2012 Sprint Cup Rankings: Ranking the Drivers

2012 Sprint Cup Rankings: Ranking the Drivers

This article is part of our NASCAR Draft Kit series.

1. Carl Edwards - For the third time in his Sprint Cup Series career, Edwards broke into the Top 3 of the final driver standings in 2011 but came away without a championship. In fact, it was one of the closest margins in NASCAR history with Tony Stewart edging Edwards for the Sprint Cup title on a tie-breaker. How much longer can the driver of the No. 99 Ford come this close to his first championship? We don't believe for much longer. Edwards was the class of the field last season with 19 Top-5 finishes and yet only one victory. The No. 99 Roush team returns intact in 2012, with Bob Osbourne still calling the shots from atop the war wagon. Edwards will be the driver to beat in the upcoming season.

2. Jimmie Johnson -
After a history-making five-year reign as Sprint Cup Series champion, Johnson's tenure as top dog came to an end at the end of last season. He finished sixth in the final driver standings with two wins and 21 Top 10s in a season only Johnson could call sub-par. Does this mean that the dynasty is over? Not by a long shot. As long as Rick Hendrick puts top notch equipment at the No. 48 team's disposal, as long as corporate giant Lowe's keeps putting their name on the car, and as long as crew chief Chad Knaus keeps calling the shots Johnson is a championship contender. Granted the field has caught up to the

1. Carl Edwards - For the third time in his Sprint Cup Series career, Edwards broke into the Top 3 of the final driver standings in 2011 but came away without a championship. In fact, it was one of the closest margins in NASCAR history with Tony Stewart edging Edwards for the Sprint Cup title on a tie-breaker. How much longer can the driver of the No. 99 Ford come this close to his first championship? We don't believe for much longer. Edwards was the class of the field last season with 19 Top-5 finishes and yet only one victory. The No. 99 Roush team returns intact in 2012, with Bob Osbourne still calling the shots from atop the war wagon. Edwards will be the driver to beat in the upcoming season.

2. Jimmie Johnson -
After a history-making five-year reign as Sprint Cup Series champion, Johnson's tenure as top dog came to an end at the end of last season. He finished sixth in the final driver standings with two wins and 21 Top 10s in a season only Johnson could call sub-par. Does this mean that the dynasty is over? Not by a long shot. As long as Rick Hendrick puts top notch equipment at the No. 48 team's disposal, as long as corporate giant Lowe's keeps putting their name on the car, and as long as crew chief Chad Knaus keeps calling the shots Johnson is a championship contender. Granted the field has caught up to the mega-star in recent seasons, Johnson's still the class of the series.

3. Tony Stewart -
The storybook season in 2011 for Stewart led to a third Sprint Cup Series championship. This one was probably the sweetest for the owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet. Stewart started last season's Chase for the Cup ninth overall but quickly charged to the point with five wins in the final 10 races. The historical performance was not only jaw-dropping but downright incredible given the level of competition in NASCAR's top racing series. Smoke will be hard pressed to equal that in the upcoming season, and we don't believe it's practical to expect him to. That said, Stewart has reestablished his superstar status in the sport and you should remember that on fantasy racing draft day.

4. Denny Hamlin -
Last season was a wash for Hamlin and the No. 11 Toyota team. The Joe Gibbs Racing star suffered through a miserable campaign that saw him post a career-low 14 Top-10 finishes and finish a lowly ninth in the overall driver standings. That's a big fall for a driver that was expected to challenge for last season's championship. Hamlin will get a fresh start in 2012. While most of his Joe Gibbs Racing team returns, the vital crew chief role has been changed. Gone is team veteran Mike Ford and now in charge is the newly arrived Darian Grubb. Grubb comes over from his championship season at Stewart Haas Racing with the No. 14 team. The duo should bond quickly and move towards rebounding Hamlin to championship contender status this season.

