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Drivers hungry to dethrone past champions this season

Posted: January 31, 2012 11:03 a.m.
Updated: February 1, 2012 5:00 a.m.

No other name besides Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart has appeared on the NASCAR Sprint Cup series championship trophy in the past seven years. With the sport’s top circuit set to kick off Feb. 26 with the Daytona 500, virtually every driver will be aiming to make sure that streak comes to an end.

The driver with perhaps the best shot at doing so will be Carl Edwards, driver of the No. 99 car for Roush-Fenway Racing. He actually led in points for 24 of the 36 weeks last year, only to see it slip away at the last race of the season. Edwards even finished the season tied for first in points, but lost to Stewart on a statistical tie-breaker. He also had the most top five finishes and top 10 finishes of any other driver last year. The only major change for his team will be a new primary sponsorship with Fastenal coming in to replace Aflac. All eyes will be on Edwards to get over the hump and win the title in 2012.

The 2010 runner-up in points, Denny Hamlin, will be aiming to get the bad taste out of his mouth after a disappointing 2011 season. Hamlin was close to winning the championship two season ago, but lost out after Johnson stormed to the top with a second-place finish in that year’s final race at Homestead-Miami. Despite the off-year in 2011, Hamlin finished ninth in the standings. But car owner Joe Gibbs decided to shake things up with Hamlin’s team, nabbing Tony Stewart’s championship winning crew chief Darian Grubb. The change might bring Hamlin back to his near championship winning form in 2010.

Kevin Harvick has finished third in the last two chases for the championship and will undoubtedly want to improve on those finishes.

Harvick fell out of the top five in the standings only once during last season after finishing 20th at Texas Motor Speedway last April. He also finished tied for second in wins last year, piling up four victories over the course of the season. Like Hamlin, he will be working with a new crew chief after car owner Richard Childress welcomed Shane Wilson from Clint Bowyer’s team.

Kyle Busch will also be gunning for the championship after finishing outside of the top 10 in points last season. But he’ll have to keep his temper in check if he ever wants to make a run for the trophy. Last year, Busch was fined $50,000 and placed on probation for what NASCAR deemed as “actions detrimental to stock car racing” after he intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday in a truck series race at Texas. If he can change his ways and be more consistent on the track, he may be able to take home his first championship trophy.

Other than Edwards, Kasey Kahne may have the most to prove as he makes the switch to Hendrick Motorsports after stints with Richard Petty Racing and Red Bull Racing. He will also be teammates with some of the best talent in the sport including Johnson, a five-time champion; Jeff Gordon, a four-time championship winner; and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

But despite every driver itching to win the top trophy, Stewart will be heading into 2012 as the reigning champion. He will be with a new crew chief in Steve Addington, who will be coming from Kurt Busch’s team, but Stewart is already a three-time champion. If he repeats as champion, he’ll add to a stellar ending to his 2011 season where he won the most races and became the first driver-owner since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 to win the championship. 

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