NASCAR: Top 5 Dark Horse Candidates Who Could Win 2013 Sprint Cup Championship

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistOctober 10, 2012

NASCAR: Top 5 Dark Horse Candidates Who Could Win 2013 Sprint Cup Championship

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    I love speculating and hypothesizing. And it doesn't get any better than trying to pick the longest of long shots, or if you prefer, the darkest of dark horses, to win a championship.

    There are plenty of drivers to choose from when it comes to picking the top five dark horse candidates who could win the 2013 Sprint Cup Championship. Some are legitimate dark horses, while others may not necessarily be defined by that tab normally but are coming off such terrible seasons in 2012 that they fall into that dark horse category by default.

    As always, after you've read through our picks, we'd love to hear from you on your picks. Do you agree with us? Did we miss someone? Let your voice be heard!

    So without further ado, here are Bleacher Report's top five dark horse candidates who could win the 2013 Sprint Cup Championship.

No. 5 Joey Logano

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    Call it a hunch, a gut feeling or what have you, but we can easily envision Joey Logano making some serious noise in 2013.

    Remember, he moves to Penske Racing and will be teammates with Brad Keselowski, who is atop the points standings currently and is considered by many to be the odds-on favorite to win this year's Sprint Cup championship.

    Logano became lost in the shadows of Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin in the last couple of seasons. He needs a place where he can step out into the sunlight and shine, and Penske Racing is perfect for him.

    Plus, he'll be driving tried-and-true Ford motors built by Doug Yates.

    This has win-win written all over it for Logano. Mark it down on your calendar—and that you heard it here first—2013 is going to be a breakout year for young Mr. Logano, and potentially the biggest year of his career.

    Oh, one more thing, if there was ever a time to change his name from Joey to the more adult-sounding Joe, next season would be the perfect time. Better yet, given that his middle name is Thomas, wouldn't it be great to hear "Taking the checkered flag is J.T. Logano"?

No. 4 Kurt Busch

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    And now we sit and wait. The elder Busch brother will be taking a big leap upward racing for Furniture Row Racing in 2013 after competing for the underfunded Phoenix Racing owned by James Finch this season.

    Ironically, the timing couldn't be better for this article, as Busch actually gets a head start on his tenure at Furniture Row, starting behind the wheel for the team in Saturday's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. And, in an ironic "trade" of sorts, the driver Busch is replacing—Regan Smith—will in turn replace Busch at Phoenix Racing, starting Saturday night as well.

    Getting back to sitting and waiting, can Busch regain the championship form that he showed in 2004? Can he keep his temper in check, knowing that a good showing with Furniture Row may be his ticket back to the big time and with an even bigger team in 2014 or 2015?

    Lots of rumors have been floating around that Busch may ultimately wind up at Richard Childress Racing sometime in the future (it should be interesting to see how he would co-exist with Kevin Harvick, but that's another story for another day).

    For now, Busch needs to learn as much about his new team and establish chemistry in the remaining six races of the 2012 season so that they can get a head start and big jump on 2013.

No. 3 Ryan Newman

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    Why does it seem like Newman's performances simply don't match his talent? He's a great driver, but for whatever reason, he just hasn't shown it in recent years—certainly not since his days at Penske Racing.

    It's almost as if Newman is stuck in neutral, with progress being extremely limited for him each season.

    On one hand, he's fortunate: It looked like he might lose his ride with Stewart Haas Racing for next season when primary sponsor U.S. Army pulled its sponsorship for 2013. But Newman has been retained and new sponsorship has been found, keeping him in the SHR fold for at least one more season.

    But if he doesn't go all out for the championship in 2013, don't be surprised if Newman looks for a new home—either by choice or not. He's always been in another driver's shadow during his career, first Rusty Wallace and then Kurt Busch at Penske, and now Tony Stewart at SHR.

    Newman needs a big breakout year, much like Joey Logano. The question is, will 2013 finally be that year?

No. 2 Kyle Busch

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    Okay, Kyle Busch doesn't necessarily qualify as a dark horse per se, but given the horrible season he's had in 2012, including missing the Chase and having numerous struggles, the best thing for Busch would be to put this season in his rearview mirror and start fresh and determined in 2013.

    Granted, he's made a lot of mistakes in his young career, but there is still no dispute that Busch remains one of the most talented young drivers in Sprint Cup. Look for him to rebound in a big way—perhaps all the way to the championship—in 2013.

    Also, don't be surprised if he starts out next season with a new crew chief, as the once successful pairing with Dave Rogers just isn't getting it done much of late.

    And, despite any potential changes, what if Busch has another poor season in 2013? Look for him to be driving for another team in 2014—perhaps even for himself.

    There's no question that 2013 may be the most pivotal year in Busch's career to date. Time will tell how it plays out …and we'll be watching intently.

No. 1 Carl Edwards

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    Again, just like Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards is not a traditional dark horse in the full meaning of the words.

    But at the same time, after his outstanding performance in 2011—tying for the championship, only to lose it on a tiebreaker—it's doubtful you could find anyone who would have predicted the misfortune and trouble that has befallen Edwards during the 2012 season.

    It's bad enough that he hasn't won a race now in his last 63 starts (dating back to Las Vegas in early 2011), but he's been a virtual non-entity in 2012.

    Without question, it's been one of the most difficult, if not challenging seasons in Cousin Carl's career.

    Don't be surprised if he's forgotten how to do his patented race-winning backflip, as well. It's been that long.

    Losing crew chief Bob Osborne to mysterious health-related issues prior to the start of the Chase didn't help Edwards's chances. And don't be surprised if he has yet another new crew chief in 2013.

    With Matt Kenseth leaving at the end of this season, Edwards needs to step up and assume the No. 1 driver role within the team, leading Greg Biffle and rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

    It sure wouldn't be a good example if Edwards continued to fumble and fail next season as well, right?