In 2011, the Sprint Cup Series enjoyed a season in which many drivers went to victory lane, including five who scored their first-ever Cup victories, beginning with Trevor Bayne’s improbable, inspiring Daytona 500 win a year ago. First-time winners are good for the sport. There is never anything contrived about a first victory celebration, and if fans don’t like someone winning too much, well then, a first timer is the complete opposite of that. There is something special about watching a first-time celebration: the tears, the hugs and high-fives, the sweet sips of champagne, the look of awe and pride on that driver’s face no matter what his age, no matter where and on what level he’s won before; _this_ one is special.
Will we see any first-time celebrations in 2012? While it’s unlikely that fans will see five drivers’ first celebrations, it’s safe to say that they can expect to see at least one. But while we may not experience the number of first-time race winners this year, it’s looking better than ever for a group of drivers looking to get something even bigger: their first Cup championship. That would be a great boost for the series; the series last crowned a first-time champ in 2006, when Jimmie Johnson had that first-time feeling and nobody, not even Johnson, expected the run he’d have for the next four years. The man to dethrone Johnson was also the last man to win a title before Johnson’s streak; Tony Stewart’s 2011 title was his third. So, is there room at the top for a newbie?
First, there are three drivers poised to drive into victory lane for the first time this year if things go right.
*AJ Allmendinger* should be a lock to win sometime this year, and make no mistake, it could happen as soon as Sunday afternoon. Allmendinger knocked on the door to victory lane a few times last year with Richard Petty Motorsports, and as a result, was tapped to replace Kurt Busch in the No. 22 when the former series champion was let go after repeated tirades on the radio and with the media. Allmendinger has definitely made a step up in terms of equipment, and should make the step to the top of the podium this year, probably more than once. In Allmendinger’s case, it will be a bigger surprise if he doesn’t win than if he does.
*Dave Blaney* Blaney is definitely a longshot, but don’t count him out of a restrictor plate victory if the stars align right. Blaney nearly pulled off an improbable win at Talladega before a blown engine ended his race just laps shy of the finish. It will be an uphill battle for the 49-year-old former USAC and World of Outlaws champion, but he proved last year that he’s capable of running up front when he has competitive equipment, which he should at the plate tracks.
*Aric Almirola* If Almirola does find victory lane, he’ll owe a small part of that to Allmendinger and new teammate Marcos Ambrose, who helped Richard Petty Motorsports improve drastically in 2011. The team has a road course win under its belt thanks to Ambrose, and both Ambrose and Allmendinger were solid top 15 threats most weeks, coming close to victory on several occasions. Thanks to them, the RPM equipment is capable of some good finishes…and maybe even a win, if Almirola plays his cards just right.
Meanwhile, while these three are vying for their first wins, a handful of drivers who have already scaled that particular mountain are now trying to summit the Mount Everest of NASCAR and take home the silver Sprint Cup trophy for the first time. Several will make the Chase, but a few are real threats to become the first first-time champion in half a dozen years.
*Kevin Harvick* Harvick has knocked on the door of the Cup the last two years, only to fall just short in the end. So what’s the difference now? Lack of distraction. Harvick and his wife DeLana decided to sell their Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series teams after several outstanding seasons to focus on starting a family. That means that all of Harvick’s attention is focused squarely on the big prize this year, and with a son on the way, you can bet Harvick wants this more than ever. Can the driver known as “The Closer” for his spectacular late race charges put on a late season charge all the way to the head table in Vegas? That remains to be seen, but Harvick is more equipped than ever to win it all.
*Carl Edwards* Had Edwards finished just one position higher in any Chase race in 2011, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Edwards may be known as an aggressive racer in most circumstances, but he was just a little too conservative during the Chase last year, while Tony Stewart let it all hang out every week, and in the end it cost Edwards the title. But if Edwards learns from last year’s mistakes, he’ll be a formidable contender. One strike against him is that in recent years, the second-place points finisher hasn’t had a great follow-up year, perhaps because the Chase forced their concentration away from the next season, leaving them slightly behind in a sport where slightly might as well be a mile. The No. 99 will need to get out of the box running this year to avoid that post-runner-up slump.
*Kyle Busch* There is no denying that Busch is among the top drivers in terms of pure talent. The problem in past years has been that Busch is also his own worst enemy, especially when it comes time for the Chase. Busch is easily talented enough to win a title, but to do so he needs to avoid controversy and the mental mistakes that come from being aggressive at the wrong time or toward the wrong person. Busch’s past Chase performances have been adversely affected by conflict: with other drivers, with his own team, with himself. Busch needs to drive smarter to win it all, but when he is finally able to find the combination of patience and forward thinking that compliments his talent, he’ll be an immediate contender. It’s hard to see Busch completing his career without a title, but he needs to grow up and race smarter, especially down the stretch.
*Denny Hamlin* After nearly winning it all in 2010, Hamlin barely made a blip on the title radar in 2011. Whether his team had the wind completely taken out of its sails after losing the ’10 title to Jimmie Johnson in the final week, or whether that Chase battle put them behind for 2011, the No. 11 team was clearly not firing on all cylinders. But with champion crew chief Darian Grubb on board this year, Hamlin and Co. should be able to put that behind them. Grubb has won with every driver he has been paired with, including Tony Stewart’s series championship run last year, and also a Daytona 500 championship with Jimmie Johnson and a Coca-Cola 600 victory with Casey Mears. Grubb’s addition has the potential to add an immediate spark to Hamlin’s team, and if they can nab a won or two early and build some of the confidence they lost last year, they could work some magic come Chase time.
With the 2012 season about to begin in earnest, there are several drivers poised to make this year one where they meet an important milestone, whether that’s the first trip to victory lane, or the first time a driver will hear the words “Sprint Cup Champion” before his name. Either way, there is just something special about seeing a driver triumph for the very first time.
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