Clint Bowyer has the best odds to win the Sprint Cup championship this season.
The 2013 Sprint Cup season promises to be one of great excitement and optimism. Right now, everyone looks like a championship contender—at least on paper.
But how quickly many teams and drivers adapt to some of the key changes this season—most notably the new, so-called Generation 6 car—will go a long way in determining who hoists the Sprint Cup at Homestead in November.
Picking a champion is a slippery slope, as you wind up looking either like a genius or a fool.
So, while we still may make some changes in our picks between now and the Daytona 500, we thought that with the three-day test session coming up at Daytona Jan. 10-12, it would be a good time to look at 20 of the sport's top drivers and see where they stack up:
After finishing a close second to Brad Keselowski in 2012, Clint Bowyer is primed to ascend to Sprint Cup royalty and earn his first Cup championship.
It won't be easy with the competition out there, but Bowyer has shown he has what it takes to go all the way.
The biggest key for Bowyer is to win early and often. While he did a great job coming from behind during the Chase to finish No. 2, he has to find his way to Victory Lane a bit more often.
Even though Penske Racing has switched from Dodge to Ford, defending Cup champ Brad Keselowski shouldn't miss a beat, even with the newly-designed Generation 6 car.
As exciting as the last two end-of-the-season battles have been between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards in 2011 and Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson in 2012, we have a hunch that it's going to be an even more exciting finale between Bowyer and Keselowski for the 2013 championship.
After how he came on in the second half of last season, you can't count out five-time champ Jimmie Johnson.
Had it not been for a dropped lug nut followed by a broken drivetrain in the season's final race, he might have given Keselowski more of a run for his money than he did.
Johnson has now gone two seasons without a title. He wants No. 6 in the worst way
We always knew he had it in him, but Kasey Kahne finally proved it in 2012. He sailed under the radar most of the season, but finished a strong fourth in the final standings.
Much of his success has to go to Hendrick Motorsports motors, chassis, etc., but the final measuring stick is the guy behind the wheel, and Kahne did an outstanding job—one we expect him to repeat, if not improve upon, in 2013.
Finishing fifth in Sprint Cup points this past season, Greg Biffle was the highest-finishing driver in the Roush Fenway Racing stable.
It will be interesting to see how he responds in 2013 with Matt Kenseth no longer his teammate.
Biffle still hopes to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win championships in all three major series: NCTS, Nationwide—which he's already done—and Sprint Cup, which he hasn't done yet.
Denny Hamlin had had a great season heading into the Chase, he and appeared primed for his first Cup championship (he came so close in 2010).
Sooner or later, the Virginia native is going to stop his fade in the Chase and emerge as a champion. It could be 2013, but he's got a lot of company.
The one big plus we see for Hamlin is that he'll be going into his second full season with Darian Grubb atop the pit box. For all the success the pair enjoyed in 2012, including five wins, we see a vast amount of untapped potential from this pair.
The 2012 season was an aberration for the younger Busch brother.
While Kyle Busch cut back considerably from his previous extracurricular racing in the NCTS and Nationwide Series to focus more on his Cup campaign, the truth is that Busch struggled across the board.
He won just one race across the three series—this from a guy who has 105 career wins in the three series—and failed to make the Chase.
Look for a big rebound in 2013.
We were extremely impressed with the way Jeff Gordon won the season-ending race at Homestead in 2012, earning his 87th career Cup win and leaving him third on the all-time wins list.
But we admit there is concern that Gordon may struggle with the new car early on this season, much like he struggled when the COT was first introduced in 2008.
If he can adapt well and quickly to the new car, we could easily see Gordon being a significant factor this season, maybe winning four or even five races.
No. 5 is certainly attainable. And if Gordon does win No. 5 in 2013, expect him to retire at the top of his game.
After the dramatic way he won the 2011 championship, Tony Stewart struggled in the Chase in 2012, to the point where he was essentially out of the running just past the midpoint of the 10-race Chase.
The 2013 season will have even greater scrutiny on Stewart Haas Racing because Danica Patrick will be racing out of the SHR stable in her first full-time season there.
Plus, it should be interesting to see how the reunited team of Ryan Newman and crew chief Matt Borland do together. They used to rule the world of pole qualifying, but they have to focus more on winning if they want to make any significant impact in 2013.
The elder Busch brother continues his climb back up to NASCAR respectability in 2013.
After being released from Penske Racing at the end of 2011 due to the high-profile blow up at ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch, Kurt Busch began the long process of rebuilding his career at Phoenix Racing and did well.
He did good enough that he left Phoenix halfway through the Chase and moved to Furniture Rowe Racing, replacing Regan Smith, who, ironically, replaced Busch at Phoenix Racing.
There's been chatter about Busch possibly being headed to the Richard Childress Racing camp in 2014 if he has a strong season with Furniture Row in 2013—and that's exactly what we see from the former Cup champ.
It's just a coincidence that we made Dale Earnhardt Jr. an 8-1 favorite to win the championship this season, despite how many years Junior spent in the No. 8 race car.
