The 2012 NASCAR season is upon us.
Anticipation is high and a host of teams and drivers are already predicting championship challenges or improved results from last season. So who will really rally? What will be the big issues of the season? FOXSports.com puts it on the line and offers the following 10 bold predictions for 2012:
10. Closing down
The down economy and loss of sponsorship has clearly affected a slate of teams entering the 2012 season. That's abundantly clear in the lowered overall team numbers at elite organizations such as Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing. But the impact is not over. Look for at least one team currently in the top 40 to not make it to season's end as lack of sponsorship becomes too much of a barrier to overcome.
9. It matters
NASCAR has worked diligently to make sure that the move to electronic fuel injection does not impact any specific team, but is an equal change across the board. Unfortunately, there always seems to be a team that is ahead of the curve on figuring out how to take advantage of any change in the sport. While the larger teams, with a wealth of resources, should have an advantage with EFI, we'll take it a step further: At least one top driver will be affected by failure related to EFI early in the season.
8. We're back
Michael Waltrip Racing has been steadily gaining ground in the Sprint Cup ranks. This year, it has bolstered the effort of Martin Truex Jr. by adding veteran Chase for the Sprint Cup contender Clint Bowyer as well as splitting a third car between Michael Waltrip and Mark Martin. Truex will step up with the added support/pressure of his stellar teammates and Bowyer will adjust to the system quickly. The result? Michael Waltrip Racing will have at least one driver in the Chase this season.
7. Keeping pace
Don't overlook Kurt Busch this season. Sure, the 2004 Cup champion has shifted to a smaller team, but Phoenix Racing has long been a factor at restrictor-plate tracks and brings a more in-depth, supported effort to the track this season. Busch, meanwhile, has something to prove after an offseason split with the powerful Penske operation. The combination will be potent. Busch will be in Victory Lane this year - and not just to shake his winning brother's hand.
6. Rounding out
Juan Pablo Montoya is coming off a dreadful season at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, one in which he finished 21st in the standings and went winless. This year, he's back in play - and finally hitting a mark he's long coveted. Montoya will add to his two-win tally in the Cup ranks - and he'll do so by heading to Victory Lane on an oval track. So far, he's only won on road courses. That changes in 2012.
5. The Avenger
Darian Grubb has been a hot topic for months as the championship-winning crew chief revealed upon taking the title that he had already been informed he would be parting ways with Tony Stewart, then announcing his move to Denny Hamlin's team. Grubb wants a repeat championship every bit as much as his previous owner/driver does. And look for Grubb to have an edge. A rested Hamlin will return to championship form this season and, under Grubb's direction, will finish ahead of Stewart in the points standings, pleasing the crew chief greatly.
4. This is it
Dale Earnhardt Jr. enters the 2012 season with a stunning 129-race winless streak. Earnhardt Jr. won in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, but has not returned to Victory Lane with the organization. He made the Chase in 2011, his first season working with crew chief Steve Letarte, and the team challenged for wins over the course of the season. Look for them to take the next step this season. Earnhardt Jr. will snap that winless streak. He's particularly strong on restrictor-plate tracks, so look to those for his best chance to overcome the barrier. That winless streak will not last the season.
3. My turn
AJ Allmendinger has come so close to winning a Sprint Cup points race over the years. Now, he'll do just that. Allmendinger is in the best equipment of his career. In joining Penske Racing this season, Allmendinger will have the most stable surroundings and strongest teammate of his career. In his sixth full season of Sprint Cup competition, Allmendinger will join the list of race winners. Count on it.
Watch out, championship contenders. There's a new threat in town. Kasey Kahne, long capable of challenging for wins and a championship berth, has united his talent with that of Hendrick Motorsports. Keeping crew chief Kenny Francis at the helm of his team, the driver has everything he needs to be successful. And he will be. Immediately. Kahne will eclipse his higher-profile Hendrick teammates - five-time champ Jimmie Johnson, four-time champ Jeff Gordon and most popular Earnhardt Jr. - and be the top-performing team within the Hendrick arsenal. He will earn multiple wins and finish higher in the points than anyone else at Hendrick.
1. Team Danica
Can Danica Patrick show up her Nationwide Series team owner? Can she win a NASCAR race in 2012 before Earnhardt Jr. does? Earnhardt Jr. enters the season riding a 129-race winless streak; Patrick enters racing full time in the Nationwide ranks for the Earnhardt Jr.-owned team for the first time and with 10 Cup races on her slate. In 25 Nationwide starts, Patrick has an average finish of 22.9; in 435 Cup starts, Earnhardt has an average finish of 16.8 (he was also a two-time Nationwide champ). The two share much in common - mass fan appeal, marketing savvy and stellar sponsor backing. So which one can become a 2012 victor first? While we think that Junior will snap his streak this season, we say Danica wins first.
And since we're on a roll, we'll throw in a bonus prediction. Who will win the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship? It'll be a newcomer.
He's your champ
After years of knocking at the door, this year a new driver will hoist the NASCAR Sprint Cup trophy. Third in the standings the last two seasons, this season will belong to Kevin Harvick. The RCR driver will not only excel during the regular season - as he has begun to do on an annual basis - but he'll carry that through the postseason. With crew chief Shane Wilson at the helm, and with RCR dropping back to a three-car operation, Harvick will step up and become a father and a Cup champion in the same year.