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2012 Nationwide Series: Ranking the Top-35 Drivers

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

1. Kyle Busch/Michael McDowell/Kelly Bires - No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota - The 20 events that Busch raced in 2011 will likely be a preview of what's to be expected from him in 2012. In that partial schedule the Joe Gibbs Racing star picked up an astounding eight victories and 17 Top-5 finishes. Busch will split this ride with the young but capable duo of McDowell and Bires this season. Granted, the No. 18 Toyota is a world-beater when Busch is behind the wheel, but the team should still be pretty competitive with either McDowell or Bires in the driver's seat when the colorful Sprint Cup Series star is taking a week off.

2. Brad Keselowski/Parker Kligerman
- No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge - Keselowski is another two-series driver that is looking for some breaks in the action in the upcoming season. The 2010 Nationwide Series champion competed in 29 of the 34 events last season and won five races along the way. We expect to see that number of starts shrink a bit in 2012. Penske Racing's No. 22 team will depend on the very capable hands of youngster Kligerman when Keselowski is out of the team's Dodge. The duo should be quite impressive compared to the other all-star driver combinations in the Nationwide Series. More victories and Top 10s should await Keselowski in the new season.

3. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
- No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford - The defending Nationwide Series champion had just an unbelievable performance in the No. 6 Ford last season. After finishing a disappointing 16th in his rookie season of 2010, Stenhouse rallied all the way to two race victories and the championship last season. He stands atop the hill ready to defend the championship throne in 2012. Stenhouse will return to this team, which is complete and intact after their title run of last year. Amazingly, they're still unsponsored even after winning the championship, but team owner Jack Roush has stated Stenhouse and the No. 6 team will race the full schedule even it without corporate sponsorship.

4. Joey Logano/Denny Hamlin/Ryan Truex
- No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota - The dynamic duo of Hamlin and Logano are back again in 2012, and this time they will be joined by up-and-coming youngster Truex in a three-way split of the No. 20 Toyota. Under a similar schedule last season, this excellent Joe Gibbs Racing team hammered out two victories and 20 Top-10 finishes. The inconsistency of an ever-changing driver lineup is about the only weakness of this team. It is offset to a large degree by the skill of each of these drivers. The 19-year-old Truex performed admirably with four Top 10s in his six starts alone.

5. Elliott Sadler
- No. 2 Kevin Harvick Inc. Chevrolet - The veteran driver from Emporia, VA will be back for another round with KHI and the No. 2 Chevrolet team this season. Sadler had a very successful first campaign with this team in 2011. After 24 Top-10 finishes he finished runner-up in the championship standings to eventual champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The only thing that was missing from Sadler's resume last season was victories. He failed to visit victory lane despite leading nearly 200 laps for the season and racing up front with the leaders each week. Hopefully this is deficiency Sadler can improve on in the upcoming season and keep his status as championship contender well in place.

6. Kevin Harvick/Paul Menard/Brendan Gaughan
- No. 33 Kevin Harvick Inc. Chevrolet - Harvick will continue competing on a part-time basis in the Nationwide Series this season. He will be joined by Menard and new addition Gaughan behind the wheel of the strong No. 33 Chevrolet. Harvick made 10 starts for his team last year and was able to net five Top 5s and six Top 10s in those efforts. Clint Bowyer was the other majority driver of this car, and he posted similar numbers with five Top 5s and seven Top 10s. While the No. 33 Chevy went winless in 2011, it was still one of the stronger cars in the series. That shouldn't change much in 2012. Harvick, Menard and Gaughan are more than capable of piloting this car to some excellent finishes.

7. Trevor Bayne
- No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford - The young star of the Roush Fenway Racing stable will be back for another campaign in 2012. Bayne will again race in the No. 16 Ford and have the support of crew chief Chad Norris atop the team's war wagon. While he was most notable for winning the Daytona 500 last season, Bayne was also credited with winning his first career Nationwide Series race. He won late in the season at Texas Motor Speedway and it helped him to finish 11th in the final driver standings, despite missing five races with a medical issue. Bayne should up the ante again this season. We expect more wins and a higher total of Top 10s for the driver of the No. 16 Ford.

