We're less than two weeks away from the Budweiser Shootout and the unofficial start of the 2012 NASCAR season. With only one major test, at a superspeedway no less, it's too soon to determine who will contend for the Sprint Cup Series championship. And yet, February has become prediction season in the fast-paced world of NASCAR.
We've changed the way we preview the season and pick the champion here at NASCAR Ranting and Raving. That makes right now the perfect time to explain our new approach and how the system will work.
The predictions are not exclusive to the author's opinions but rather an average of his estimates and those made by NASCAR Illustrated Magazine and the Athlon Sports NASCAR Annual. The three final championships ranks will be averaged, producing the official NASCAR Ranting and Raving championship prediction.
Think of this as our version of the BCS formula.
We don't advise taking these predictions to Vegas (a similar method produced a Kyle Busch prediction in 2011). But if you insist on betting, you can find Sprint Cup championship betting odds here.
The complete Ranting and Raving rundown can be found beneath the jump. Are we on the mark or just plain crazy? Read the predictions and tell us what you think in our comments section below.
And the champion is...
Kevin Harvick, Richard Childress Racing - Harvick will finally transcend to the next level thanks to the pit box switch to Shane Wilson. The duo won 14 races and the 2006 Nationwide Series championship, likely negating any deficit caused by the transition to their Sprint Cup pairing.
Harvick is a perfectionist.
Despite seven wins over the last two years, Harvick was the one who prompted Richard Childress to make the change. Harvick has got the job done over the regular season but continues to struggle in the Chase. This is a move intended to close the deal.
"The expectations at RCR are to win a championship so the decision was made to move Shane Wilson to the No. 29," Childress said. "Shane did a great job for RCR in the Nationwide Series when he first got here, and built on that success the past three seasons with our No. 33 team, so we feel he will continue do a great job with [Harvick's] team."
Richard Childress Racing is back and "The Closer" finally wins the big one.
NASCAR Illustrated Rank: 6
Athlon Sports Rank: 1
Matt Weaver Rank: 1
Predicted win total: 5
Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing - Carl Edwards suffered the ultimate championship defeat at Homestead. He matched champion Tony Stewart's points total but finished second due to Stewart capturing more victories. One more trophy, one more track position over the course of the Chase, one less DNF -- any of those would have netted Edwards the championship.
Jack Roush and crew chief Bob Osbourne will give their ultra-consistent wheelman a better shot in 2012, adding a few more wins by taking mechanical and strategic chances before and during the Chase. This will result in additional wins prior to the playoffs and a better chance once the Chase rolls around.
(Ed. Note: Ironically, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick both averaged first in our championship formula with the edge going to Harvick based on race wins. It's Déjà vu all over again for Edwards.)
NASCAR Illustrated Rank: 1
Athlon Sports Rank: 3
Matt Weaver Rank: 5 (Tie)
Predicted win total: 3
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports - The 2011 season may have made us forget just how dominating Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have been since 2002. The duo has won 55 races in nine years and now we're supposed to forget about them as championship contenders?
Hendrick Motorsports experienced a down year and still won five races between four drivers. Fuel-mileage gambles and general bad luck took away two or three wins away from Johnson and lightning isn't likely to strike twice.
Great teams don't fall apart overnight and Johnson's team is certainly one of the best of all time. A majority of Sprint Cup races are still run on intermediate-length tracks, a staple of Johnson's 55-win diet.
Don't be surprised if Johnson is honing in on a sixth championship entering Homestead. Last season may have awoken the sleeping giant.
NASCAR Illustrated Rank: 2
Athlon Sports Rank: 4
Matt Weaver Rank: 5 (Tie)
Predicted win total: 3
Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports - A sequel season with crew chief Alan Gustafson should double the success experienced in year one.
That means potential wins that slipped away in 2011 (New Hampshire, Indianapolis and Richmond) will be captured in 2012. Gordon has the potential to be strong at virtually every track and exceptional at short tracks, superspeedways, and road courses.
Gustafson is dynamic on flat tracks, making the 24 team the most versatile and dynamic in the Sprint Cup garage. That could bode well for the Drive for Five.
NASCAR Illustrated Rank: 4
Athlon Sports Rank: 7
Matt Weaver Rank: 2
Predicted win total: 5
Brad Keselowski, Penske Championship Racing - Brad Keselowski set the NASCAR world on fire for much of the second half of 2011. Over the final 23 races, Keselowski recorded three wins, 9 top 5s and 13 top 10s. Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe found a competitive edge in the second half of last season and it wasn't Brad's broken ankle.
If they capture and maintain that momentum over a full-season, Penske might have given birth to the New Dynasty in Brad Keselowski.
The New Dynasty has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?
NASCAR Illustrated Rank: 10
Athlon Sports Rank: 2
Matt Weaver Rank: 6
The complete predicted top-15:
1) Kevin Harvick
2) Carl Edwards
3) Jimmie Johnson
4) Jeff Gordon
5) Brad Keselowski
6) Tony Stewart
7) Kasey Kahne
8) Kyle Busch
9) Matt Kenseth
10) Denny Hamlin
11) Dale Earnhardt Jr.
12) Ryan Newman
13) A.J. Allmendinger
14) Greg Biffle
15) Kurt Busch
Complete race-by-race predictions:
Feb. 18 - Budweiser Shootout (Jeff Burton)
Feb. 26 - Daytona 500 (Tony Stewart)
March 4 - Phoenix (Brad Keselowski)
March 11 - Las Vegas (Carl Edwards)
March 18 - Bristol (Kyle Busch)
March 25 - Fontana (Kevin Harvick)
April 1 - Martinsville (Jeff Gordon)
April 14 - Texas (Matt Kenseth)
April 22 - Kansas (Jeff Gordon)
April 28 - Richmond (Kyle Busch)
May 6 - Talladega (Jeff Gordon)
May 12 - Darlington (Carl Edwards)
May 19 - Charlotte All-Star Race (Jimmie Johnson)
May 27 - Charlotte Coke 600 (Jimmie Johnson)
June 3 - Dover (Kyle Busch)
June 10 - Pocono (Denny Hamlin)
June 17 - Michigan (Denny Hamlin)
June 24 - Sonoma (Tony Stewart)
June 30 - Kentucky (Carl Edwards)
July 7 - Daytona (Jamie McMurray)
July 15 - New Hampshire (Ryan Newman)
July 29 - Indianapolis (Jeff Gordon)
Aug. 5 - Pocono (Juan Pablo Montoya)
Aug. 12 - Watkins Glen (Marcos Ambrose)
Aug. 19 - Michigan (Kyle Busch)
Aug. 25 - Bristol (Kurt Busch)
Sept. 2 - Atlanta (A.J. Allmendinger)
Sept. 8 - Richmond (Kevin Harvick)
Sept. 16 - Chicago (Kasey Kahne)
Sept. 23 - New Hampshire (Jeff Gordon)
Sept. 30 - Dover (Tony Stewart)
Oct. 7 - Talladega (Kevin Harvick)
Oct. 13 - Charlotte (Jimmie Johnson)
Oct. 21 - Kansas (Jimmie Johnson)
Oct. 28 - Martinsville(Kevin Harvick)
Nov. 4 - Texas (Kasey Kahne)
Nov. 11 - Phoenix (Kevin Harvick)
Nov. 18 - Homestead (Greg Biffle)