After a busy offseason, it’s finally time for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season to take the green flag. Who will be this year’s champion? We take a look at the 10 races that will help determine who is tops this year.
Daytona 500, Feb. 26 live on FOX
They don’t call it the Great American Race for nothing. Because Daytona International Speedway is a track unlike any other, very little technical knowledge gained here can be transferred to the rest of the year. However, the unpredictable nature of this race can serve as a catalyst for a great season (Jimmie Johnson won in 2006 en route to his first title) or as a wake-up call if results are less than expected (the past five points champions have finished 13th or worse).
Kobalt Tools 400, March 11 live on FOX
Daytona might not be a good barometer for the rest of the races on the schedule, but Las Vegas Motor Speedway certainly fits the bill. The first intermediate race of the season will help highlight which teams are best. The past seven season champions have won or finished second at the track four times, showing the importance of Sin City.
Bristol Cup race, March 18 live on FOX
Short tracks lead to short tempers, and nowhere is that more evident than at Bristol Motor Speedway. Sure, there are fewer wrecks than in years past, but there’s enough beating and banging to create long-lasting rivalries. Success at Bristol isn’t a necessity to win a title, but staying off drivers’ “payback is coming” list is very important.
Coca-Cola 600, May 27 live on FOX
The longest race of the season serves as a great barometer for teams. It truly is a test of endurance that challenges guys at the track (driver, pit crews, etc.) and the crew back at the shop (engine builders, body men). At the same time, this serves as a much-needed “home game” for teams, as the majority of them are based in North Carolina. This race (and the All-Star Race a week before, also at Charlotte Motor Speedway) allows teams to reevaluate and make necessary changes before the next long stretch of races.
Dover Cup race, June 3 live on FOX
This is it — the halfway point before the championship-deciding Chase for the Sprint Cup. By now, teams with title aspirations will either be firmly in the top 10 and need only consistent results the rest of the way or must turn their focus to earning one of the two wild-card spots and go all-out for wins the rest of the way.
Toyota/Save Mart 350, June 24
Time and time again, we’ve seen battles for Chase spots come down to mere points. So, though there are only two road-course races on the calendar, you better believe they matter a lot. Not only will Infineon Raceway give us a taste of which NASCAR stars are for real when they must turn left and right, but we’ll also see plenty of fenders get bent and temper tantrums take place.
Wonderful Pistachios 400, Sept. 8
You want drama? You’ll get it at Richmond International Raceway. This is the final race to make the Chase, and there likely will be a few spots still up for grabs. If you’re a team on the bubble, this short-track race under the lights is the perfect opportunity to show you deserve the chance to fight for the title. And, oh, by the way, the champion the past five years has not finished worse than 11th at Richmond. So even if you are locked in, history shows you want to leave Richmond with momentum.
AAA 400, Sept. 23
Sure, starting the Chase for the Sprint Cup off on the right foot is important, but it’s the second race at New Hampshire where teams must show that they’re for real and not a one-race fluke. A nice-and-steady performance — and avoiding desperate drivers trying to make up points in a hurry — could yield big benefits. (Ask Tony Stewart, who won last year on his way to the title.)
Talladega Cup race, Oct. 7
We all know why we like restrictor-plate races at Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway — fast cars, big packs of cars and the chance that anything and everything can happen in the blink of an eye. Things will get wilder in October, as the calendar begins to wind down and nerves are at an all-time high. One mistake by a title-contending driver could be all it takes. And make note that, in the past five years, no champion has finished outside the top 10 at Talladega.
Ford 400, Nov. 18
The Sprint Cup season is a true marathon — but as 2011 proved, it usually comes down to one final mad dash at Homestead-Miami Speedway. No champion in the past five years has finished worse than 15th in the final race of the season, so performance in the finale is just as important as it is at the very beginning at Daytona.