8. Austin Dillon
- No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet - Probably the most watched driver in the Nationwide Series this season will be Dillon. Primarily because the return of the No. 3 to the series will happen with this young Richard Childress Racing driver. In addition, Dillon is the grandson of car owner Childress and 2011 Camping World Truck Series champion. While he's going to be a rookie in 2012, Dillon won't race like one. His 32 Top-10 finishes in 52 truck series starts is as good a resume as any. With four victories and one championship to his credit, Dillon has done all he can do at the truck series level, and it's now time to move on and start carving up a reputation in the Nationwide Series.

9. Justin Allgaier
- No. 31 Turner Motorsports Chevrolet - Allgaier returns for his fourth full season of Nationwide Series action, and second season with the No. 31 team of Turner Motorsports. The 25-year-old picked up his second career victory and 17 Top 10s with this team last season en route to a career-best finish of third in the final driver standings. Allgaier has the talent and Turner will continue putting top notch cars under him in 2012. The sky is the limit for this young driver in the new season, and if anyone in the pre-season Top 10 has a chance to overachieve and surprise, it's Allgaier.

10. Sam Hornish Jr.
- No. 12 Penske Racing Dodge - The long-time Penske Racing star will return to the Nationwide Series this season, but this time it will be in a full-time capacity. This is good news for Hornish and also good news for team owner Roger Penske. Hornish was able to impress in his handful of starts in the No. 12 Dodge in 2011. He picked up six Top 10s in his 13 starts last season, and in addition Hornish collected his first career Nationwide Series win with a surprising victory late in the season at Phoenix. Hornish has the goods to compete for the championship if the glimpse we got of the talented driver last season comes to full maturity.

11. Carl Edwards/Unknown Drivers
- No. 60 Roush Fenway Racing Ford - The 2007 Nationwide Series champion may or may not return to the No. 60 Ford again in 2012. For the first time, Edwards will either race part-time or not at all in the Nationwide Series. After 37 victories and 173 Top 10s the Roush Fenway Racing star will reduce his efforts in this racing series. While an unnamed driver or drivers will get a bunch of starts in this seat, we still have to greatly respect the No. 60 Ford team for what they've accomplished and what they're capable of. If Edwards decides to race to any degree in 2012, it only bolsters the value of this team.

12. Cole Whitt
- No. 88 JR Motorsports Chevrolet - Whitt received the surprising off-season promotion from the Camping World Truck Series up to the Nationwide Series. When Aric Almirola exited the JR Motorsports No. 88 Chevy, it paved the way for youngster Whitt to make the move. He raced in only one full season at the truck series level, but posted eye-popping numbers. Whitt collected 11 Top 10s and finished ninth in the final driver standings of his rookie season. That performance was good enough to get him a shot at Rookie of the Year in the Nationwide Series. The No. 88 team should provide Whitt with some great cars, as evidenced by Almirola's 18 Top 10s last season. While it will be a learning process, the 20-year-old Whitt should surprise us a long the way a few times in 2012.

13. Kasey Kahne/Brad Sweet
- No. 38 Turner Motorsports Chevrolet - Sprint Cup Series star Kahne will return to the No. 38 team this season and make more starts that in several years in the Nationwide Series. Kahne is pegged for 15 starts with this strong race team. He managed six Top 10s in 12 starts with this race team last season. The balance of the schedule, 18 races, will be in the hands of youngster Sweet. The young Californian has only 19 combined starts between the Nationwide and truck series the last three seasons. Sweet has managed three Top 10s in those efforts, so the talent is clearly present. The veteran presence of crew chief Mike Shiplett will be a big asset to this young driver as he adjusts to a new racing series.