5. Kevin Harvick -
Even after a four-win season that saw him finish third in the final driver standings, Harvick gets a new crew chief in 2012. Shane Wilson moves over from the now defunct No. 33 team and takes charge for Harvick and the No. 29 Chevrolet this season. The momentum of the Richard Childress Racing star shouldn't be affected one bit. After two straight seasons in the Top 3 of the driver standings and seven total victories, Harvick has done a magnificent job of underscoring his name as a championship contender. The team is only missing a little late-season magic to actually win Harvick's first title. Could that happen in 2012? Certainly. We wouldn't rule out anything for this driver and team.

6. Jeff Gordon -
He's become like the invisible man in recent years, but we assure you Gordon is on the track and he is competing at a high level. Granted, he's not racing for championships like in years past but Gordon is winning races and posting many, many Top 10s. That trend should continue into 2012. The Hendrick Motorsports legend has won four races and collected a staggering 60 Top-10 finishes in the last three seasons. Each of those campaigns has seen him make the Chase and finish in the Top 10 of the driver standings. Inconsistency isn't in Gordon's vocabulary. From a fantasy racing perspective, it doesn't get much better than this.

7. Kyle Busch -
Busch saw another opportunity to win the Sprint Cup Series championship in 2011, but yet again it went by the wayside. He entered the Chase tied for first with Kevin Harvick, but by the time his meltdown at Fort Worth happened and weekend suspension from the No. 18 Toyota, Busch had tumbled through the standings. He finished a lowly 12th in the final standings after a four-win, 18 Top-10 finish campaign. Still, Busch is won of the most talented wheel-men in the series. The only thing that stands between him and a championship is his uncontrollable temper. Until that is fixed, he is both a liability to himself and to fantasy racing players brave enough to hang their hopes on him.

8. Matt Kenseth -
The Roush Fenway Racing star had one of his best seasons in recent memory in 2011. Kenseth racked up three wins, the most he's had since his four-win season in 2006. He also piled up 20 Top-10 finishes and an elite fourth-place finish in the final driver standings. We expect more of the same from the No. 17 team in the upcoming season. It's taken nearly three years for Kenseth to get over the loss of his longtime crew chief Robbie Reiser, but it appears he's finally meshed with Jimmy Fennig. The veteran driver should continue stacking up the Top 10s this season, and challenging the Top 5 of the driver standings by November.

9. Kasey Kahne -
Kahne's one-season layover with Red Bull Racing was quite successful last year. He piloted the No. 4 Toyota to one win and 15 Top-10 finishes. It was as good, if not better numbers as he posted in his two-prior seasons with Richard Petty Motorsports. Kahne now enters his ninth season in the Sprint Cup Series, and he moves to the best team he's ever raced for. Kahne will assume control of the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet in the upcoming year, and his longtime crew chief Kenny Francis will be along for the ride. This is an important aspect of the move. The duo has clicked from the beginning of their driver/crew chief relationship. This team situation spells a Chase berth and a couple of race wins for Kahne in 2012.

10. Brad Keselowski -
There was no hotter driver in the series from August to October last year than Keselowski. During that span he reeled off two of his three victories and eight Top-5 finishes. The late-season push was good enough to get Keselowski into his first Chase for the Cup field. While the driver of the No. 2 Dodge did cool off during the Chase, he did well enough to finish a stellar fifth in the final driver standings for easily his best season in NASCAR's top series. Keselowski is a star of the future, and we expect to see him in many more Chase fields and winner's circles. Now that he's no longer in Kurt Busch's shadow at Penske Racing, stardom will surely follow.

11. Ryan Newman -
Newman didn't end the 2011 season the way he would have liked, but all-in-all it was a pretty good year for the driver of the No. 39 SHR Chevrolet. For the second straight year he won a race (Loudon) and he posted 17 Top-10 finishes, his most in a season since 2003. With the team returning virtually intact from the last campaign, and SHR flying high on Tony Stewart's championship, we expect much of the same out of Newman in the new season. We expect consistency, several Top 10s, a possible win and a borderline candidate for a Chase berth.

