Ranking the Top 10 NASCAR Drivers at the Start of 2013

Michael GuadalupeFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2013

Ranking the Top 10 NASCAR Drivers at the Start of 2013

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    With Daytona less than two months away, the 2013 season will be upon us faster than we know it.

    When the season starts though, who will be the top 10 drivers everyone has their eyes on?

    Will Jimmie Johnson continue to be one of the best, or has he started to slip as a top driver in NASCAR?

    Should Clint Bowyer be on everyone's radar after his fantastic 2012 season?

    The off-season will bring a lot of changes to NASCAR, specifically the Gen 6 car, which is set to debut this season. Will certain drivers have an edge with the new car?

    Lastly, there are those who have carried momentum from last season.  Some drivers, like Kasey Kahne, put on a solid performance in 2012 and he made it clear he is one of the top drivers in the sport.

    With a new car, team changes, and momentum from 2012, certain drivers will stand out above the rest.

    Here are the top 10 drivers to watch at the start of 2013.

10. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended the 2012 season with a win, and managed to make it into The Chase.

    He also brought some attention to NASCAR and how they handle concussions. 

    Earnhardt had to sit out a couple of races after suffering from a concussion, and it played a big role in why he did almost nothing in The Chase.

    Jr. had an extremely solid 2012 season, and was in the top 10 and even top 5 for a lot of the races throughout the year.

    Expect him to have the same solid performance this season.

    NASCAR is set to start the 2013 season with a new model car, and Jr. has already stated his like for the Gen 6 car.

    "The car drives down in the corner, turns off the corner, really good," Earnhardt said via ESPN.com. "All the stuff we were moving around in the back of the car last year, I don't miss any of that. So this is awesome for me. I like going into the corner with the cars going straight like they're supposed to."

    "I'm enjoying this."

    Dale had a great season last year, and after testing out the Gen 6 car and enjoying it, Jr. will be a top driver when the 2013 season starts.

9. Jeff Gordon

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    While Jeff Gordon had a tough 2012 regular season, he ended the year with a win at Homestead.

    This win came a week after his scuffle with Clint Bowyer, and proved Gordon and the 24 team can overcome a challenge.

    It was the second time in the regular season where Gordon delivered when he needed to.  He came back from a lap down at Richmond to make it into The Chase, and finished the race in second.

    Gordon hasn't managed to win a championship since 2001, but he is still one of the better drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

    Last season he dealt with a lot of bad luck, some blown engines, and just generally failed to compete like he normally does.

    Hopefully with the Gen 6 car, Gordon won't suffer from the same problems as he did last season.

    Hendrick Motorsports is usually out in front when it comes to technology in NASCAR, so with the early testing going on during the offseason, Gordon will benefit moving forward and be even stronger than he was last year.

8. Kasey Kahne

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    Kasey Kahne, like his teammate Jeff Gordon, ran into some problems early in the 2012 season.

    But unlike Gordon, Kahne overcame his issues and has a great first season with Hendrick Motorsports.

    He won at Charlotte, but more impressively won at Loudon, N.H., a track where he had an average finish of 16.2.

    He was a real contender for a big part of The Chase, until his poor finish at Texas Motor Speedway.

    Kahne has a lot of potential, and after showing how good of a driver he can be by overcoming a rough start in the 2012 season, expect him to come out strong at the start of 2013.

    He was the fastest car for one of the testing days back in December, turning the fastest lap at Charlotte Motor Speedway of 193.771 mph.

    Kahne is just starting his career at Hendrick Motorsports.  With the experience of his teammates, and being in a top racing organization, he will only improve as NASCAR moves forward.

    Expect him to be a top driver next season, and perform better than he did last season.

7. Kyle Busch

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    Kyle Busch failed to make The Chase last season, but that was largely due to the several races where he suffered a blown engine, and had to end his day early.

    When the season began to come to a close, though, regardless of if he was in The Chase or not, Kyle planned to go for the win in every race he could.

    He was up front, and pushed the title contenders to their max as he tried to take home another win before the year was up.

    While he failed to win more than one race, Kyle was a driver that was talked about week after week as the season came to a close.

    Of course, last season had its typical Kyle moment, where we saw the driver issue an apology to Toyota Racing Development after he made some vulgar comments during the second Dover race of the season.

    What speaks so highly of Busch though, is regardless of the trouble he constantly finds himself in, Joe Gibbs is looking to sign him to a contract extension.

    Even after missing The Chase, and with what happened in the Camping World Series back in 2011, which caused Gibbs to lose the M&M sponsor for the final two races of 2011, and his TRD rant last season, Gibbs clearly believes Busch is a top driver worth keeping, even though he always seems to end up doing something negative.

    Busch is a top driver who will make The Chase in 2013, and hopefully start to control his emotions better and focus on racing.

6. Denny Hamlin

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    Denny Hamlin ended the 2012 season with five wins. 

    He was a top driver last year, and that momentum will carry over into 2013.

    He was a solid pick to win The Chase, but ended up running into bad luck at Martinsville and was knocked out of contention.

    The question for Hamlin moving into 2013, though, will not be if he will be a top driver or not, but just how good will he be next season?

    Will he be able to repeat his solid performance and make a run for The Chase?

    Or will he once again take a stumble when the pressure gets to be too much?

    Hamlin already found himself in a wreck during the offseason, as he crashed during the testing of the new Gen 6 car.