14. Brian Scott
- No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota - Scott had a mildly successful debut with Joe Gibbs Racing last season, so he's back for another year in the No. 11 Toyota. Scott posted career-best numbers with seven Top-10 finishes and an eighth-place finish in the final driver standings of 2011. While that may be impressive, it will take much more for Scott to leave a lasting impression in 2012. New sponsor Dollar General is on board, so all the elements to succeed are in place for the 23-year-old driver. Scott has a high bar to measure up to with the other two Joe Gibbs Racing teams dominating the series. Maybe some of that excellence will flow to the No. 11 Toyota this season.

15. Unknown Drivers
- No. 32 Turner Motorsports Chevrolet - At the time of these rankings the No. 32 team is sort of in limbo. Long-time sponsor Dollar General flew the coop to Joe Gibbs Racing and the team is shrouded in doubt unless ownership can come through with a new sponsor. This team sported a variety of drivers in 2011. Chief among them was Reed Sorenson. He won a race and picked up 18 Top 10s for this team in the last season, so it is a very good team. Assuming Turner Motorsports can find the funding, the driver will follow and the No. 32 Chevrolet team is easily a Top 15 team in these circumstances.

16. Danica Patrick
- No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet - After two seasons of part-time racing in the Nationwide Series, Patrick is ready to take on her first full-time slate in NASCAR's second series. She will again climb behind the wheel of JR Motorsports' strong No. 7 Chevy. Patrick showed vast improvement last season in her stock car racing skills. She claimed three Top 10s and led 14 laps in a 12-event schedule. We believe more improvement remains for this talented open-wheel driver. Patrick should easily crack the Top 15 in the driver standings this season and challenge the 10 Top 10 plateau.

17. Kenny Wallace
- No. 09 RAB Racing Toyota - Wallace was probably the biggest surprise of last season in the Nationwide Series. The veteran driver teamed with RAB Racing and crew chief Scott Zippadelli and had just an incredible season. The "Hermanator" posted 11 Top-10 finishes and ended up a surprising seventh in the final driver standings. It was Wallace's best campaign since 2005. The 47-year-old driver proved he still has plenty of gas in the tank. Assuming this team returns intact as planned, Wallace has more seasons like his last in store.

18. Ricky Carmichael/James Buescher/Mikey Kile/Nelson Piquet Jr.
- No. 30 Turner Motorsports Chevrolet - This Turner Motorsports team had a varied lineup of drivers in 2011 and likely will again this season. Piquet has agreed to at least seven starts for Turner in 2012 and they will likely be for the No. 30 Chevrolet team. Piquet showed real improvement in the truck series last season, so we're excited about the prospect of him competing in the Nationwide Series this season. Carmichael, Buescher and Kile are all young but gifted drivers. So no matter where the series is visiting, a very capable driver should be behind the wheel of this team's Chevy any given week.

19. Tayler Malsam
- No. 19 Tri Star Motorsports Toyota - The crossover driver from the Camping World Truck Series will take the plunge and race the full Nationwide Series schedule with TriStar Motorsports in 2012. This team had a quite successful campaign in 2011 with veteran Mike Bliss behind the wheel. Despite only logging one Top 10 for the entire season, he was able to manage a respectable 19.7 average finish. Malsam could take this team to even greater heights in the upcoming season. At 22-years-old, he has a lot of racing ahead of him, and Malsam's best is yet to come.

20. Kurt Busch
- No. 1 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet - While Busch is only slated to make a handful of starts this season, the impact of this team will be noticeable when Busch climbs behind the wheel. Team owner James Finch and Phoenix Racing has not determined the exact number of starts that the veteran driver will make in 2012, but our best guess is somewhere between 8-12 races. The No. 1 Chevrolet has a strong history with many drivers in the Nationwide Series, but Busch is by far the best wheel man to take control of this car. He's a threat to win races, especially on the larger ovals any weekend he climbs into the driver's seat.

