Tony Stewart thrilled NASCAR fans with an amazing comeback and championship run last season. What can he do for an encore?

Can Carl Edwards recover from the heartbreak of losing last year’s title and make another run?

And can five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson start another record-breaking streak a year after the end of his historic reign?

All are key questions as NASCAR’s top drivers pursue the Sprint Cup championship again in 2012.

Here’s a look at the contenders and pretenders: 

The Favorites

1. Carl Edwards – In terms of consistency, Edwards had the greatest season of his career last year with 19 top-five and 26 top-10 finishes and a record 4.9 average finish in the Chase. He lost the championship because he won just one race. If Edwards can maintain that consistency and win more races, he will be hard to beat.

2. Jimmie Johnson – So Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus had an off year last year, winning just two races and seeing their five-year championship reign end. So what? It had to end sometime, right? Now Johnson and Knaus enter this season well rested, rejuvenated and hungry as ever. Don’t be surprised if they win a sixth title and start another championship streak.

3. Tony Stewart – It’s hard to imagine anyone having a more amazing and improbable championship run than Stewart had last year. Winning five of 10 Chase races is almost incomprehensible, yet Stewart did it. But now he must regroup with a new crew chief in Steve Addington after the curious release of Darian Grubb. And don’t forget that Stewart struggled most of the year before his magical hot streak. He must be considered a serious contender, but whether he can do it again is anybody’s guess.

4. Kevin Harvick – Harvick has been a serious championship contender each of the past two seasons, but has fallen short each time, finishing third both years. He’s so determined to win a championship that he closed his Kevin Harvick Inc. team, merged it with Richard Childress Racing and demanded a new crew chief for this season. Harvick is hungry and determined, but RCR has not won a championship since 1994. Does he have what it takes to get him over the hump?

Top Contenders

1. Denny Hamlin – Hamlin was a head case last year after coming oh so close to the 2010 title. When his team got off to a slow start, he complained all season about his cars, his team and the direction of Joe Gibbs Racing. At one point, he needed a sports psychologist to get his mind right and at the end of the season he moved to Arizona to get away from it all. Now Hamlin returns with new crew chief Darian Grubb, who led Stewart to last year’s championship, and is as confident and optimistic as ever. Can he bounce back and finally put it all together?

2. Matt Kenseth – Kenseth, the 2003 champion, was in the hunt for another title himself last year until Brian Vickers took him out. Kenseth entered the seventh Chase race at Martinsville second in points. But after Vickers retaliated and wrecked him, he left Martinsville fifth in points. When Vickers wrecked him again the next week at Phoenix, Kenseth was done. He rebounded to finish fourth in the final standings, but Kenseth was a factor again all season, winning three races and coming on strong near the end of the season. With veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig, Kenseth should take up where he left off last season and be a strong challenger again.

3. Jeff Gordon – Gordon shook off three disappointing seasons by winning three races last year, but he was still too inconsistent to be a serious championship threat. He faded in the Chase for the third time in four years and finished eighth in the standings. But Gordon showed promise and great potential in his first year with crew chief Alan Gustafson and the duo believes they are building toward something great. Gordon, 40, went toe-to-toe with Johnson for the 2007 championship and believes his team is poised for another title run. He also derived a bit of extra incentive from watching 40-year-old Stewart win his third championship. Look for Gordon to be a more serious threat this year.

4. Kyle Busch – Busch has two major issues to overcome – his head and his team’s propensity to fade in the Chase. Busch had another fabulous regular season last year, winning four races and leading the standings after 26 races despite suffering such embarrassment as his infamous off-track speeding ticket and getting punched by team owner Richard Childress during a long-running feud with Harvick and RCR. But when the 10-race Chase began, Busch faded again. Finishes of 25th and 34th in the middle of the Chase buried him and he wound up finishing last among the 12 teams. His Chase performance wasn’t helped, of course, by him getting suspended for a race for intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday in a truck race at Texas. Once again, Busch looked like a championship contender for most of the year, but allowed his head and his emotions to get in the way. Can he finally overcome those issues and contend until the end?

 

Sleepers

1. Brad Keselowski – Even in the midst of his amazing summer hot streak last year, everyone still wondered if Keselowski was for real. He proved that he was during the Chase, scoring four top-five finishes to wind up fifth in the final standings. Keselowski made the Chase by winning three races and earning one of NASCAR’s two wild-card berths. Now he must prove it was no fluke and he is indeed for real. He will do it without the support of former teammate Kurt Busch, who was released by Penske Racing. Keselowski must now step up and be the lead driver at Penske. He showed last season that he has the talent to both win and contend.

2. Kasey Kahne – No one is faced with higher expectations this year than Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis, who have moved together to Hendrick Motorsports. Kahne has 12 career victories but has never been a serious championship contender while driving for a variety of mid-pack teams. Now big things are expected at Hendrick, where Mark Martin drove Kahne’s No. 5 car to five wins and second in points in 2009. Can Kahne contend in his first year with Hendrick?

Longshots

1. Greg Biffle – Biffle was a serious contender a few years ago, finishing second in points in 2005 and third in 2008. And he’s made the Chase in three of the past four years, but he struggled last season, going winless, missing the Chase and finishing 16th in the standings. Roush Fenway Racing has put a lot of effort and resources into Biffle’s team this year and he is expected to bounce back. With 16 career wins, including two in 2010, he could rebound quickly and be a factor again. With the way Edwards and Kenseth ran last season, don’t be surprised if Biffle is back in the mix.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. – The question with Earnhardt Jr. is not whether he can contend for the championship, but whether he can win a race. He hasn’t won since 2008, though he and crew chief Steve Letarte did return to the Chase last year. Earnhardt Jr.’s goal this season is to make the Chase again and snap that long winless streak. Until he wins again, he’s a ways away from being a serious championship contender.

3. Ryan Newman – Despite his boss’ championship run last year, Newman also is a long way from being a serious title threat. He won a race last year – his second with Stewart-Haas Racing – but stumbled badly in the Chase and wound up 10th in the standings. Newman, who has just four wins in the past seven years, has never finished higher than sixth in points. Stewart’s incredible run last year gives him hope, but Newman and his team has to step up big-time to be more than just a Chase contender. 

Chase Hopefuls

1. Clint Bowyer – Bowyer made the Chase three times with Richard Childress Racing. Now he tries to give Michael Waltrip Racing its first Chase berth.

2. AJ Allmendinger – Allmendinger has shown steady improvement and finished 15th in points with Richard Petty Motorsports last year. Now he joins Penske Racing, which has put at least one driver in the Chase in four of the past five years.

3. Kurt Busch – The 2004 champ made the Chase four times with Penske, but was released followed last season. Now he’s with Phoenix Racing, a single-car, mid-pack team expected to struggle. With Hendrick cars and engines, he could surprise.

4. Jeff Burton – A four-time Chase driver hopes to bounce back from the worst season of his career at RCR.

5. Paul Menard – He won a race in his first season with RCR, but stumbled to 17th in points.

6. Juan Pablo Montoya – He made the Chase in 2009, but has struggled the past two seasons. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has made wholesale changes and has a long way to go to be a contender again.

7. Jamie McMurray – Ditto. McMurray went from three wins in 2010 to 27th in points last season. It will take a big turnaround to be a Chase contender.

8. Marcos Ambrose – He won a race and made steady progress last year. Two wins and a wild card are not all that far-fetched.