    "The cars drive better than they ever have as far as driver comfort is concerned,” Hamlin said over at AOL.com. “We’re below track record (times) in race trim right now. … It’s fast. It is really, really fast."

    He was the top driver at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2012, and being paired up with Darian Grubb clearly had a huge benefit for Denny.

    Hamlin will be a top driver in 2013 as well, but we will have to see if he cracks under the pressure of The Chase, or remains a top driver throughout the season.

5. Matt Kenseth

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    Matt Kenseth had the best year out of all three Roush-Fenway drivers in 2012.

    He started off the season the right way, winning the Daytona 500.

    Eventually though, it was revealed that Kenseth would be joining Joe Gibbs Racing once the 2012 season came to an end.  Kenseth ended last year with three wins, and was a top driver heading into The Chase.

    Now that Kenseth has officially joined Joe Gibbs Racing, it might take some time for the top driver to get used to the new group he’s working with, along with his new teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.

    Kenseth was quoted by Bob Pockrass of AOL.com as saying:

    I’m going to spend a lot of time in the shop, a lot of time getting to know new people and getting acclimated and getting ready to go racing, so I’m really curious to see how everything goes, see what we talk about this time next year.

    Matt is clearly the new guy in the garage, but he's going to bring a lot of experience with him to Joe Gibbs Racing.

    And while it might be hard for him to adjust from driving a Ford to driving a Toyota, Kenseth is still a fantastic driver and will be a top competitor in 2013.

4. Tony Stewart

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    The 2011 Sprint Cup champion started off the 2012 season hot, but faded after he caused the massive Talladega crash in The Chase.

    Tony's 2011 title and his solid 2012 year have put Stewart-Haas Racing on the map as a competitive NASCAR organization.

    He had some sponsorship troubles last year but managed to get enough major sponsors on board for both the 14 car and Ryan Newman's 39 car.

    Smoke has been a top driver in NASCAR for quite some time now, and will continue to be one of the top drivers in 2013.  Stewart and crew chief Steve Addington didn't always click last year, but with time in the offseason to prepare, these two will start the season hot in February.

    If Stewart's 2011 and 2012 season weren't enough to reflect just how good of a driver he is, Smoke was also offered a chance by Roger Penske to race in the Indy 500.

    And while Smoke declined the offer, it's another example of how good of a driver he really is.

    Smoke is one of NASCAR's best, and he will continue to remain on top in 2013.

3. Clint Bowyer

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    While Bowyer isn't first, he had arguably the best 2012 year out of every driver on this list.

    He has huge momentum going into the 2013 season after the performance he delivered last year.

    His biggest accomplishment is his second-place finish in the standings, especially considering that this was his first year with Michael Waltrip Racing.

    He quickly emerged as the top driver for MWR, as he went on to win three races last season. 

    Bowyer came out of nowhere to shake up The Chase, and was easily a driver overlooked once the postseason started. 

    He remained a title contender until his incident with Jeff Gordon at Phoenix.  Still, instead of giving up as he went into Homestead, Bowyer and the 20 team rallied together and finished second.

    After his fantastic 2012 season, if it wasn’t clear before that Bowyer is a top driver, it is now as NASCAR gets ready for the start of the 2013 season.

    Keep an eye out for Bowyer this season, and don't be surprised to see him back in The Chase once again.

2. Jimmie Johnson

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    Jimmie Johnson has failed to win the championship two years in a row, but he is easily a top driver still in NASCAR.

    His five consecutive titles alone are the main reason he is still at the top, and 2013 will be another year where drivers try to compete against Johnson and the 48 team.

    Jimmie will have a big advantage going into the 2013 season because of the new Gen 6 car.  When it comes to technology, Hendrick Motorsports is always at the top in NASCAR, which will set Johnson up for success in 2013.

    The last time NASCAR debuted a new car back in 2007, Hendrick Motorsports went on to win 18 out of 36 races.  Johnson was a huge part of those wins, and would win the championship that year as well.

    In the first three years with the Car of Tomorrow, Hendrick Motorsports won 16 more races than any other team.

    The Hendrick group of drivers could end up doing the same thing with the new Gen 6 car, and with Johnson being the most successful Hendrick driver from last season, Five Time and the 48 team seem likely to remain one of NASCAR's best drivers.

    Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have been beaten two years in a row.  Expect them to be in championship form for Daytona in February.

1. Brad Keselowski

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    After winning the 2012 Sprint Cup championship, Keselowski is easily the top driver heading into 2013.

    Not only did he manage to hold off Jimmie Johnson, but he averaged some of his best finishes during The Chase.

    He didn't let Johnson get into his head going into Homestead, and never collapsed under the pressure.

    Now with Dodge gone from NASCAR, and Ford taking over at Penske, Keselowski has already been hard at work preparing in the offseason.

    Keselowski was quoted by David Newton over at ESPN.com as saying:

    One of the best advantages of switching to Ford is it gives us something to prove all over again, that we can continue to be successful no matter what the manufacturer or no matter what the circumstance is. That's very healthy. I also feel like, as a team, we have that motivation right now.

    Brad has a lot to prove heading into 2013.

    Even though he did manage to win the title last season, and has clearly emerged as a top driver, he needs to prove that it wasn't just luck that landed him the championship.

    Keselowski delivered under the pressure of The Chase, which is something only a handful of drivers can do.  After winning the title, expect Keselowski to be the one everyone has their attention set on as he tries to repeat the success he had last season.

     

    Michael Guadalupe is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on twitter @The_Guada.