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Breaking Down the Early Favorites for the NASCAR Sprint Cup

Nick JoosContributor IIIApril 14, 2013

Breaking Down the Early Favorites for the NASCAR Sprint Cup

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    Early favorites for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup are beginning to emerge, and early on, there are definitely some surprises near the top.

    Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch lead the pack, and that can't come as much of a surprise. But are they the favorites? 

    When judging title contenders, it's difficult to discount teams leading the standings. Sometimes, though, those teams are not the fastest. Overall, we must analyze not only the standings but also the individual races.

    Who has displayed consistent speed week in and week out? While running consistently and posting top-10 finishes is great, it doesn't usually translate into a championship, especially in the Chase era. 

    A team must be up front and show the speed it takes to win, because at the end of the season, winning is everything. 

    This article will break down the favorites for the championship, the main challengers to the favorites and a couple dark horses as well. 

    All statistics in this article were obtained from ESPN.com.

The Favorites

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    Jimmie Johnson

    An easy pick indeed. Jimmie Johnson leads the point standings, possesses two wins on the season and has showed considerable speed at each track, save Bristol (one of his weakest tracks). The most valuable attribute the 48 Team has right now, though, over their main challengers is experience. 

    The other favorites do not possess the experience Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have. Of course, not many do, but it would be foolish to bet against the No. 48 team in any season. This pick is obligatory but legit. 

     

    Kyle Busch

    Busch has had possibly the fastest car, on average, in the first part of the season. Shrub has led the most laps out of any driver and has dominated in both of his wins, speeding his way to five straight top-five finishes in the process. Not to mention the No. 18 has an average starting position of fifth. 2013 might be the year for the younger Busch brother.

    We've all known Busch to be one of the most talented drivers on the circuit, but he has never been able to put the complete package together, and his talent usually goes for naught. This year, however, it seems his anger and attitude are both under control. 

    Busch was given a pit road speeding penalty in three straight weeks at Las Vegas and Bristol and in the Nationwide Series at Phoenix. Coming back from those penalties takes some definite concentration and composure. 

    If Busch can continue to keep his head on straight, he has the team and car to win his first Sprint Cup championship.

     

    Matt Kenseth

    Is it odd to see a driver currently 11th in the point standings listed as a favorite to win the championship? Of course it is. Kenseth has been one of the fastest cars week in and week out, but Lady Luck has not been on his side. 

    His Joe Gibbs No. 20 Toyota was the fastest car at Daytona before suffering a mechanical failure, and he seemed to have the fastest car at Bristol before being caught up in a freak accident with Jeff Gordon while battling for the lead. At Martinsville, the No. 20 seemed capable of challenging Jimmie Johnson for the win as well.

    With the speed the 20 team has showed thus far in the season, it's only a matter of time before their luck turns around and Kenseth contends for his second career championship.

The Challengers

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    Brad Keselowski

    The defending champion has been the mold of consistency early on in the 2013 Sprint Cup season. And there's something to be said for that.

    The No. 2 team has also had its share of bad luck this season, but in the true mold of a championship team, it has rebounded to post multiple strong finishes. Take last Saturday's race in Texas, for example. Keslowski was a lap down almost the entire race, and his car did not have the speed to challenge for a win. It just didn't. 

    However, on one of the final caution flags, the Blue Deuce received the Lucky Dog and was placed on the lead lap. Keselowski, in a great display of driving, pushed his squirrely car across the line in ninth, a testament to a team who is able to turn nothing into something. The No. 2 needs to find a bit more speed, and if they can, they will be a force to be reckoned with. 

     

    Kasey Kahne

    If last year was Kahne's breakout season, this may be the season when he establishes himself as the second-best driver at Hendrick Motorsports

    It's incredible to think Kahne's 13 top-five finishes during his rookie season in 2004 is still a career high. That's fixing to change this year, as the No. 5 team has been consistently speedy, especially at the 1.5-mile tracks. Kahne led the most laps at Las Vegas and had a very fast car in the Daytona 500 before getting punted by Kyle Busch.

    Kahne and Kenny Francis have the second-longest driver/crew chief relationship behind the Hall of Fame tandem of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. That familiarity with each other might just push the No. 5 car to places it has never been before. 

     

    Jeff Gordon

    If Matt Kenseth's season has been unlucky, then Jeff Gordon's is cursed.

    Gordon's opportunities to win have been there in at least three races, and maybe more. The No. 24 car has been just as fast as the likes of Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, but seems to always find itself struggling to find the finish line in one piece.

    We already explored the fiasco at Bristol, but remember what happened at Martinsville? He probably would have won if cautions at the end hadn't come out. When watching Gordon this season, it seems the team has a swagger about it that is tough to ignore. Considering the way the cars have been running, combined with Jeff Gordon's experience and Hendrick Motorsports' power, Gordon might be in the running for his fifth career Sprint Cup championship come fall.

The Dark Horses

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    Joey Logano

    I almost considered putting Logano on the slide before this, but the reason he drops to this slide is the same reason Kyle Busch doesn't have a championship.

    Logano is a young, rather hot-headed driver with something to prove, like Busch was. It's a formula that doesn't usually end well. However, Brad Keselowski did it last year, so Logano might be capable of contending for the championship in 2013.

    Overall, Logano has run very well thus far, and his cars have been consistently speedy. He may have had the best car in Bristol, but got into it just a bit (or a lot) with Denny Hamlin. Then he lost the win at Auto Club Speedway on the final lap. 

    With tracks like Pocono, Charlotte and Michigan—three of his best tracks—still on the schedule, Logano will look to notch a few victories before the season enters the stretch run. 

     

    Carl Edwards

    Cousin Carl has his mojo back. You can tell in his interviews that he is happy and his team is working well together. Jimmy Fennig came over to the 99 team for the 2013 season after Matt Kenseth departed for Joe Gibbs Racing, and it seems as if the switch is working well. Edwards broke through at Phoenix and won in dominating fashion. 

    As always, Edwards has been best on 1.5- to two-mile tracks, but if the No. 99 can perform well at the shorter tracks on the circuit, the 99 may be one to watch.

     

    Greg Biffle

    It seems as if the Biff is always near the top of the point standings but never really makes a serious charge. Believe it or not, Biffle led the 2012 season standings for 14 weeks before stalling out down the stretch. 

    The No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford is consistently near the top of the leaderboard as well, but lacks the elite speed. 

    Biffle is usually good for a couple wins each season, considering his success on 1.5-mile tracks. If the No. 16 team can mount the kind of tun they had early on last season in this year's Chase, anything can happen.

     

    On the cusp: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr.

    Not quite there yet: Jamie McMurray, Tony Stewart, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jeff Burton, Marcos Ambrose.

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