12. Joey Logano -
Probably one of the biggest disappointments of last season was the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 team and Logano. The young driver has not lived up to the tremendous hype that ushered him into NASCAR's top series. A fresh start will be the theme for this driver and team in 2012. Gone is longtime No. 20 team crew chief Greg Zipadelli, and in is longtime JGR Nationwide Series crew chief Jason Ratcliff. He won several races and owner championships in that series for owner Joe Gibbs, and he has a lot of experience working with Logano. The change should pay immediate dividends and get Logano's stalling career back on track. He should return to the form of 2010 that saw him post 16 Top-10 finishes.

13. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
In many ways Earnhardt was the surprise driver of last season. He made his second Chase for the Cup field since joining Hendrick Motorsports, and Earnhardt finished a respectable seventh in the final driver standings which was his highest ranking since 2006. While he didn't end his mammoth winless streak (129 races) he did show enough signs of improvement for us to be optimistic about Earnhardt's near-future with the No. 88 Chevrolet team. The 36-year-old driver is fast becoming one of the Sprint Cup Series' elder statesmen. The urgency to win and compete for championships should be motivation enough for Earnhardt to build on these gains in 2012.

14. Greg Biffle -
While his teammates were busy contending for the championship in 2011, Biffle was mired in a season-long slump. The No. 16 team just couldn't gather any momentum last season and the veteran driver finished a very disappointing 16th in the final driver standings. It was Biffle's worst season since his rookie year of 2003 and his second winless season in two of the last three years. Things need to turn around for this driver and team, and owner Jack Roush hopefully initiated that at the end of last season by letting crew chief Greg Erwin go and appointing Matt Puccia to chief Biffle's team. The two picked up a couple poles and showed some signs of life late in 2011, so hopefully that momentum will build in the coming year.

15. A.J. Allmendinger -
We would love to rank Allmendinger higher in our pre-season standings but we have to be cautiously optimistic for the new Penske Racing driver. Allmendinger has collected 18 Top-10 finishes in the last two seasons while at Richard Petty Motorsports and finished 19th and 15th in the final driver standings in those seasons. He's displayed the kind of consistency that NASCAR drivers long for, but he's come up short in the victories column. The move to the No. 22 team would seem to be a major boost in Allmendinger's potential performance. After all, it is by a long stretch his best team situation since entering Cup in 2007. We may finally see Allmendinger win a race and make the Chase for the Cup in 2012.

16. Jeff Burton -
After a disastrous season, the worst since Burton started racing in the Sprint Cup Series in 1994, we were ready to write off the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing team and the veteran driver. However, Burton proved us wrong by picking up four Top 10s in the final five races of 2011. The Virginia native isn't quite ready for retirement just yet. In fact, if the No. 31 team can hold onto these gains and momentum heading into the new season, there is no reason to believe that Burton can't return to Top 15 driver form. Burton may have seen victory lane in NASCAR for the last time, but there's no reason to believe that several more Top 10s aren't in store for the Richard Childress Racing driver. Consistency has always been one of his greatest strengths.

17. Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer's shocking move to Michael Waltrip Racing and the new No. 15 Toyota team was one of the biggest free-agency stories of late last year. Bowyer left a RCR No. 33 team that had helped him to three Chase appearances and five victories in six seasons. A lot of question marks revolve around Bowyer and his new ride at MWR. He will be paired with crew chief Brian Pattie that quickly exited the door at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing after a couple lackluster seasons with Juan Pablo Montoya. The duo is hoping for a fresh start in 2012. While we like to think of the best for this talented driver, we have to remain realistic with regards to Bowyer. It will be a rebuilding season in the new year.