21. Steve Wallace
- Unknown Team - Wallace finds himself a driver without a team. His father's Nationwide Series organization, Rusty Wallace Racing, has closed at least temporarily due to budget problems. Lack of operating cash for Wallace's No. 66 Toyota is the primary problem. Primary sponsor 5-Hour Energy moved onto Sprint Cup and driver Clint Bowyer, and that has placed RWR's future in serious jeopardy. Wallace has his father's blessing to pursue other racing opportunities in 2012, but openings are few and quality is scarce. We don't believe Wallace will sit out the season, but his chances of racing for a quality team are slim.

22. Joe Nemechek
- No. 87 NEMCO Motorsports Chevrolet - The 47-year-old owner/driver was one of the more pleasant surprises of last season. While Nemechek's Sprint Cup team struggled through another year of starting and parking, his Nationwide Series team was much more successful. Nemechek raced in 30 of the 34 events and even collected three Top 10s along the way. One of those was a brilliant third-place finish at Talladega in the spring. In total, the driver of the No. 87 Chevy cracked the Top 15 ten times in 2011. Not bad numbers for a guy considered by many to be past his prime. We expect more of the same for Nemechek in 2012.

23. Mike Wallace
- No. 01 JD Motorsports Chevrolet - The older brother of the more famous Rusty Wallace just continues to line up and race. The upcoming season should be no different. Wallace has settled in at the No. 01 team, and made this small operation more competitive than most would realize. The veteran driver raced in the complete schedule last season without missing a single race. Wallace collected two Top 10s throughout the year and logged a respectable 21.3 average finish for car owner Johnny Davis. While this team's plans have not been announced as of mid-January 2012, we do expect Wallace to return and continue the solid work he started with this team in 2009.

24. Michael Annett
- Unknown Team - Annett is suffering from the same team closure ills that his teammate Steve Wallace is dealing with. Annett was the pilot of the No. 62 Toyota for Rusty Wallace Racing, but with the team's temporary suspension of operations he finds himself without a driving gig in 2012. Annett posted career bests in 2011 with seven Top-10 finishes and a surprising ninth-place finish in the final driver standings. If things do pick back up at RWR, Wallace would get priority over Annett. That likely means that he has driven his last mile for car owner Rusty Wallace. Annett's fortunes and potential performance will largely rest on wherever he ends up by the time Daytona rolls around.

25. Timmy Hill
- No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Ford - The soon-to-be 19-year-old will run the full schedule with this small race team. He will have the benefit of veteran crew chief Doug Richert calling the shots for the No. 15 Ford for a second season in a row. Hill picked up a handful of Top-20 finishes for this team in his rookie season of 2011. That all worked out to an average finish of 24.2 and a respectable 17th-place finish in the driver standings. Hill should improve somewhat in the upcoming season, and we wouldn't rule out his first career Top-10 finish coming in 2012.

26. Jeremy Clements
- No. 51 Jeremy Clements Racing Chevrolet - The six-season veteran will build on a 70-race Nationwide Series resume this season. Clements started the full schedule for the first time in 2011 and he picked up a few Top 20's along the way. The six DNF's that he was saddled with were the only thing holding the No. 51 team back. If Clements can eliminate the DNF's improvement will come. He forged a respectable 23.6 average finish last season, and that's not all bad given the limited resources of this small race team.

27. Tony Stewart/Kevin Harvick
- No. 4 Kevin Harvick Inc. Chevrolet - This team only makes a handful of starts each season, but they're a world-beater when they take to the track. Stewart has won more than one restrictor-plate race over the last few seasons with the No. 4 team. Team owner Harvick has also had some success in this ride. We only look for this team to start in a handful of occasions in 2012, and most likely at just Daytona and Talladega. However, they will be a threat to win due to the immense talent of the this driver duo.

