Posted: Thursday December 29, 2011 11:35AM ; Updated: Thursday December 29, 2011 11:35AM
Dustin Long
Dustin Long>INSIDE NASCAR

NASCAR predictions for 2012

Story Highlights

No runner-up has ever won the title the next year; that trend will continue in 2012

Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn't hit Victory Lane in 129 races, but that will change in '12

After downsizing his racing operation, Kevin Harvick will win his 1st Sprint Cup title

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Take predictions for what they're worth. If you believe them, well, then some people say, according to the Mayan calendar, the world will end Dec. 21, 2012. Before that happens, though, SmartMoney advises investing in Google, AT&T and a Canadian maker of a fertilizer component. And just so you know, the Farmer's Almanac calls for above-normal temperatures this winter across most of the Southern and Eastern U.S.

Now that you know exactly what the future entails, predicting what else will happen isn't so daunting.

Here's a look and what might happen -- and if any of them do happen, you will hear about it, trust me -- next year in NASCAR.

1. Darian Grubb will be in Victory Lane before Tony Stewart. We'll start out with an easy one. This will be a duel many will watch with Grubb -- who was told during this year's Chase that he would not be back -- leaving Stewart's championship team and joining Denny Hamlin's team. Stewart is a notorious slow starter. Only once since 2007 did Stewart record his first win of the season before July. While Hamlin isn't the fastest at the start of the season either, he's better than Stewart, recording four of his 14 wins since 2008 in March, April or May. So, don't be surprised if Hamlin, with Grubb as his new crew chief, wins a race next year before Stewart does with new crew chief Steve Addington.

2. The curse continues. Not since Tony Stewart in 2001-2002 has the driver who finished second in the points won the title the next year. Since Stewart's feat, the series runner-up has finished ninth on average the following season. This is not good news for Carl Edwards, who placed second to Stewart this year. When Edwards finished runner-up in the points in 2008, he struggled the following season and finished 11th. Edwards said that season taught him a lot, but he might need more than those lessons to break what seems to be a curse.

3. The drought ends. Eighteen different drivers hit Victory Lane last season but Dale Earnhardt Jr. was not among them. His season did, however, suggest that better days are ahead for his fans, who have waited since June 2008 (129 races) for him to win. His first year with crew chief Steve Letarte showed promise but also showed work is still needed -- Earnhardt led only 52 laps all season -- to get this team to Victory Lane. On the positive side, Earnhardt's seventh-place finish in the points was his best since finishing fifth in 2006. One no longer needs an extreme case of optimism to think Earnhardt will win again.

4. A friend returns. While a move won't happen next year, don't be surprised if there's an announcement in 2012 that Austin Dillon will move to Cup in 2013 and bring the No. 3 with him -- marking the car number's first return to Cup since Dale Earnhardt's fatal accident in the 2001 Daytona 500. While some might prefer to see the No. 3 retired, time seems to have softened the stance for many others who see it as a tribute to Earnhardt. Wouldn't it be something to see Dillon debut it in the 2013 Daytona 500? Could happen.

5. Brad Keselowski will do something no one has ever done before. Although he had chances last season, Keselowski, who has embraced social media, will be the first driver to tweet a picture from Victory Lane before he exits the car. Matt Kenseth will top Keselowski later by thanking his sponsors on Twitter before exiting his car after a victory. Jimmie Johnson will offer his Victory Lane hat on Twitter to the 48th person that retweets his message before he even puts it on.

6. Brotherly love. Next season will be a year of redemption for humbled brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch, who will attempt to refine their behavior and improve the public's perception of them. Even pictures of them with kittens and puppies won't change how some fans feel. Any real change, though, will have to come on the track. Despite their efforts, the competitiveness of NASCAR will draw out their fiery attitude in a display that will thrill old-time fans, who miss the sport's rougher ways, and upset the newer politically correct fans. If nothing else, the Busch brothers will give race fans something to talk about in 2012.

7. Look who wins in 2012? Yes, that will be Danica Patrick in Victory Lane in a Nationwide race. Just don't count on it being at a road course. Patrick showed progress last year and if she continues to develop, along with her team, she should contend for top-fives and even a race win or two. Even if she doesn't win, it's not the end of the world. Her boss, Tony Stewart, didn't win a race in what was called the Busch Series back then before moving to Cup in 1999. He was winless in 36 such races.

8. Four-timing. Kasey Kahne will join Hendrick Motorsports in 2012 (along with crew chief Kenny Francis) and should win a race. If he does, all four of Hendrick's drivers -- Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- could tally a win in 2012. That would mark the first time since 2007, when Kyle Busch, Casey Mears, Gordon and Johnson each won at least a race, that four drivers won for Hendrick in a season.

9. Another upset winner. While it won't be as big an upset as Trevor Bayne winning last year's Daytona 500, expect the sport's season-opening race to be a won by a driver who won't fare well in the points. Since 2007, the Daytona 500 champ has finished no better than 10th in the points that season. Since 2001, the Daytona 500 winner has gone on to finish in the top 10 in points that season only three times. Of course, with the race being pushed back to Feb. 26, you'll have to wait a week longer to see who wins that race.

10. A new champion. Two strong seasons show he and his team are ready and after having downsized his own racing operation, Kevin Harvick will win the championship and give car owner Richard Childress his first Cup title since Dale Earnhardt won his last crown in 1994.

So, now you can start planning accordingly for what will happen in the upcoming NASCAR season. But if all these picks are right, then look out for Dec. 21, 2012.

 
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