18. Paul Menard -
2011 ranked as a career-best season for Menard. His new No. 27 Richard Childress Racing team finished 17th in the driver standings and Menard posted career highs of four Top 5's and eight Top 10s. In addition, he also picked up his first career Sprint Cup Series victory, and it was a big one too. Menard outfoxed Jeff Gordon and won the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was a defining moment for the young RCR driver. What accomplishments are still to be made for Menard? Time will only tell, but we're convinced the future is very bright for this driver and team.

19. Kurt Busch -
Last season's meltdown at Homestead was a life-changing moment for Busch. It went beyond his profanity laced tirade at Dr. Jerry Punch and has completely changed the direction of his NASCAR career. After team owner Roger Penske and Busch agreed to part ways, the former champion landed with small race team Phoenix Racing and signed a one-year deal over Christmas week. The No. 51 Chevrolet team has its handicaps but at the same time has won on the Sprint Cup Series level and was a Top 30 team last season. Under Busch's guidance, it will likely be much better. But we don't expect to see the usual two or three victories and Chase berth we've grown accustomed to with this driver. It will be a season of returning to his racing roots for Busch.

20. Martin Truex Jr. -
The Michael Waltrip Racing star had another mixed-bag season in 2011. Truex missed the Chase again and finished 18th in the final driver standings. Yet he was able to collect 12 Top-10 finishes, four of those coming in the Chase for the Cup. Truex will look to build on last season and hope to challenge for the Chase field again in 2012. There are indications that Michael Waltrip Racing may be growing as a program and that's good news for the 31-year-old driver. With any luck, Truex could get back into the win column in the upcoming season and post his usual 11 to 14 Top-10 finishes.

21. Marcos Ambrose -
The Aussie is entering his fifth season of Sprint Cup Series racing in 2012. The likeable driver from Down Under has done nothing but grow and improve each season racing in NASCAR's top series. Ambrose is coming off a campaign that saw him win for the very first time in Cup (Watkins Glen) and pile up a career-best 12 Top-10 finishes. The 19th-place finish in the final driver standings fell short of expectations, but that will improve with time. Ambrose has grown quite comfortable in a short time with RPM No. 9 team and crew chief Todd Parrott. They've proven to be a very successful combination. The oval track results have come along nicely, and we expect that trend to continue for Ambrose.

22. Mark Martin -
After three seasons of racing with Hendrick Motorsports, and one near-miss at a championship in 2009, Martin returns to part-time racing in 2012. He will share the No. 55 Toyota of Michael Waltrip Racing with car owner Waltrip. Martin expects to make 25 starts, including the Daytona 500. While this move may be liberating for the veteran driver, and the pressure of racing for championships is off, we have to be realistic about this move.

23. Jamie McMurray -
On the heels of a 3-win 2010 season came a complete disaster in 2011. In fact, it was easily McMurray's worst season in his 10-year Sprint Cup Series career. His four Top-10 finishes and 27th-place finish in the driver standings were well below what is expected of the No. 1 Chevrolet team. We expect a slow rebound effect for McMurray in 2012. The gains will be small to be sure, but there is nowhere to go but up for this team. Kevin Manion has survived the train-wreck that was last season to return as crew chief, and he knows his leash will be short unless McMurray improves in the upcoming season.

24. Juan Pablo Montoya -
Montoya is in much the same position as his teammate Jamie McMurray this season. After making the Chase for the Cup in 2009, he's reeled off two sub-par seasons and last year's was particularly poor. Things at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing have hit an extreme low, but moves are in the works to right the ship. The No. 42 team crew chief Brian Pattie was released and hired to take his place is longtime Hendrick Motorsports hand Chris Heroy. Montoya could use the fresh start in 2012, but it will likely take some time for him to develop some chemistry with his new crew chief. We expect a slow start to the season and a gradual uphill climb for Montoya.

