The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will kick off on February 26 with the Daytona 500, as Tony Stewart, finally breaking up the Jimmie Johnson 5-year reign, will try and defend his title. Jimmie Johnson as always begins the year as the favorite, with Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch also ones to look out for.

The most popular drivers? Despite not winning a race since 2008, Dale Earnhardt Jr is the fan favorite, and after finishing 7th in 2011, he might actually take the next step this year. Danica Patrick, always a lightning bolt for attention, joining the Sprint Cup for the first time, will probably get plenty of it as well.

Kasey Kahne, $11 Million

31 Year old Kasey Kahne drove for Red Bull Racing, finishing 14th in the Sprint Cup rankings. He won one race, his first since 2009 after a rough 2010 season in which he finished at 20th. He made $4.6 million from winnings, and moves up to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, driving the No. 5 car.

Number 9 – Matt Kenseth, $11.5 Million

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Matt Kenseth will be entering his 15th season in the Sprint Cup, following a 4th place finish in 2011, his best year since 2007, which included 3 race wins and winning just over $6 million. He last won the championship in 2003, despite winning only one race that year which led to a change in the points system.

Number 8 – Danica Patrick, $12 Million

Making her debut in the Sprint Cup, Danica Patrick raced 7 times in the Nationwide series while sharing her time with IndyCar, where she made most of her money, finishing 10th in the overall rankings. On March 5, 2011, she placed 4th in the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the best finish by a woman in a NASCAR top-circuit.

Number 7 – Kyle Busch, $14 Million

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Kyle Busch, who races for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Sprint Cup and for his own team, Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Nationwide series, finished 12 in the Sprint Cup rankings, winning 4 races and making $5.6 million through winnings. He opened 2012 by winning the Budweiser Shootout.

Number 6 – Kevin Harvick, $14 Million

Kevin Harvick finished at the 3rd spot in the Sprint Cup series for the second year in a row, winning 4 races and $4.7 million, before the $1.9 rankings bonus. He’s been driving for Richard Childress Racing ever since he began his Sprint Cup racing in 2001.

Number 5 – Carl Edwards, $15.5 Million

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After finishing a career-best 2nd in the Sprint Cup Series in 2011, Carl Edwards announced he won’t take part of the Nationwide series in order to conentrate on winning a championship. He re-signed with Roush Fenway Racing for a deal worth around $10 million a year. He made $8.4 million off winnings last season. He won only one race, which lost him the tie breaker against Tony Stewart for the Championship.

Number 4 – Jimmie Johnson, $21 Million

Jimmie Johnson’s championship streak ended last season as he finished 6th in the series after five straight top spot finishes, winning only two races, his lowest since his debut season in 2001. Driving for Hendrick Motorsports, Johnson is the favorite to win it back in 2012.

Number 3 – Tony Stewart, $22 Million

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The man who ended Johnson’s streak was 40 year old Tony Stewart, winning his third Sprint Cup championship and first since 2006. He won 5 races and made $6.5 million off of winnings on his third year with his own team, Stewart-Haas Racing.

Number 2 – Jeff Gordon, $24 Million

Beginning his 21st year with Hendrick Motorsports, Gordon finished 8th in the Sprint Cup series in 2011, looking for his first championship since 2001. The four time champion has 85 career wins, putting him third on the all-time list, and first in the modern era.

Number 1 – Dale Earnhardt Jr. , $28 Million

He’s never won the championship, he has won only one race since joining Hendrick Motorsports and that was in 2008, meaning Earnhardt Jr hasn’t won a race in 129 attempts. Still, the man is the best business in the sport, being voted the most popular driver nine times. Being part of a driving dynasty helps, but Earnhardt, despite his limited success on the tracks, remains NASCAR’s favorite son.