NASCAR Predictions: Who Is the Sprint Cup Sleeper This Season?

Ben Montedonico@@NASCARBRBenContributor IIIMarch 1, 2012

Marcos Ambrose is ready to take the NASCAR world by storm in 2012
Marcos Ambrose is ready to take the NASCAR world by storm in 2012Chris Graythen/Getty Images

After a 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season that consisted of five first-time winners and a championship battle that came down to a tie-breaker, the 2012 season seems as though it is primed to be more wide open than any in recent years.

Maybe that's why the term "sleeper" holds more significance in 2012 than it ever has before.

Each of the past three Sprint Cup seasons has seen a new driver emerge from nowhere and contended for race wins, and in some cases Sprint Cup titles.

In 2009, that driver was Mark Martin, who won five races and nearly took home his first Cup title, finishing second in the standings.

In 2010, it was Jamie McMurray, who took the NASCAR world by storm by winning the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, and the fall race at Charlotte.

A year ago, it was Brad Keselowski, who took home three victories of his own en-route to a fifth-place finish in the standings.

And in 2012, it will be Marcos Ambrose.

Ambrose is coming off a career year. He finished 19th in the standings, a little ways off the Chase pace after some trouble in the final ten races of the season.

But lost in the tough luck of Ambrose's final races, including a blown engine at Homestead that took him from 17th to 19th in the final standings, were the great strides the Tasmanian Devil made.

Ambrose took home his first career Sprint Cup win at Watkins Glen in August. It was a win that, under the current points system, nearly propelled him into the Chase.

Ambrose also sported a career-best five Top 5s and 12 Top 10s, proving to the NASCAR world that the former Australian V8 Supercar driver can get it done on oval tracks as well as road courses.

But most importantly, Ambrose showed signs of being able to close the deal in the final laps. He finished second in the "closer" statistic in 2011, gaining 85 positions in the final 10 percent of races last season. Only his teammate from last year, AJ Allmendinger, gained more.

All of those strides demonstrate that Ambrose is rising in the NASCAR world, but how he can get to the top in 2012 is remarkably simple.

Both road-course races on the NASCAR schedule fall in the first 26 races of the Sprint Cup season, and there is no reason why Ambrose can't win both of them.

Which means if he can demonstrate the same consistency in 2012 as he did in 2011, Ambrose can conceivably be in the top 20 in points and have two wins.

And that's if he doesn't win on an oval, which he showed in 2011 he is certainly capable of doing.

Under the Sprint Cup Series' current points system, the two drivers from 11th-20th in the standings with the most wins earn wild card slots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

If Ambrose had won an additional race before the 2011 Chase, he would have been in.

This year, he will be.

Marcos Ambrose may not stick out to the average NASCAR fan as being a legitimate Chase threat, and that's what makes him the perfect sleeper.

Mark my words: this is a driver who is on his way up in the NASCAR world, one who is perfectly capable of winning multiple races in the first 26.

And that's all Marcos Ambrose will need to do to find himself in NASCAR's playoff in 2012.