NASCAR still has a ways to go before the 2013 season enters the Chase, but which one of the current top-10 drivers is a contender or a pretender when it comes to the title hunt?
So far the Chase this year looks like it could see some familiar faces. Jimmie Johnson for example is first in points, and already seems like he’s ready to make a strong run for the championship.
The current top-10 drivers have been able to either pull off a couple of victories, or have managed to finish solid enough throughout a majority of races so far this season.
By the time NASCAR heads into the postseason, will we see the same 10 drivers compete for the Sprint Cup Championship?
Drivers like Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin sit outside of the top 10, but if they can continue to finish well and even win more races, they could make their way into the top 10, and knock out some of the current drivers.
The Gen-6 car managed to shake things up this season, but which one of these 10 drivers should be taken seriously in regards to having a shot at winning the Sprint Cup championship?
Jimmie Johnson is one of the top contenders heading into the Chase. It seems like regardless of what he does in the regular season, Johnson is always one to watch when the battle for the championship gets underway.
Johnson was a strong contender last year, winning a couple of races before the Chase started. This season though, Johnson looks even stronger.
He’s been able to adjust well to the Gen-6, and the team behind the 48 has been close to perfect. It's had minor problems, like at last weekend’s Charlotte race, but Johnson hasn’t struggled too much so far this season.
Johnson already appears to be championship ready, and is one of the strongest contenders to win the championship this year.
Jimmie Johnson: Contender
If you were to judge Carl Edwards and his chance to win the championship based on what he did last season, you would easily say he has no chance this year, even though he is second in points.
This season though, Edward’s has been one of the top drivers. It’s more than just recovering from a bad year though. Edwards was partnered with crew chief Jimmy Fennig, and the two seem to work well together.
Carl has been the top Ford driver, and is the only Roush-Fenway driver with a win this season. If he can continue to hold his solid momentum, he could make a championship run like his 2011 year.
Carl Edwards: Contender
Matt Kenseth has done something that seemed impossible. After driving for Roush-Fenway Racing his entire career, Kenseth made the jump to Joe Gibbs Racing. Instead of stumbling with a new organization and a new car manufacturer, Kenseth has been one of the most dominate drivers so far this season.
Regardless of the track, he is always up front and in the running to win the race. He’s already earned three victories this year, more than both of his Joe Gibbs teammates.
If Kenseth can keep up his solid performance throughout the rest of the regular season he will have a huge advantage moving into the Chase, which could be enough to help Toyota win its first championship.
Matt Kenseth: Contender
Clint Bowyer was last year’s runner-up. He’s also a solid pick to win the championship this year as well. While he hasn’t managed to win a race this season, Bowyer sits fourth in points.
The 15 team is still a relatively new group, and after the success it had in 2012 during its first year together, expect it to only improve as this year moves on.
Of course Clint will hopefully get a win or two as the regular season moves on, but what’s important to remember is how he came alive in the Chase.
Yes, he had two wins moving into the 2012 postseason, but it was his solid performance that propelled him up the point’s standings as he was chasing the championship.
If Bowyer and Gordon didn’t get into it at Phoenix, there is a very solid chance the 15 team would have been the ones to win the championship in 2012.
Clint Bowyer: Contender
Kasey Kahne has had a better season this year than he did in 2012.
Still, don’t expect him to win the championship when the season is coming to a close.
He’s probably one of the top competitors in the sport right now, but after last weekend’s Charlotte race, you have to wonder if Kahne and his crew chief Kenny Francis are on the same page.
Francis made the wrong call to stay out during the end of the Charlotte race, and it cost Kahne a victory.
Being a good driver is only one part of winning a championship, the other part requires a driver to have a great pit crew and a crew chief who can make the right calls.
Kahne might be a good driver, but the rest of the five team still has a lot to prove.
Kasey Kahne: Pretender
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has clearly made improvements as a driver since being paired up with crew chief Steve Letarte.
While he doesn’t have any wins this season, he sits sixth in the point standings, and is looking to make another run at the Chase if he can keep up his solid finishes.
Unfortunately for Jr. nation though, Dale is a pretender when it comes to winning the championship. Like other drivers on this list, Jr’s biggest problem is how he lacks the ability to win.
It won’t be a surprise to see him in the Chase, but unless he can come alive, he won’t be able to win the championship.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Pretender
Kevin Harvick has two wins this season, but don’t let those fool you.
The Closer might be good at sneaking in a victory when everyone else is focused on other drivers winning, but don’t expect him to steal the championship this season.
Harvick will more than likely make it into the Chase, but he won’t be able to keep up with the competition.
Harvick will be leaving Richard Childress Racing next year, and while it would be silly to say he doesn’t want to win a championship for RCR (what driver wouldn’t want to win a championship?) the organization has been lackluster over the recent years.
RCR simply can’t keep up with other organizations like Hendricks and Joe Gibbs, which will be Harvick’s eventual downfall in the Chase this season.
Kevin Harvick: Pretender
Paul Menard is running solid this year, and for a driver who really isn’t in the NASCAR headlines too much, his current position in the point standings is impressive.
The real question though, is will Menard be able to hold his current rank? Will he falter and lose his chance to make the Chase?
Being able to finish solid every week is great, but eventually Menard will need to win a race.
He’s doing well this year, compared to 2012, but it won’t be enough to win a championship.
Menard should consider himself lucky if he manages to make it into the Chase, but being able to walk away with the 2013 Sprint Cup Series Championship is a major stretch.
Paul Menard: Pretender
Martin Truex Jr. sits in the top 10 in points, but don’t let his current rankings fool you. Truex is doing what he did last year.
He has several solid finishes and could make it into the Chase without any wins, but will eventually fall down the standings.
His biggest problem is how he can never get a win. Truex and his team need to figure out how to put him in victory lane before he can ever be considered a serious Chase contender.
Will Truex make it into the Chase? If he can continue to finish well, it won’t be a surprise to see him competing in the postseason like he did last year.
Does he have a chance to win the championship? Considering how he struggles to win a race, Truex is a pretender and will more than likely end this year like he did last season: on a whimper.
Martin Truex Jr.: Pretender
Brad Keselowski is struggling this year.
The defending Sprint Cup Champion is sitting 10th in the points standing, and unless he can manage to win a race or two, he might find himself missing the Chase all together.
Maybe the switch to Ford as a manufacturer is having a negative impact on Keselowski, or perhaps it’s something else, but regardless if Brad wants to keep his title, the two team needs to make major improvements.
It’s hard to decide if Keselowski is a contender or pretender. Last season he was an underdog, and would have easily been considered a pretender. This season, if he makes it into the Chase, he is clearly a strong contender no matter what place he starts the postseason from.
Brad was able to beat the best drivers in the sport last year, and he has emerged as a top driver in NASCAR.
While it might be tough for Keselowski to make it into the Chase with the way the two team has been performing, expect them to turn it around, and end up in NASCAR’s postseason.
And when the Chase does start up, consider Keselowski a contender for the championship, as he tries to win back-to-back titles.
Brad Keselowski: Contender