5 wins/ 61 top 10s/10 DNFs
1. Jimmie Johnson: The core crew remains intact despite speculation that missing out on a sixth Cup might break it up. If they miss again in December, it could be a different story.
2. Jeff Gordon: No longer Wonder Boy, he's still a legit top-5 contender 20 years after his Cup debut.
4. Kasey Kahne: Ol' Blue Eyes races for a financially stable team for the first time since 2007, which means no excuses for missing the Chase this year.
Where They're Going: When Mark Martin joined Hendrick in 2009, there was talk of the "best driver lineup ever." But with Kahne in the 5 car, the team is even better. The driver brought along crew chief Kenny Francis after they pulled off the impossible -- winning a race and posting seven top 10s in the final eight races of Red Bull's lame-duck existence. "They're already bringing a lot of new ideas to the table," says Gordon, who shares a building with the 5 team.
The much-hyped shop and crew swaps that touched all four HMS teams in 2011 helped elevate the performance of the 88 and 24 cars, but Earnhardt still didn't win a race -- and of course Johnson didn't win the Cup. "It sounds silly to say you're disappointed with putting three cars in the Chase, winning five races and getting Jeff Gordon into third place all time in wins," says team owner Rick Hendrick. "But this place is full of very angry, very motivated people right now. I like that. It means we're still hungry."
RICHARD CHILDRESS RACING
6 wins/ 48 top 10s/ 12 DNFs
1. Kevin Harvick: Carrying on the RCR tradition of crew chief swaps, Happy reunites with Shane Wilson, with whom he won the 2006 NNS title.
2. Jeff Burton: He says he's still pissed about a dismal '11, but the addition of Drew Blickensderfer, who won with David Ragan last year, has him smiling.
3. Paul Menard: After a late-summer Brickyard win, he faded to 17th in points. RCR's cutback to three Cup teams could help him rebound.
Where They're Going: RCR's accordion act continues. In 2009, the team expanded to four Cup cars and put none in the Chase. In 2010, it cut back to three, and each qualified for the postseason. Last year, RCR went back to four and put three in Victory Lane, but only Harvick made the Chase. This season it's back to three, but don't call it contraction. "Did you see that giant new building Richard built?" Harvick scoffs. "We're fielding nine full-time teams across all three series. This is the boomingest contraction I've ever seen."
The building is the new home of what used to be Kevin Harvick Inc., which the driver sold to Childress to focus on family. Harvick hopes fewer distractions will help him improve on third place, where he's finished the past two seasons. "I've spent more time at the shop this winter than in a long time," he says.
ROUSH FENWAY RACING
5 wins/ 64 top 10s/ 10 DNFs
1. Carl Edwards: Cuz would like to remind you that though he didn't win the Cup, he tied for first in points. Still, he can't get away with another one-win campaign.
2. Matt Kenseth: His 2003 Cup romp inspired the Chase format, and he's made seven out of eight.
3. Greg Biffle: Missed opportunities in the spring cost the Biff a title shot, but the midsummer promotion of crew chief Matt Pucia helped stabilize the team.
Where They're Going: Blame the economy. Despite putting three of its four cars in Victory Lane and two drivers -- Edwards and Kenseth -- in the top four in points, the stock car superpower couldn't find the cash to run the legendary 6 car on a full-time basis. And the team still hasn't fully sold the 17 car driven by former Cup champ Kenseth, who won three races last season.
Then there's the little task of rebounding from the heartbreak of losing the title in a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart. "It has not been easy to get past that," admits competition director Robbie Reiser. "But the moment Carl walks into the garage, you realize he's focused. He looks at you like, 'Stop moping and we'll take care of business.'?"
6 wins/ 36 top 10s/ 1 DNF
1. Tony Stewart: He had three top 5's in 26 pre-Chase races and six in 10 Chase races. No one is picking him to repeat, and that's just how he likes it.
2. Ryan Newman: Finally got off to a fast start in '11, but his usual March slump came in October. A season with no slump would be nice.
3. Danica Patrick: The full-time Nationwide driver will run at least 10 Cup races, starting at Daytona. Her learning curve will be steep, but the money she brings in helps the whole team.
Where They're Going: One year ago, Stewart grew increasingly irritated with questions about SHR's dependence on Hendrick Motorsports, suggesting it couldn't be a title contender as long as the team received cars and engines from a chief competitor. So in January, the newly crowned champ wore a Cheshire cat grin as he hit the stage for his preseason news conference to the Heavy's "How You Like Me Now?"
In typical Smoke style, he's going his own way, firing crew chief Darian Grubb despite winning the championship. Enter shot-caller Steve Addington, who spent most of his career with the Busch brothers, and competition director Greg Zipadelli, who was Stewart's crew chief for two Cup titles at Joe Gibbs Racing. "I think we can do away with the 'Tony is dependent on Hendrick'
JOE GIBBS RACING
5 wins/ 38 top 10s/ 9 DNFs
1. Denny Hamlin: Longtime crew chief Mike Ford is out. Darian Grubb, who led Stewart to the Cup, is in.
2. Kyle Busch: Another year, another Chase implosion. Until Shrub figures out how to finish, he's a pretender.
3. Joey Logano: Plus: New crew chief Jason Ratcliff won two titles with JGR's Nationwide team. Minus: JoLo's still stung by talk that Gibbs wanted to replace him with Carl Edwards.
