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Top 20 Countdown: No. 14 AJ Allmendinger

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports is counting down the top 20 drivers of the 2012 season, as predicted by the Yahoo! Sports NASCAR staff – Jay Hart, Jay Busbee, Nick Bromberg and Geoffrey Miller. The countdown will conclude Feb. 17 with the unveiling of the No. 1 driver.

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2011 statistics
Finish Poles Wins Top 5 Top 10
15 0 0 1 10
The countdown
No. 13: Revealed Wednesday, Feb. 1

2011 finish: 15th

Our 2012 predictions:
• Jay Hart: 16th
• Jay Busbee: 12th
• Nick Bromberg: 15th
• Geoffrey Miller: 13th

Crew chief: Todd Gordon

Offseason action: Moved from Richard Petty Motorsports to Penske Racing.

2012 outlook: There was no bigger winner this offseason than AJ Allmendinger. There's also no bigger question mark.

Allmendinger finally landed the ride he's been dreaming of since leaving the world of open-wheel racing for full-time stock-car racing in 2007. Without question, Penske Racing gives Allmendinger the best shot he's had to win in this, his fifth Cup season.

But was Allmendinger the right choice for team owner Roger Penske, who opted to part ways with Kurt Busch following the 2011 season?

Ultimately, Allmendinger's performance will answer that question, but given who was available, he was Penske's best option. David Ragan and Brian Vickers have slightly better resumés but still remain unproven despite significant time in better equipment, and hiring a soon-to-be 42-year-old David Reutimann isn't a way to start over. Last season, Allmendinger beat all three of them and made a run at the Chase while driving for an organization that, lately, has been the model of instability.

Though Penske Racing hasn't released the length of Allmendinger's deal, team president Tim Cindric said, "If we realize our potential, I think he'll be our driver for more than one year."

From that statement, it's pretty clear Allmendinger's future with Penske beyond 2012 depends on what he does this season. The opportunity is there, now it's up to Allmendinger to make the most of it.

Point of interest: Allmendinger has improved his final ranking every year of his career – from 43rd to 36th to 24th to 19th to 15th last season. If he continues that trend, a Chase berth will be very much within reach.

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