25. Aric Almirola -
The 27-year-old Florida native will return to the Sprint Cup Series full-time after a brief stint in the Nationwide Series last season. Almirola moves from the JR Motorsports No. 88 team and up to the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Ford team. This is a second chance of sorts for Almirola. He had a brief opportunity at the Cup level with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2008, making a dozen starts in the No. 8 Chevy. Almirola didn't leave a lasting impression then and was released. This time could be different. After a 18 Top 10s and a stellar fourth-place finish in the 2011 Nationwide Series driver standings, Almirola will get another shot at NASCAR's top level. We expect improvement, but are cautiously optimistic for this team in transition.

26. Regan Smith -
One of the more pleasant surprises of last season was Smith and his Furniture Row Racing team. The No. 78 team went to Darlington in May of last season the extreme underdog, but that didn't stop Smith from stealing the show. His upset victory (first in the Sprint Cup Series) over Carl Edwards that night was a great moment for both Smith and NASCAR. It showed that the underdog and small guy does win sometimes. Aside from Smith's David vs. Goliath impersonation last season, he managed to post a career-best five Top-10 finishes and end up a respectable 26th in the final driver standings. With the FRR team and Smith returning intact, we expect more of the same in 2012.

27. Bobby Labonte -
The JTG/Daugherty Racing driver is back for another campaign in 2012. He will pilot the No. 47 Toyota for this small team. The primary change over last season is at crew chief. Todd Berrier comes on board from Richard Childress Racing, and will hopefully be the boost to get this veteran driver back up in the standings. Labonte only posted two Top-10 finishes and a disappointing 29th-place spot in the final driver standings. The addition of this proven crew chief and Labonte's expertise should bump the JTG team a few spots in the standings in the upcoming season.

28. Brian Vickers -
The closure of Red Bull Racing has put this driver's status in limbo. Vickers is arguably the most talented and experienced driver in the free agent pool. Opportunities are few, so the chances that he will catch on with another team equivalent to the now-closed No. 83 Toyota team are slim. Depending on where the free agency winds carry him, that will largely dictate Vickers' ability to perform in 2012. He is a two-time winner in the Sprint Cup Series and sports a respectable 255 career starts. That makes Vickers a valuable commodity of a team that can put him in the driver's seat between now and the Daytona 500.

29. David Gilliland -
Front Row Motorsports has come a long way in a short period of time. Gilliland has been at the forefront of the efforts to boost this three-team stable. Last year he posted a career-best third-place in the Daytona 500 and piloted the No. 34 Ford the best finish in the standings ever for NASCAR owner Bob Jenkins at 30th overall. Even more improvement is expected for the new season. As was the case last year, Gilliland's success will start with the restrictor-plate race tracks, where he picked up both his Top 10s. With Peter Sospenzo returning at crew chief and continued technical support coming from Roush Fenway Racing, there should be some improvement for Gilliland.

30. David Ragan -
Increasingly, it is looking as though Ragan's future in NASCAR may be in the Nationwide Series and not the Sprint Cup Series. After failing to secure the No. 43 Ford of RPM, it looks like the former Roush Fenway Racing driver will end up with a full-time gig in the Nationwide Series in 2012. The latest rumors have Ragan going to the No. 88 Chevrolet team of JR Motorsports. This team finished in the Top 5 of last season's standings, so he should have a good season if not in the Sprint Cup Series. Should a ride with any money and backing open at the Cup level, Ragan could make a splash there as a free agent driver.

31. Casey Mears -
With Germain Racing entering their fourth season in Sprint Cup Series competition in 2012, the time to get into the Top 25 is now for Mears and this small race team. If the performance at the end of last season is any indication, it could be within the realm of possibility. Mears was able to achieve a respectable 28. 8 average finish for this team that had to start-and-park at times during the season. With Top-25 finishes in three of the last five races of last season, optimism is running pretty high during the short off-season. The No. 13 Toyota team could be a good deep sleeper pick in most fantasy racing formats.

