad Knaus; the duo is still young enough to score a few more championships to possibly beat the King’s and the Intimidator’s tied record of seven. I believe Johnson is the guy that can get that job done, and he will fight hard for a first-place finish this season. He might actually win it all again.

8. Tony Stewart won night two of the Winter Freeze World of Outlaws event on Feb. 11 commenting that the track was full of ice. Well, now we know that Smoke can't melt ice! Will the 2011 champion start this season as strong as he finished the last? It's safe to assume that Stewart will start strong in 2012 with a few wins to begin the season. I have a hard time believing he'll be strong all year long considering how mightily he struggled in the first two-thirds of 2011. He may may pace himself and win some races, but I don't see him repeating the title. 

Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte are ready for 2012.
Credit: Tom Pennington / Getty Images for NASCAR
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. once again won Most Popular Driver, making it his ninth consecutive award. After a successful season with his crew chief Steve Letarte, Earnhardt Jr. is sitting on the edge. He hasn’t won a race since 2008. His first win in three years has to be near. It might be fair to say that fans may not have to vote him into the All-Star Race, because he could win his way in. There were at least three races last season where Earnhardt Jr. could’ve finished first. He may have good karma on his side this year, and reclaim those three wins. His lack of wins isn’t so much due to lack of driver talent; he has won 18 Cup races, including a Daytona 500. He’s simply challenged by the cars, and other drivers have made him work harder for his wins. I believe he can finish in the top 4 this season. I believe 2012 could be his best season to date.

10. Aric Almirola will race his first season in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford. He’s had experience with the RPM team when he filled in as driver for the No. 9 Budweiser after Kasey Kahne’s departure in the last races of  2010. In his first full-time Nationwide season, he finished fourth in points in the No. 88 GT Vodka car for JR Motorsports without winning a single race. The Cup Series is a lot more competitive than NNS. The chances of Almirola winning this season are slim, though there is a realistic possibility that he can win. When and where is yet to be determined.

11.  Jeff Gordon had an incredible season in 2011. Finishing eighth is impressive, especially since he was working with a new crew chief. His three wins were the most he scored since 2007. I believe his consistent ability to finish in the top 10 in races and in points can help him improve. This should be his year. He is celebrating 20 years of Cup racing with DuPont and Hendrick Motorsports. It could be the year he finishes in the top 5 again, maybe even in first place.

12.  Kevin Harvick finished in the top 3 in 2010 and 2011 winning seven races. With the ability ro push forward when everyone is assuming is the lead car will win, Harvick has earned the nickname "The Closer." Harvick earned eight wins across NASCAR and his third NASCAR Camping World Truck Series owner's championship in 2011. Harvick has proven he has the talent. He simply needs to outlast his competition. Selling off his NCWTS and NNS teams to Richard Childress Racing during the off-season, Harvick can now focus on his Sprint Cup efforts and the summer birth of his first child. I honestly believe 2012 is Harvick's year, hence the reason why I saved him for 12th. 

Genevieve is a freelance writer living single on Lake Norman, near Charlotte N.C. When she's not writing about NASCAR, she's taking care of children, exercising, reading, watching movies, or hanging out with her niece. 

 Genevieve can be reached on Twitter at @C_Genevieve.
12 drivers to watch in 2012 12 drivers to watch in 2012 Reviewed by Unknown on Saturday, February 18, 2012 Rating: 5