28. Dale Earnhardt Jr./Ron Fellows
- No. 5 JR Motorsports Chevrolet - This part-time team will feature owner Earnhardt in a few events, including the season-starting Daytona and spring Bristol events. Road racing ace Fellows will also compete in the No. 5 Chevrolet in select road course events. This duo combined for three Top-10 finishes in this car last season. While they didn't pick up any victories the Earnhardt-Fellows duo have in the past. So they certainly have top tier status the few times they're at the track.

29. Eric McClure
- No. 14 Tri Star Motorsports Chevrolet - McClure is up for his second season of action with Tri Star Motorsports. In 2011 he posted only four Top-20 finishes compared to five DNF's. Although McClure was generally running at the end of most races, the finishes were not up to expectations. The No. 14 team will return most of its pieces and parts, but new crew chief Wes Ward will be calling the shots in 2012. Hopefully this change in leadership will bear some results for McClure, who after 171 career starts in the Nationwide Series is still searching for his first Top-10 finish.

30. Donnie Neuenberger
- No. 81 MacDonald Motorsports Dodge - The veteran driver made just a scant four starts for this team in 2011 to very mixed results. The 20th-place finish that Neuenberger posted in the spring Talladega race was the high point of his season. He may have many more starts this season now that Blake Koch has moved on. Neuenberger has never made more than six starts in any of his 10 seasons in the Nationwide Series, so he could be in for some record action in 2012. As his track record shows, expect lots of ups-and-downs with the No. 81 MacDonald Motorsports team.

31. Derrike Cope
- No. 28 Jay Robinson Racing Chevrolet- The 17-season veteran made a full schedule with this team in 2011. After posting only one Top-20 finish and an average finish for the year of 27.1, Cope came in 20th in the final driver standings. The efforts for the upcoming season should be very similar. The No. 28 Jay Robinson Racing team is not a start-and-park team, but their clear lack of equipment and personnel make Cope an underperform driver.

32. Robert Richardson
- No. 23 R3 Motorsports Chevrolet - R3 Motorsports hasn't announced their plans for 2012 as of the date of this writing, but Richardson should be tabbed to return to the team in at least a part-time capacity. Scott Riggs, Dennis Setzer and an array of other drivers shared this rid e with Richardson. With 23 starts last season, Richardson should again be the majority driver of the team's Chevrolet. Considering that he only cracked the Top 20 once, but flirted with it several times, one can easily see that this small team is fighting an uphill battle against the stronger teams in the series.

33. Travis Pastrana
- No. 99 Diamond Waltrip Racing Toyota - An X-Games accident and broken ankle postponed Pastrana's Nationwide Series debut to this season. It was a difficult year in 2011 for the former Motocross star. Pastrana has made the commitment to focus on NASCAR from this point on and put his X-Games career behind him. He will make seven starts this season in the Nationwide Series as well as a full slate in the K&N Pro Series East division of NASCAR. The Michael Waltrip Racing organization is backing Pastrana's efforts. We expect the newcomer to learn a lot in his first season of racing at this level.

34. Johanna Long
- No. 70 ML Motorsports Chevrolet - The 19-year-old will make her Nationwide Series debut in 2012 after two seasons of racing in the Camping World Truck Series. Long picked up six Top-20 finishes in that series and she's also a winner of the prestigious 2010 Snowball Derby. She's been racing karts since the age of eight, so clearly Long is talented and experienced despite her age. Long will take on a 21-event schedule this season with the small ML Motorsports team, so the season should be filled with lessons learned.

35. Joey Gase
- No. 39 Go Green Racing Ford - The 18-year-old Cedar Rapids native got his first taste of Nationwide Series action in 2011. Gase made five starts for the No. 39 Go Green Racing team. Two of those efforts resulted in Top-25 finishes so the youngster can wheel a stock car around an oval. Gase and the No. 39 Ford team are expected to take on a full schedule in 2012. Considering the youth of this driver and relative newness of this team, the results are almost predictable. We expect Gase to have some flashes of brilliance, but also a lot of bumps and bruises to the ego.

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