12 February 2013

2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Season Preview

It's safe to say that Brad Keselowski earned that enormous beer mug this past November, and the awesome ensuing "buzzed" interview, after out-dueling Jimmie Johnson to win the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup, the first for team owner Roger Penske and quite possibly the last for Dodge. Keselowski appeared to be a breath of fresh air for the sport as he was the first champion not named Johnson or Stewart since 2004, but can he repeat? It's time for my 2013 Sprint Cup Series season preview.

Nationwide Series Preview
Camping World Truck Series Preview

1. Denny Hamlin, #11 FedEx Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
Call me crazy, but I think Hamlin is going to win it all in 2013. As we all have learned, it is obviously more critical what you do in the Chase than what you do before, as long as you make the Chase. And Hamlin is as capable of getting hot in the Chase and winning a bunch of races as anyone, just as Keselowski last year and Stewart the year before. He's got the team and he certainly has the talent.

2. Kasey Kahne, #5 Farmers Insurance Chevy, Hendrick Motorsports
I think that Kahne is ready to take the reins and finish the highest of the Hendrick drivers. Save for the bad luck that plagued the beginning of his season, Kahne ran very well as he got used to the Hendrick equipment and he ended up finishing fourth in the final standings. Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis are one of the best pairings in the series and he is very good at pretty much every type of track, with his specialty being the crucial intermediates, which are half of the Chase races.

3. Brad Keselowski, #2 Miller Lite Ford, Penske Racing
Keselowski has solidified himself as the next big thing in NASCAR after dueling with Jimmie Johnson and coming out on top to win the title. What made him so appealing as a new face of the sport is that he comes from a different cloth than the Johnson and Jeff Gordon types in that he's not that polished, and he's knows it. I would be damn surprised if he was not a title contender this fall, even though expecting him to repeat may be a little much considering the competition.

4. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., #88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevy, Hendrick Motorsports
I think Junior realizes that the window for him to finally win a title is starting to close a little bit and I think he will feed off that with his strongest year in years, after he had one of his best years since the DEI days that was cut short by a couple of races due to a concussion. After finally getting that elusive win last year at Michigan, I think he is going to win a handful of races and be a serious factor in the Chase.

5. Jimmie Johnson, #48 Lowe's Chevy, Hendrick Motorsports
We have never seen somebody go eye-to-eye with Johnson and it be Johnson who blinked. Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin couldn't do it, but Brad Keselowski did. But nobody should or will be surprised if Johnson wins his sixth title this year and you know he will be in the mix. After all, his lowest points finish in Cup is sixth.

6. Kyle Busch, #18 M&M's Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
Rowdy was a disappointment a year ago after missing the Chase for the first time since 2009 but I would be surprised if he missed out this year, particularly with how well he finished 2012. He finished in the top five of seven of the ten Chase races and we all know how good the equipment is. In fact, could this finally be the year that he puts it all together?

7. Greg Biffle, #16 3M Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
The points leader for much of last season, Biffle was not as consistent in the Chase as he was before it with three finishes outside the top ten in the first three Chase races pretty much knocking him out before a pretty strong finish. But it clear that the guy is still one of the fastest drivers in the garage and he has missed the Chase only once since 2007 so he is still alive to be the first to get titles in all three major series.

8. Clint Bowyer, #15 5-Hour Energy Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
Yeah, I was dead wrong on Bowyer last year. After not expecting him to do a whole lot in his first season with MWR, he goes out and wins three times and finished second in the points after Jimmie Johnson fell off. The equipment proved to be really good and we all know how talented Bowyer is. Could he be a dark horse title contender? I wouldn't rule it out.

9. Matt Kenseth, #20 Home Depot Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
It will be weird seeing Kenseth not driving a Roush Ford this year for the first time in a long time but he did find himself a darn good ride in this #20 for Joe Gibbs. Kenseth is a rock-solid driver, possibly the most consistent in the garage, and he is excellent on almost all types of tracks and closed the season with a pair of wins in the Chase. Look out once he finds his groove at JGR.

10. Tony Stewart, #14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevy, Stewart-Haas Racing
Smoke was not able to duplicate his awesome 2011 Chase run this past year and he really was not that much of a factor in the Chase with six finishes outside the top 12. But we have never learned to count out Stewart, right? I do wonder what the effect will be of adding another team to his organization.

11. Carl Edwards, #99 Fastenal/Subway Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
Edwards really was one of the bigger disappointments a year ago, along with Kyle Busch, with missing the Chase, not winning any races and scoring only three top fives. I think Edwards to too talented to miss the Chase again, particularly after coming so close to winning the title in 2011 but I just don't see him as a title contender this year.

