It's time to get ready for the 2012 NASCAR season, so let's open up the closet and dust off the flags, as we get ready to wave them.
Who can we expect to have a big season and who might look like they're racing under yellow? Here's a preview of some of the names to keep track of as the pack races to start/finish to open up the season.
Checkered Flag Drivers
Drivers that should lead the pack this season.
Jimmie Johnson - For the first time in half a decade, Johnson is no longer the reigning champion. However, that didn't stop NASCAR Media from voting him as the top favorite to claim the Cup this season. He's always a contender and should bounce back into form this year.
Kyle Busch - Let me start with the obligatory statement that us NASCAR writers are required to use before discussing the No. 18 driver: "Say what you will about Kyle Busch, but..." the guy can drive. He finished first in points during last year's "regular" season. If, and that's a big "if," he can figure it out for the season's final 10 races, he has the skills to be champion.
Kevin Harvick - Harvick's finished third in the standings for the past two seasons, so if we're looking for someone to round out the top-three, why not "The Closer." Richard Childress Racing had a down year last season, but that didn't affect Harvick, who doesn't seem to be more than a pit stop away from a title.
Green Flag Drivers
Drivers that should pick up speed this season.
Brad Keselowski - Who breaks his ankle to start winning races!? A switch clicked with this guy in the middle of last season and he morphed into one of the series' best drivers at some point while he was getting fitted for a cast. He ended up finishing fifth in the Chase standings and looks like a legitimate contender.
Kasey Kahne - Kahne closed out the season with six finishes in the top-seven in the final seven races. He's long been hailed as one of those that will carry the torch for the next generation of NASCAR drivers, and his move to Hendrick Motorsports has heightened that to the point it could become a reality.
AJ Allmendinger - Dinger benefitted the most from Penske Racing parting ways with Kurt Busch, as he got to climb behind the wheel of a car that is perennially in the Chase. He seems to be a secret favorite for most fans looking to ride near the front of a bandwagon, and I suggest you jump on earlier than later if you're looking for a spot to sit on that wagon.
Yellow Flag Drivers
Drivers that should be cautious toward expectations.
Tony Stewart - The reigning champ had quite the run during the Chase last year, but nothing less than back-to-back championships will meet expectations for the No. 14 team. The change in crew chief will take a little while to get used to, and it shouldn't be understated that even Stewart didn't think he could compete after a tough "regular" season in 2011. Can he be a top-five finisher? Absolutely. Will he repeat as champ? No, probably not.
Carl Edwards - Edwards finished second in a nail-biter of a Chase in 2008 and followed it with an 11th-place finish in '09. Last year, he was as close as he could have been without winning and registered 19 top-fives and 26 top-10s. It's hard to expect him to repeat those numbers, and it's easy to see him falling off a little.
Jeff Gordon - It'd be great to see Gordon win one more championship, but he just doesn't seem to have the consistency he once showed. He won three races last year, but never really ascended to being a top contender. He's Jeff Gordon and could still pull out a great season, but it seems like he's given it the best run he could the past few seasons and just hasn't seemed to find the extra gear he needs.
Red Flag Drivers
Drivers that might not being moving anywhere this season.
Kurt Busch - The move, if you want to call it that, to Phoenix Racing won't do much for the older Busch brother. Sure, it's great for Phoenix Racing to have a former Cup champion behind the wheel, but it's a sign of just how far Busch has fallen out of favor. An appearance in the Chase is simply too much to ask for.
Clint Bowyer - I've always thought highly of Bowyer, but I don't see the move to Michael Waltrip Racing being the secret sauce for him. MWR has visions of him taking them the organization to the next level, but it's not something I'm going to believe unless I see it happen.
Ryan Newman - Some might think that Stewart's championship and the addition of Danica Patrick will springboard Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Newman into being an elite driver. I'm not buying it. I like Newman, but he's been kicking around the cutoff line for the Chase for several seasons now and I don't see him suddenly jumping to another level.
From the Spotter's Stand
Other drivers of note, since I limited the above to three drivers per flag.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - I, obviously, couldn't write a Sprint Cup Series preview without touching on the fans' favorite driver. Junior probably falls somewhere between a green and a yellow. I expect him to win a race; I expect him to make the Chase; but, his seventh-place finish in last year's Chase is about the best I see him finishing this season.
Matt Kenseth - Kenseth is a perennial darkhorse. You never notice him, but he's always hanging around. He finished fourth in 2011 and fifth in 2010, and I again expect him to be a mystery this year. I won't rule him out for a title, and yet I wouldn't be surprised if he struggled to make the Chase.
Greg Biffle - I'm not sure what flag to give Biffle. Part of me says green, because he should recover from a difficult 2011. The other part of me says yellow, because I don't really expect him to make any huge passes. I think he'll make it into the Chase. Let's leave it at that.
Denny Hamlin - He's the only Chaser that hasn't been mentioned yet, so I figured I'd point him out while I'm up in the spotter's stand. The addition of Stewart's championship-winning crew chief, Darian Grubb, should help him bounce back, but last year was pretty uninspiring and I don't think this is the year he gets back to being a Cup contender.
(pre-Chase finish in parenthesis)
1. Jimmie Johnson (3)
2. Kevin Harvick (2)
3. Carl Edwards (4)
4. Kyle Busch (1)
5. Tony Stewart (6)
6. Matt Kenseth (7)
7. Kasey Kahne (8)
8. Jeff Gordon (5)
9. Brad Keselowski (9)
10. Denny Hamlin (WC1)
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (10)
12. Greg Biffle (WC2)
13. AJ Allmendinger
14. Ryan Newman
15. Clint Bowyer
16. Jeff Burton
17. Joey Logano
18. Martin Truex Jr.
19. Jamie McMurray
20. Kurt Busch