32. Trevor Bayne -
What an incredible year 2011 was for Bayne. The young Roush Fenway Racing development driver won the Daytona 500 and gained overnight rock star status. Bayne spent much of the season trying to live up to immense expectations after that historic victory and fell short in several capacities. In fact, the Daytona 500 win was his only Top-10 finish in 17 starts last season in the No. 21 Ford. Bayne will be back for another part-time foray into NASCAR's top division in 2012. He will likely continue making starts for Wood Brothers Racing, although he might end up sharing that ride to a degree with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Bayne is talented but he is also very young. Without a doubt great things are ahead for this driver, but they won't materialize this season.

33. Danica Patrick -
The long-awaited Sprint Cup Series debut for Patrick is on tap in 2012. She signed a deal with Stewart Haas Racing at the end of last season to move her NASCAR experience from the Nationwide Series to NASCAR's top level. Patrick will pilot the No. 10 Chevrolet for 10 events starting with this season's Daytona 500. She will benefit from the guidance of championship crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who joins the team from Joe Gibbs Racing. Patrick showed tremendous improvement in stock cars of the Nationwide Series in 2011, but we believe this process will start over for her in the Cup car. She will have a lot of ups-and-downs in her first season, and lots of lessons learned for her eventual full-time move to this series.

34. Dave Blaney -
Blaney made 35 starts for team owner Tommy Baldwin last season. There were highs and lows to be sure, but in all it wasn't too bad of a campaign for the No. 35 team. The high water mark for Blaney was definitely both Talladega events where he flirted with victory lane in each race. The second race at the huge Alabama oval culminated in Blaney's only Top 10 of the season with a third-place effort. We expect more of the same for the TBR team in 2012. Blaney should make all the events and post good results on the larger ovals. The danger of the dreaded start-and-park is very low with this team.

35. Travis Kvapil -
The journeyman driver should be back for another season with the Front Row Motorsports' No. 38 team. He started 29 events for this team in 2011 with three DNQ's. What started as a promising season gradually eroded with the failures to qualify and Indianapolis and Chicago, and DNF's in five of Kvapil's last 11 races. Hopes are high for 2012 with this driver and team coming back intact. The 22nd-place finish in the season finale at Homestead certainly did a lot to boost morale and hopes for next season. However, the FRM team is experiencing growing pains and Kvapil will be limited by those.

36. David Reutimann -
When Michael Waltrip Racing signed Clint Bowyer at the end of last season, Reutimann became the odd-man-out at this Toyota Racing stable. Truth is he didn't do too much to endear himself to owner Michael Waltrip in his last season with the No. 00 team. Reutimann struggled to just three Top-10 finishes the entire season. That on the heels of two seasons where the veteran driver finished 16th and 18th in the driver standings and averaged 10 Top-10 finishes in those campaigns. To say that Reutimann's leash was pretty short is an understatement. Now the five-year veteran enters the free agent market and will attempt to find a decent Sprint Cup ride for 2012. Reutimann could end up sitting on the sidelines if a decent ride doesn't turn up.

37. J.J. Yeley -
It appears that Yeley will return for another part-time schedule with Front Row Motorsports. He made 16 starts in 18 attempts bouncing between the team's No. 55 and No. 38 Fords. The unsettled situation changing back and forth between teams on any given week was less than ideal from a performance standpoint. Yeley's best finish of the season was a 22nd-place finish at Charlotte in the Bank of America 500. That was one of only two Top-25 finishes on the season for the journeyman driver. Yeley is capable of better behind the wheel, but unless his team situation improves drastically he's in for more of the same in the coming year.

38. David Stremme -
Stremme made 18 starts last season with the upstart Inception Motorsports No. 30 team. He should return to this ride in 2012 and further build on the work of getting them inside the Top 35 of the standings. Without major sponsorship or Top 35 status, Stremme spent most of the season start-and-parking this Chevrolet. If the veteran driver can get them off on the right foot at Daytona in February this team could slowly transition into a more competitive single-car team.