We really like Junior's chances in 2013, but we hesitate to give him better odds because strange trouble always seems to find him and hurt his forward movement.
We envision Earnhardt having another good first 26 races, perhaps even going into the Chase as the No. 1 seed, but he has to avoid bad luck like crashes or concussions, like the one he suffered in 2012.
With Steve Letarte atop the pit box, this realistically could be Earnhardt's year to finally win that elusive Cup championship, but he'll have to have a Jimmie Johnson-like Chase to have a chance at the title.
If there's anyone who went from high to low in 2012, it's Edwards.
After losing the 2011 Cup championship by a tie-breaker to Tony Stewart, Edwards had nothing short of a miserable season in 2012.
Not only did he go winless (his streak is now at 69 races), but he also also failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the only Roush Fenway Racing driver to fall short.
With veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig atop the pit box this season, though, look for a big resurgence from Edwards in 2013.
Also, Fennig won a Cup championship with Kurt Busch in 2004. It's time for lightning to strike twice now that Fennig will be calling the signals for Edwards in 2013.
We're going a little higher on the odds for Matt Kenseth in 2013 because of two key elements: how he will fit into the Joe Gibbs Racing stable with Hamlin and Kyle Busch and how he will adapt to the Generation 6 Toyota.
By default, Kenseth has become the No. 1 driver at JGR by virtue of his one Cup championship and two Daytona 500 wins.
Mild-mannered and easy to get along with, he should have no problem interacting with Hamlin and Busch. In fact, he may actually bring a stabilizing influence that will help his two new teammates.
Reunited again: Ryan Newman and crew chief Matt Borland.
Ryan Newman has played second fiddle for his entire Cup career.
First it was Rusty Wallace, then Kurt Busch and for the last four seasons it's been Tony Stewart. Newman has kind of gotten lost in the shuffle far too many times.
He needs an absolutely explosive season to not only make the Chase again, but to be a serious contender for the championship—something he has never come close to.
Also, while Newman historically doesn't cause wrecks, for whatever reason, he gets caught up far too many times in other drivers' messes.
If he can stay out of trouble, 2013 may finally be the year Newman steps out into the forefront.
Much of last year's attention was on Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Clint Bowyer.
Martin Truex Jr. just couldn't seem to get any forward momentum in the Chase, and it hurt him greatly, leaving him as an 11th-place-finishing also-ran.
We'd like to see some of Bowyer's success rub off on Truex and finally see him get back to Victory Lane, but doing that has always seemed to be a challenge for Truex.
Maybe 2013 is the year that the challenge turns into success. We'll see.
Even though he finished eighth in the standings in 2012, it was not a very good season for Kevin Harvick.
He had to wait until late in the season to get his only win of the year, and the news of his moving to Stewart Haas Racing in 2014 became a distraction.
In his lame-duck year with Richard Childress Racing, while we'd love to see Harvick leave as a first-time Cup champ, we just don't think it's in the cards.
Now, when he gets to SHR in 2014, that's a whole other story.
We've been waiting four years for Marcos Ambrose's breakthrough season and believe 2013 will be that year.
He has done well in his time at Richard Petty Motorsports, and the organization has had stability from one season to the next for the first time in at least the last four or five seasons.
Now, all Ambrose has to do is win a few races and we could potentially see him make his first Chase, just like Logano.
Yep, the odds just jumped up significantly.
Joey Logano is a great driver, and he has immense talent. In a perfect world, he'd make the transition from Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota to Penske Racing and Ford with flair and success.
Much of what happens depends on how Logano adapts to the new car. If he struggles early, it could be a very long season. If he does well early, he could wind up making the Chase for the first time in his career—and the first of many more times to come in the future with his new team.
Jamie McMurray had one good season at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, and that's been it.
He needs to channel that 2010 campaign, in which he won three races—including the Brickyard 400—to get back to some decent finishes and potentially make the Chase for the first time in his career.
However, it's easier said than done, though. He's come close to making the Chase at least three times, but fallen short each time.
While we'd love to see a storybook showing from McMurray in 2013, to do so, he's going to have to rewrite the script several times along the way during the season.
This is perhaps the most pivotal year in the seven seasons Juan Pablo Montoya has been in the Cup series.
He has just two wins and has finished terribly in all but one season (2009, when he made the Chase for the first and only time, finishing eighth).
Team owner Chip Ganassi has been more than patient with and loyal to Montoya. Their relationship dates back to their Indy Car days together.
But Ganassi wants results, especially when fellow open-wheel racing owner Roger Penske finally earned his first Cup championship as a team owner this past season when Brad Keselowski took the Sprint Cup crown.
If Montoya has another plodding along season and he gets involved in wrecks or on-track confrontations with a slew of drivers, we won't be surprised if this is his last year at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
On the flip side, though, if Montoya suddenly becomes the driver Ganassi expected him to be at the outset seven years ago, those 100-1 odds may wind up paying off quite nicely.
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