12. Jeff Gordon, #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevy, Hendrick Motorsports
I find it humorous that folks are considering that Gordon may be coming towards the twilight of his career. I mean, he's 41 and we've still got Mark Martin running up-front in his mid-50's. But I do also think Gordon will take a step back this year, as most drivers often do when they get to his age, particularly I think Rick Hendrick that Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (yes I said it) are stronger title contenders these days.

13. Ryan Newman, #39 Quicken Loans Chevy, Stewart-Haas Racing
It was not to be for Newman last year as he missed the Chase for the second time in three years but he still was pretty solid, ending up 14th in the points. I think a big plus for him this year will be the return of Matt Borland as his crew chief because they were a lethal combination when they teamed up with Penske a few years back.

14. Martin Truex, Jr., #56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
Truex was rock solid in 2012, proving to be very consistent to make the Chase for the second time in his career. But while he was close a number of times, he could not break through for a win. I think Truex may be due for a step back this year because I don't know if he can be as consistent for a second straight year.

15. Kevin Harvick, #29 Budweiser Chevy, Richard Childress Racing
I think Harvick will take a step back in his penultimate season at RCR. I don't know if the team will have the incentive to send Harvick out strong when everybody knows he's gone and he was pretty inconsistent for much of 2012.

16. Joey Logano, #22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford, Penske Racing
This will be Logano's fifth full time season in Cup this year and he has yet to turn 23. It's hard to say that Logano was a disappointment during his time with Gibbs because he was so damn young, but it also known that he did not meet expectations and when Matt Kenseth was available, Logano was out. But he still had a good year last year, getting his first win that was not due to fuel mileage, and with the equipment he has and the teammate he has, he could be a dark horse for the Chase.

17. Aric Almirola, #43 Smithfield Foods Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports
Almirola was a guy that I always thought could be pretty solid if he can find a good ride and while he was not that consistent a year ago, he did do some solid work with four top tens, including two in the final four races. Mike Ford is a good crew chief and I think the Floridian could be in the mix this year for his first win.

18Paul Menard#27 Menards ChevyRichard Childress Racing
Menard will probably never escape that shadow that his family's company is on the hood of his car (well, technically not on the hood but you get the point). That said, he has had a relatively fruitful tenure at RCR thus far with his two best years to date with a 17th and 16th points finish, respectively  I see no reason why he won't be in that range, and I also don't think it is outside the realm of possibility that he has the highest Childress points finish.

19. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., #17 Fifth Third Bank Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
Stenhouse, barring something unexpected, should win Rookie of the Year this year but I think he may be a year away from being a Chase contender, despite the equipment and his clear talent (you don't just win two straight Nationwide titles). That said, I could see him getting into victory lane this year.

20Kurt Busch#78 Furniture Row ChevyFurniture Row Motorsports
It was a trying season for Busch this past year as he continued to struggle with his temper, including getting a one-race suspension for this, and for the most part, he was not that competitive in middling equipment. Once he did get into some decent equipment with FRM down the stretch, he ran better and finished the year with three top tens in a row. There's no denying Busch's talent and considering his strength at plate races, and Furniture Row's proven success at those tracks, as well as on the road courses, he could sneak in a win somewhere.

21. Marcos Ambrose, #9 Stanley/Dewalt Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports
Ambrose may be the best road racer among the series regulars as both of his career wins have come on the road courses but he has shown he is improving on the ovals as well every year. But if he wants to make a run at the Chase, he is going to have to show he can win on an oval.

22. Jamie McMurray, #1 McDonald's/Cessna Chevy, Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
McMurray really struggled a year ago as he compiled only three top tens and all in the first fourteen races of the season as he really seemed to be bogged down by the organization's struggles. He is always a threat at the plate races but the consistency elsewhere is just not there.

23. Jeff Burton, #31 Caterpillar Chevy, Richard Childress Racing
Burton may be the most respected man in the garage, and he's got a bright future in broadcasting ahead of im if he wants it, but I think his days as a title contender may be done. After all, he has not won since October of 2008 and he has only made the Chase once since then.

24. Juan Pablo Montoya, #42 Target Chevy, Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
Save for when he made the Chase in 2009 and finished ninth in the points, Montoya has never finished  higher than 17th in the standings and has finished 20th or worse in every other year. Montoya is always a threat at the road courses and often has the speed at many other tracks but is way too inconsistent to break through higher.

25. Danica Patrick, #10 GoDaddy Chevy, Stewart-Haas Racing
Not going to lie, not expecting a whole lot from Danica this year in her rookie campaign. After all, this is a new team and her time in NASCAR has been relatively unspectacular with the claims that she is only here because of the sponsorship money she brings has not been proven false yet. That said, with two great teammates in Stewart and Newman and a good crew chief in Tony Gibson, some top tens, maybe a top five is a pretty reasonable prediction for her.

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