The 2012 NASCAR Season begins today with the 54th running of the Daytona 500 ... "The Great American Race."
Last season's version was a stunner as 20-year-old rookie and Cup part-timer Trevor Bayne bested the field in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford. Who will make their way to the Winner's Circle at the 2.5 mile super speedway this year? We will shortly find out. Here are the Top 20 drivers rankings for 2012.
1. Jimmie Johnson No.48 Hendrick Chevy - He was second in top five finishes, top 10s and third in average finish in 2011. Awesome numbers. But, he must improve on making just two trips to Victory Lane. Still the best on the Cup circuit
2. Carl Edwards No. 99 Roush/Fenway Ford - Losing tie break for the title to Tony Stewart last year leaves Edwards foaming at the mouth. He was awesome in 2011, with Circuit best 19 Top 5s. Do you know no runner-up has won the title the next year?
3. Kevin Harvick No.29 Childress Chevy - No one has been more consistent over the last two years than Harvick. Always a title contender, has 45 Top 10's the last two seasons.
4. Tony Stewart No.14 Stewart Haas Chevy - Defending Champ called out his own team prior to the Chase, and all delivered. Will his marriage with Steve Addington work?
5. Kyle Busch No.18 Gibbs Toyota - No Truck schedule can only bolster his stamina for the Cup season. He may be the best talent in the entire circuit. Wouldn't be surprised if he is holding the circuit trophy at Homestead.
6. Brad Keselowski No. 2 Penske Dodge - Became a Chase diver in the second half of '11 with only one finish outside the Top 20 in the final 17 races. Can he follow it up in '12? Bet smart money on yes.
7. Jeff Gordon No. 24 Hendrick Chevy - Was a popular top pick entering Chase but didn't come through. The soon-to-retire four-time Champ will have another solid run in '12.
8. Matt Kenseth No. 17 Roush/Fenway Ford - Kenseth doesn't get the respect he deserves. Simply put, CONSISTENT.
9. Denny Hamlin No. 11 Gibbs Toyota - Awful '11 after runner-up finish in 2010. Bounce-back season will include multiple wins and a spot in the Chase.
10. Kasey Kahne No. 5 Hendrick Chevy - No one is looking forward to this year more than Kahne. Move to Hendrick will pay immediate dividends. Could even challenge for the title.
11. Greg Biffle No. 16 Roush/Fenway Ford - '11 was his worst since 2004. Only place to go is up.
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. No. 88 Hendrick Chevy - Worked well with crew chief Steve Latarte. Will finally get off the snide with a win.
13. Ryan Newman No. 39 Stewart-Hass Chevy - King of Qualifying, the "Rocketman" has gone 54 races without a DNF (Did Not Finish)
14. A.J. Allmendinger No. 22 Penske Dodge - Trendy Sleeper pick in '12 after move to Penske Racing. Has never had this type of quality equipment in his career.
15. Clint Bowyer No. 15 Waltrip Racing - Move to Waltrip Racing from Childress Racing cannot be exciting. Can he persevere?
16. Marcus Ambrose No.9 Petty Motorsports Ford - Had first Cup win and career high top 5 and 10 finishes in '11. Momentum and confidence are on the rise.
17. Martin Truex Jr. No. 56 Waltrip Racing - Has twice as many DNF's (16) than Top 5 finishes (8) in the last three years. Partnership with Gibbs Racing should help.
18. Jeff Burton No.31 Childress Chevy - On the downside of his successful career, can Burton make one last push for a Chase berth?
19. Joey Logano No.20 Gibbs Dodge - Once thought of as an up and comer, Logano needs any luck at all to keep this ride.
20. Juan Pablo Montoya No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Chevy - Consensus pick for most disliked by other drivers, this former open wheel star should look more for wins than making enemies in '12.
As for today's Daytona 500, the pack is back. If the Bud Shootout is any indication of today's race, the fans should be in for a treat. The winner of today's race may look to ride around in the back to avoid the Big One and come to the front late. Winner - No. 24 Jeff Gordon.
Craig Andros is an Altoona resident who writes occasionally for Voice of the fan.