Sprint Cup

10 NASCAR Sprint Cup Contenders and Pretenders

Drivers and teams to watch as the circuit hits its mid-summer classic in Daytona
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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese runs through the contenders and the pretenders for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.</p>
2012

Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway (please don’t call it the Pepsi 400 — Firecracker 400, however, will be accepted) marks the halfway point in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.

10 Tough Questions: Part 1

Part 1 in a five-part series addressing issues facing NASCAR in 2012

What was the reason for the rash of 2011 postseason crew chief changes on championship-caliber teams?

A perfect storm of circumstances and a desire to stay ahead of the competition at all costs.

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<p> <span>As the 2012 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running each day throughout the week.</span></p>

Will Danica Patrick’s success or failure in the Nationwide Series determine the long-term future for women in NASCAR? And how will she do, anyways?

Let's get this disclaimer out of the way first: Patrick is a fine driver who has paid her dues over the years and proven she can race and do so competitively in other forms of motorsports. That said, there’s no denying Danica is a marketing phenom. Her camp is a savvy bunch, and those smarts coupled with Patrick’s willingness to “play the game” have enabled her to obtain funding. Her brand brings in the bucks, aligning with a sponsor willing to exchange cash for sex appeal (despite some of it being tongue-in-cheek “comedy”).

That said, her level of success in the Nationwide Series may not have any effect on other women trying to get noticed. Why? Because regardless of their talent, they don’t have what Patrick does: Fame. Fame like most will never know. Patrick topped the list of Yahoo’s most searched athletes on the internet in 2011. Think about that. Think about the Sharapovas, Jeters, Tigers, Serenas and Kobes of the world. Danica bested them all. How does one ride those coattails?

That undying interest in the model/spokesperson/driver transcends NASCAR and, therefore, places her on a plane few in any sport can comprehend. At this point — and despite her success (or lack thereof) in NASCAR — Danica is more of a sports celebrity/marketing trailblazer than a stock car pioneer.

Well-funded and secure, Patrick will find her way in the Nationwide Series this year, post respectable showings (thanks in part to a financially unbalanced field) and move on to the Cup Series in 2013 where the true test lies. And that’s where the rubber meets the road, because no driver, regardless of financial backing, can enjoy a long and successful residence in the Cup Series without results.

There have been many women who have made a run at NASCAR glory and fallen well short — not that Danica will. But no matter what the racing future holds, let’s just not anoint her as some Jackie Robinson type, opening doors in a sport that, fairly or unfairly, has been pegged as a chauvinistic Boys Club over the years.


Visit AthlonSports.com each day throughout the month of February for exclusive preseason coverage of the 2012 NASCAR season.
 

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2012
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NASCAR Horsepower Rankings

Edwards, Stewart square off in season finale

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Tony Stewart  It’s tough to rank Stewart ahead of Carl Edwards or vise versa, but Smoke gets the edge here because he’s throwing wins on the board — and that’s fun to watch.

2. Carl Edwards  His consistency — highlighted by consecutive runner-up showings — is unquestioned. Edwards won the season finale in Homestead last season. Winning a second straight would clinch the title.

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<p> It's a two-man race as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its final stop of the season. Predictably, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart top Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>

8. Denny Hamlin  When asked whether his sports psychologist might help teammate Kyle Busch he said, “We both have screws loose — it’s just that some are tighter than others. And they’re in different places.” That’s deep.

9. Clint Bowyer  Bowyer is finishing his tenure at Richard Childress Racing strong with six top 10s in the nine Chase races thus far. Credit driver and team for hanging tough.

10. Greg Biffle  Has averaged a 14th-place finish throughout the Chase which, incidentally, is probably where he’ll finish in the point standings if Kasey Kahne keeps coming on.

11. Jeff Gordon  Looked as out to lunch at Phoenix as we’ve seen all year. Experimenting, maybe?

12. AJ Allmendinger  Allmendinger will be the next driver to score his first Cup victory. Hell, it could come this weekend.

13. Marcos Ambrose  Between Allmendinger and Ambrose, it’s obvious they’re doing something right at RPM (or they’re not tinkering with new setups as much as other teams are).

14. Kyle Busch  Official reason for Kyle’s DNF at Phoenix: Karma.

15. Martin Truex Jr.  If this team could ever learn to put an entire race together they’d be dangerous.

Just off the lead pack: Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Ryan Newman
 

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Kansas Speedway

Previewing NASCAR's Hollywood Casino 400

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

Race: Hollywood Casino 400
Location: Kansas City, Kan.
TV: ESPN (2:00 p.m. EST)
June Winner: Brad Keselowski

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<p> Athlon Sports previews this weekend's Hollywood Casino 400 from Kansas Speedway.</p>

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Do Not Doubt Jimmie Johson

Despite poor Chase start, history shows Johnson still the driver to beat

by Mike Neff

For the last four years on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, the mantra has been the same at the start of the Chase: Jimmie Johnson doesn’t have another title in him this season. Or crew chief Chad Knaus is behind the times. Or this will be the closest Chase ever. Or, quite simply, Johnson’s luck will run out. Yet somehow in each of the last four seasons, Johnson and Knaus have mastered the last 10 races better than the rest of the Chase field.

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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Mike Neff warns that, despite Jimmie Johnson's slow start to NASCAR's Chase, he should never be counted out. And history proves him to be correct.</p>

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Two'fer Tony Stewart

Stewart wins second straight, assumes NASCAR Chase lead

by Matt Taliaferro

Most had written off Tony Stewart as a legitimate 2011 championship contender — including himself, if you believed his words in the midst of a 27th-, ninth- and 28th-place string just six weeks ago. After all, his No. 14 team was winless through NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, averaging a pedestrian 14.2-place finish with only three top 5s.

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<p> Tony Stewart won his second straight race to lead off NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup with a win in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.</p>

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New Hampshire Motor Speedway

Preview NASCAR's Sylvania 300

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

Race: Sylvania 300
Location: Loudon, N.H.
TV: ESPN (2:00 p.m. EST)
2010 Winners: Jimmie Johnson (June); Clint Bowyer (Sept.)
July Winner: Ryan Newman

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<p> Athlon Sports previews the second race of NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup, Sunday's Sylvania 300 from New Hampshire Motor Speedway.</p>

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Michigan International Speedway

Previewing the Pure Michigan 400

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

Race: Pure Michigan 400
Location: Brooklyn, Mich.
When: Sunday, Aug. 21
TV: ESPN (1:00 p.m. EST)

2010 Winners: Denny Hamlin (June), Kevin Harvick (Aug.)
June 2011 Winner: Denny Hamlin

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<p> Athlon Sports previews this Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway.</p>

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Horsepower Rankings

Pocono Rain Doesn't Dampen Spirited Finish

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Kyle Busch  For the second race in a row, Busch overcame issues that hindered his early-race gains to post a top-10 finish. The runner-up at Pocono finds him just 11 points out of the points lead.

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<p> Edwards is signed, Johnson is gearing up for his run and Gordon is, well, Gordon. But Kyle Busch is still the man to beat in Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>

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