39. Josh Wise -
As of late December Wise is the only driver eligible for rookie of the year in 2012. He will take on a full schedule in the small Gunselman Motorsports No. 37 Ford. Wise made four starts for this start-and-park team last season with little fanfare. The team's goal is to get into the Top 35 early and have Wise capture the ROTY in the upcoming season. Both would likely lead to more sponsorship money and better equipment for this team. If Wise stumbles early, then it will be a long 36-race season of start-and-parks.

40. Landon Cassill -
At the time of this article Cassill is still without a ride. He and former boss James Finch parted ways at the end of last season. Cassill made 29 of his 32 starts for the No. 51 team last season to little affect. While the team wasn't a start-and-park, Cassill was only able to manage a meager 28. 8 average finish for the season with this single-car team. With 48 career Sprint Cup starts and still a tender 21-years-old, Cassill still has some fair market value. He could drift back to the Nationwide Series in 2012, but if an opportunity were to become available Cassill is worth a look in more ways than one.

41. Austin Dillon -
The next big thing in NASCAR is likely to be Dillon. The 2011 Camping World Truck Series champion will likely make a part-time move into the Cup Series in the upcoming season, but just how much is not known at this time. What is known is that Dillon, grandson of team owner Richard Childress, will make the move into the Nationwide Series this season. There he will compete and be a prime contender for the 2012 Nationwide Series championship. Childress will almost certainly dust off the old No. 33 Chevy a few times for Dillon this season, and we expect to see some attention-grabbing results when he does.

42. Scott Speed -
Speed has been hired to help Leavine Family Racing and the No. 95 Ford team get off the ground floor in the Sprint Cup Series. This small race team formed in 2011 and competed in four events with driver David Starr to very mixed results. The team hopes to grow in 2012 and they've assigned Speed to a part-time schedule of 15 starts. The former Red Bull Racing driver has 89 career starts in NASCAR's top division, so that experience will come in very handy. From a fantasy racing perspective, Speed will have nearly zero value due to the part-time schedule and youth of this team.

43. Michael Waltrip -
Waltrip will again only race a very limited part-time schedule in 2012 as he is more of an owner now than a driver. He will share the No. 55 Toyota with veteran Mark Martin. Waltrip is slated to compete in five events while Martin will take the bulk with 25. Right now the owner/driver's slate includes three of the four restrictor-plate events (excluding the Daytona 500) and the lone event at Kentucky Speedway. The fifth event is yet to be named at this point. Waltrip earned one Top 10 (Talladega) in his three starts last season, so again his value will be limited to weekly lineup leagues and super speedways only.

44. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The 2011 Nationwide Series champion is set for a couple starts in 2012. The Roush Fenway Racing development driver made his Cup debut last season and finished a stunning 11th at Charlotte in the Coca-Cola 600. While most of this season will be preoccupied with Stenhouse defending his Nationwide Series championship, it shouldn't prevent him from making a couple starts in the No. 21 Ford of Wood Brothers Racing. While Stenhouse doesn't carry the hoopla and hype of an Austin Dillon, he may be every bit as talented behind the wheel.

45. Joe Nemechek -
The owner/driver of the No. 87 Toyota has been entrenched in a three-year battle to get his small race team established in the Sprint Cup Series. Nemechek has spent most of the last three seasons as a start-and-park driver. The inability to get this team into and stay in the Top 35 of the owner point standings is the primary reason for it's start-and-park status. Nemechek will wage this crusade again in 2012 and will likely spend another 36-race season prematurely parking this Toyota Camry.

46. Michael McDowell -
McDowell spent all of last season start-and-parking the No. 66 Toyota of the upstart HP Racing team. It was the fourth season that this journeyman driver has spent racing at NASCAR's top level, but easily the most unfulfilling. McDowell will likely return to this team next season and continue the battle of getting them into the Top 35. If McDowell can get off to the right start at Daytona, then the season could surprise, but it's more likely that a long road of DNF's are ahead for this young driver.

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Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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