Where They're Going: Hamlin, the '10 Cup runner-up, and Busch, the second-winningest NASCAR driver of the past five years, were supposed to be title contenders. Logano, in his third full year, was supposed to have a breakout season. They finished 9th, 12th and 24th in points, and Logano missed the Chase for the third year in a row. Now two of the three have new crew chiefs, and everyone has new engines. JGR is going out of house for power plants from California-based Toyota Racing Development. "We had 12 engine failures last year," Hamlin says. "We had to change engines after practice, and that meant having to start races last. I don't care how confident you are, that wears on you. An improvement there might be enough to get us back where we should be."
5 wins/ 30 top 10s/ 4 DNFs
1. Brad Keselowski: Last year's dark horse looks comfortable as Penske's new top gun.
Where They're Going: Despite two wins and a Chase berth, Kurt Busch is out, booted because of his ongoing attitude problem. In is Allmendinger, who nearly took Richard Petty's once-powerful 43 car into the postseason. "Talking with AJ and Brad is like talking to some of my old Indianapolis buddies," says Penske, whose teams have won 15 Indy 500s. "There's an energy and enthusiasm there. And their focus is on all the right things. We needed more of that around here."
MICHAEL WALTRIP RACING
0 wins/ 16 top 10s/ 6 DNFs
1. Clint Bowyer: RCR defector becomes MWR's prime driver. Can he replicate his previous success with second-tier gear?
2. Matrin Truex Jr.: His lone Cup win was nearly five years ago, and he's headed into a contract year.
3. Mark Martin: The 53-year-old vet will make 25 starts in the 55 car, with boss Michael Waltrip running five more.
Where They're Going: A salary dispute with Richard Childress left Bowyer feeling unwanted. Crew chief Brian Pattie's patience with testy Juan Pablo Montoya had grown thin at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. So they were both more than receptive to Waltrip's red-carpet recruiting. In five full-time seasons, MWR has scored two wins and never put a driver into the Chase. Over that same stretch, Bowyer won five races and made the postseason three times.
EARNHARDT GANASSI RACING
0 wins/ 12 top 10s/ 5 DNFs
1. Juan Pablo Montoya: In his sixth Cup season, the question remains: Will he ever win on an oval?
2. Jamie McMurray: Three wins in '10 saved his career. A 27th-place points finish in '11 put it back in peril.
Where They're Going: During EGR's preseason media visit, team owner Chip Ganassi threw around the word "pathetic" so much that someone suggested turning it into a drinking game. Two years ago his cars scored four wins; last year they barely scrounged up four top 5's. Though most of EGR's longtime competition management has been replaced, a repeat of 2011 might bring changes in the cockpit too.
RICHARD PETTY MOTORSPORTS
1 win/ 22 top 10s/ 2 DNFs
Where They're Going: The only certainty about RPM is sponsorship uncertainty. Despite solid second-half efforts by both cars, the King's off-season scramble for backing cost him AJ Allmendinger. The King passed on Kurt Busch because "sponsors don't want him right now" and signed Almirola, who finished fourth in the NNS standings driving for Junior.
FURNITURE ROW RACING
1 win/ 5 top 10s/ 4 DNFs
1. Regan Smith: The Southern 500 champ searches for Chase-worthy consistency. Tech support from RCR helps. Being based in Denver does not.
Where They're Going: FRR hopes to expand to two cars, but its more immediate concern will be retaining Smith, whose contract expires at season's end. His win at Darlington and only one mechanically caused DNF point to a solid foundation, but the team may need to make the leap into at least the top 20 to fight off opponents looking to poach its driver.
0 wins/ 2 top 10s/ 4 DNFs
1. Bobby Labonte: The 2000 Cup champ couldn't revive RPM or Hall of Fame Racing. Clock's ticking.
Where They're Going: The 47 car has moved out of Michael Waltrip Racing and into its own shop run by new crew chief/GM Todd Berrier, who moves over from RCR, and renowned engineer Laerte Zatta (lured from Toyota Racing Development). "We have the people and the sponsorship," says co-owner Brad Daugherty. "We're running out of excuses not to perform."
FRONT ROW MOTORSPORTS
0 wins/ 2 top 10s/ 24 DNFs
1. David Ragan: He was the odd man out when Roush Fenway couldn't get sponsorship for four cars. Imagine if he hadn't blown that Daytona 500 restart.
2. David Gilliland: He nearly won the Daytona 500, then vanished. Running for cash and not points
will do that.
Where They're Going: Front Row's dream of graduating from start-and-park specialists to legit race team received a huge boost in landing Ragan, who earned a win in 2011 and finished a career-best 13th in points (2008) in Roush Fenway's 6 car. Says Ragan: "Are we a Cup contender? No. But this car
0 wins/ 0 top 10s/ 3 DNFs
1. Kurt Busch: Terrell Owens called. He said, "Nice job."
Where They're Going: After being dumped by Penske Racing and passed over by Richard Petty Motorsports, Busch landed with Phoenix, a part-time organization with fewer than 20 employees. The 51 car
is a legit upset candidate at Daytona, but the grind of the regular season will quickly take its toll on Phoenix's limited resources and Busch's infamous short temper.
WOOD BROTHERS RACING
1 win/ 1 top 10/ 3 DNFs
1. Trevor Bayne: The Daytona 500 champ hopes to run 16 to 18 races in the famous 21 car.
Where They're Going: The Woods continue to stick to their old-school, part-time schedule. If sponsorship can be found for what has essentially become a Roush Fenway satellite team, they might expand their plans. And 20-year-old Bayne, now fully recovered from Lyme disease, wants to expand his rep beyond restrictor-plate ace.