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 finish: 21st
Our 2012 predictions:
• Jay Hart: 18th
• Jay Busbee: 16th
• Nick Bromberg: 17th
• Geoffrey Miller: 16th
Crew chief: Chris Heroy
Offseason action: Gained a new crew chief in Chris Heroy.
2012 outlook: It's always darkest before the dawn, the cliché goes, and it couldn't get much darker than it did last year at Earnhardt Ganassi. Juan Pablo Montoya, just two years removed from a Chase berth, stumbled to a 21st-place finish amid an ugly year of missed opportunities and missed connections.
Montoya managed just two top-fives (Vegas and Martinsville I) and eight top-10s, but only two of those top-10s came after his crew chief swap. At two of his three traditional strong tracks, Indianapolis and Sonoma, Montoya only managed 28th and 22nd place, respectively. He did notch a seventh-place finish at Watkins Glen, but by then the damage to his rankings was already done.
So why the falloff, and what signs are there that 2012 could be better?
Team owner Chip Ganassi has no answers for the first half of that question; with a team as rich in resources, talent, and high-profile sponsorship as the 42, a finish outside the top 20 is indeed, in Ganassi's words, "pathetic." As 2012 brings a fresh infusion of talent and motivation, expect the entire team, from Montoya on down, to focus on immediate improvement. Or else.
Point of interest: Longtime Montoya crew chief Brian Pattie parted ways with the No. 42 team last summer; he now chiefs Clint Bowyer over at Michael Waltrip Racing. Jim Pohlman served as interim crew chief for the balance of 2011, but Hendrick Motorsports vet Chris Heroy now takes the pit box duties. How well can Heroy handle Montoya's in-race personality swings? He'll have to be half-strategist, half-psychologist to get the best out of the 42 team this year.