The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season will get underway this weekend at Daytona International Speedway in the Sprint Unlimited event. Now is the time to look ahead at the favorites to win the thrilling end of the year chase and be crowned Driver's Champion.
Penske Racing's Brad Keselowski is the reigning winner and has to be considered among the heavyweights to contend at the end of the year. However, the New Gen 6 cars (h/t USA Today via Detroit Free Press) have yet to be tested in the heat of competition, which should make for an especially intriguing season.
Here is a breakdown of Keselowski and the other drivers that should give him a run for NASCAR's ultimate prize.
Last year's triumph made Keselowski just the second driver in history to win titles in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series.
The 29-year-old has plenty of years in front of him, and his chances of repeating as champion should not be discounted despite the amount of elite talent that exists in the sport today.
Keselowski has marketed himself well and has a strong presence on Twitter, and that sort of inside access makes him a fan favorite. But there is clearly substance to his track record, and his authentic personality and confidence is backed by his performance.
2012 was incredibly consistent for Keselowski. Beginning with his third win of the season at the Quaker State 400, he went on a run that saw him finish outside of the top-11 just once in a span of 18 races.
That type of staying power doesn't seem to be a fluke and that makes Keselowski a legitimate threat to reign supreme at the end of this season as well.
After winning the Driver's Champion accolade five consecutive years, Johnson has cooled off ever so slightly over the past two seasons, but managed to finish third in the chase after a sixth-place effort in 2010.
Johnson is due for his sixth Sprint Cup Series title and all the pieces are in place for him to get back to the pinnacle of stock car racing.
It's simply a matter of momentum, as Johnson explained in a report by Fox Sports' Tom Jensen in reference to Keselowski's prospects of winning a second consecutive title:
A lot of it depends on how the season starts. If you take off where you left off, it’s pretty easy and you get accustomed to what being the champion is, the perks that come with it, the notoriety, then everything kind of blends in.
Getting off to a strong start hasn't been Johnson's strong suit recently. After winning the Daytona 500 in 2006 to begin his sensational championship run, Johnson hasn't finished better than 27th in the big race.
That apparently didn't faze him in the subsequent titles runs, but it's surprising that Johnson hasn't done better in such a high-profile race considering the caliber of driver that he is.
If he can get off to a more consistent start to 2013, expect Johnson to use that and springboard himself into early contention for a sixth Driver's Champion distinction, which would only be one behind legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the all-time lead.
After a down season in 2011, Hamlin rebounded with a strong campaign last year, winning five of his 28 starts but ultimately finishing sixth in the Sprint Cup standings.
The 2006 Rookie of the Year was the first driver to reach the chase in his maiden full-time appearance on the circuit, and his career-high eight victories in 2010 placed him just behind Johnson in the final points list.
Many of NASCAR's best are blessed with an inherent fearlessness and mental toughness, but Hamlin has proven to be tough as nails in terms of handling physical pain.
Hamlin tore his ACL at the beginning of 2010 but decided to drive through the injury. He eventually went in for surgeries while the season was going on to prevent further damage (h/t ESPN). In spite of that, he managed to have raging success.
If any driver can overcome adversity and thrive, it's Hamlin. He may not be as high on the list of favorites for some, but he knows how to get in the winner's circle. Hamlin tied Keselowski and Johnson for most victories in 2012 and should continue to build on that for Joe Gibbs racing.