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2012 NASCAR Season Preview: Daytona 500 Just Weeks Away

The 2011 NASCAR season ended less than two months ago, but already the unofficial beginning of the 2012 season is upon us. Many changes have taken place within the sport, including to teams with ties to Atlanta and the state of Georgia.

DAYTONA BEACH FL - JANUARY 20:  Race fans watch as cars go from the Sprint Fan Zone during testing at Daytona International Speedway on January 20 2011 in Daytona Beach Florida.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)
DAYTONA BEACH FL - JANUARY 20: Race fans watch as cars go from the Sprint Fan Zone during testing at Daytona International Speedway on January 20 2011 in Daytona Beach Florida. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Getty Images for NASCAR

The NASCAR Sprint Cup season officially opens February 26 at about 1:20 p.m. That's when the green flag is scheduled to drop on the Daytona 500, beginning a 10-month season comprising 36 points-paying races. The NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series begin their seasons in the two days prior to the 500.

In reality, the season opens next Thursday, January 12, with Preseason Thunder at the Daytona International Speedway. The three-day test - during which NASCAR will put a new aerodynamic package designed to break up the two-car tandem racing that prevailed in the four superspeedway races last season - will be the first widespread on-track activity since Tony Stewart wrapped up his third Sprint Cup championship less than two months prior by winning the Ford 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Plenty of big-name drivers and crew members have changed places for 2012, including the championship crew chief from 2011 and a former championship-winning driver.

Related: 2012 NASCAR New Year's Resolutions

It seems like only yesterday that Darian Grubb helped lead Stewart to his third title, but he had known before the end of the season that he would be out as crew chief for the No. 14 Chevrolet. He moves to Joe Gibbs Racing to ramrod Denny Hamlin's effort. Replacing Grubb atop Stewart's pitbox is Steve Addington, who has won 16 races over the past four seasons while working with Kyle and Kurt Busch.

Kurt Busch is also on the move. The official story released on December 5 is that the 2004 Sprint Cup champion and legendary team owner Roger Penske opted to mutually dissolve their relationship, though it is questionable that any driver would voluntarily join the unemployment line so late in the year, with all the top available rides long filled. Busch will drive James Finch's No. 51 Chevrolet, while A.J. Allmendinger takes his place in the No. 22 Dodge. Todd Gordon - who won five Nationwide races as crew chief for Brad Keselowski last season - replaces Addington as crew chief for that ride.

Allmendinger's departure from Richard Petty Motorsports left the legendary No. 43 machine without a driver. That seat was officially filled Wednesday when Aric Almirola was named the driver of the Ford Fusion. He moves up from the Nationwide Series, where he spent the 2011 season racing for Dale Earnhardt Jr's team.

Another major change is Clint Bowyer's move from Richard Childress Racing to Michael Waltrip Racing, where he will drive a Toyota sponsored by 5-Hour Energy. Bowyer won five times in six seasons as driver of Childress's No. 07 and No. 33 Chevrolets and made the Chase three times. He also won the 2008 Nationwide Series championship for Childress and picked up the legendary car owner's 100th victory at Talladega last October. RCR has cut back from four teams to three, shuttering the No. 33 ride.

The landscape has likewise changed for most of the Georgia-based sponsors and drivers.

Atlanta-based The Home Depot and Aaron's Sales and Leases both return to Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing, respectively, but changes are abound elsewhere in their teams. Joey Logano will drive the No. 20 Toyota for another season with Home Depot on the car, but crew chief Greg Zipadelli has reunited with Stewart as competition director for Stewart-Haas Racing. He will also serve as crew chief for Danica Patrick's limited Sprint Cup effort this season. Jason Ratcliff, who has teammed with Kyle Busch to dominate the Nationwide Series over the last four years, moves up to become Logano's crew chief.

David Reutimann is out as driver of the Aaron's-sponsored Toyota, replaced by Mark Martin, Michael Waltrip, and a yet-unamed driver to compete in the 4-6 races Martin and Waltrip do not drive. The car has been renumbered 55 from 00, which Reutimann's father Buzzie made famous in his native Florida. Reutimann will drive the second Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevrolet in around 26 races as a teammate to Dave Blaney.

While Aaron's, The Home Depot, and NAPA Auto Parts - who sponsors Martin Truex Jr in the third Waltrip Toyota - all return as primary sponsors in 2012, UPS has heavilly cut back on their sponsorship. Each year since 2001, when Dale Jarrett debuted the delivery giant's first foray into NASCAR, UPS had sponsored a car for the entire schedule. That will change in 2012, when the company will appear as primary sponsor for only one race. Carl Edwards will drive the UPS Ford in July at the Kentucky Speedway.

The loss of the UPS sponsorship has essentially ended operations for Jack Roush's No. 6 Ford, the car that started it all for his team in 1988 and visited victory lane 35 times with Martin at the wheel before taking one last win last July when David Ragan won at Daytona. Ragan, of course a native of Unadilla, GA, finds himself still on the unemployment line. Reports had previously linked him to, in order, the No. 51 Chevy, the No. 22 Dodge, the No. 43 Ford, and Earnhardt Jr's No. 88 Chevrolet in the Nationwide Series. That fourth seat is likely to be filled by Californian Cole Whitt, leaving Ragan and Peachtree City's Reed Sorenson without rides less than two months before the first race weekend of the season.

One Georgian who does have a ride for 2012 is Stockbridge's Max Gresham. The 2011 champion of NASCAR's K&N Pro East Series will race the full Camping World Truck Series schedule for Joe Dennette Motorsports as a teammate to four-time series champion and all-time wins leader Ron Hornaday Jr. Gresham's family operates the legendary Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, GA.

As for the Atlanta Motor Speedway and its lone race weekend, Advocare has already announced it will return as title sponsor of the Sprint Cup Series' 500-mile Labor Day Weekend Classic on Sunday, September 2. The Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series will host their annual 200 and 300-milers on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.