NASCAR 2013 Power Rankings: Complete Preseason List of the Best Drivers

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistFebruary 22, 2013

NASCAR 2013 Power Rankings: Complete Preseason List of the Best Drivers

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    Sunday's 55th running of the Daytona 500 will kick off a new NASCAR Sprint Cup season full of promise and excitement.

    Every driver that takes the green flag on Sunday is a potential winner and a potential champion in the making—well, at least for one race.

    Where those same drivers wind up 35 races later—after the season finale at Homestead—is a whole different story.

    That's why, while Daytona is still the biggest race of the season, the outcome of Sunday's race doesn't necessarily mean all that much in how the season ultimately plays out.

    But this is still Daytona. Once a Daytona champion, always a Daytona champion. Even if you never win a Cup championship, a Daytona 500 title means almost as much. Just ask guys like Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick and others.

    As we look forward to seeing how every driver will do on Sunday, this article will serve as the first piece in a series of power rankings that will the track progress—or lack thereof—of the top drivers in NASCAR from now through Homestead.

    While there will typically be 20 drivers featured in each subsequent edition of NASCAR Power Rankings, this article will feature 23 drivers in order to include two drivers who did not finish in the top-20 last season (Juan Pablo Montoya and Kurt Busch), as well as Daytona 500 pole sitter Danica Patrick.

    Gentlemen, start your engines...

23. Paul Menard

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 16th

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 0-1-9

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 6th (2012)

    Paul Menard finished with a career-best sixth place finish in last year's Daytona 500, and then finished 16th overall in the Sprint Cup season standings, as well.

    This could be a very pivotal year for Menard, as Kevin Harvick will be leaving Richard Childress Racing at the end of this season, moving to Stewart Haas Racing in 2014.

    And with Austin Dillon likely to jump to Sprint Cup in 2014—along with rumors that Kurt Busch may wind up at RCR next season as well—Menard's job security could be predicated upon whether he shows significant improvement in the standings this season.

    If he makes the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time, that would go a long way towards keeping him in the RCR fold in 2014.

22. Jeff Burton

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 19th

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 0-2-6

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 2nd (2000)

    Like his Richard Childress Racing teammate Paul Menard, Jeff Burton's job security after this season appears shaky at best.

    Burton has become a virtual non-entity the last few seasons, practically a forgotten man due to his lack of performance. And for the same reasons mentioned in the Menard slide, Burton has a lot to worry about.

    He needs to also have a big comeback season in 2013 or he may be looking for a new home in 2014.

21. Martin Truex Jr.

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 11th

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 0-7-19

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 6th (2010)

    While Martin Truex Jr. had a decent season in 2012, which included him making the Chase for only the second time in his career, his eventual 11th place finish wasn't exactly what he had hoped for.

    With teammate Clint Bowyer finishing second in the 2012 standings, and in his first season with Michael Waltrip Racing, the onus will be on Truex to do even better in 2013.

    His job security is pretty much assured, but the one thing Truex can't do is let Bowyer get too far ahead of him again like he did in 2012.

20. Juan Pablo Montoya

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 22nd

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 0-0-2

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 6th (2011)

    After having his worst overall season in his six-year Sprint Cup career in 2012, Juan Pablo Montoya could be on the hot seat at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in 2013.

    Either Montoya has a huge upswing in performance and makes the Chase for only the second time in his career, or he may be looking for another team in 2014.

    A strong finish at Daytona—not to mention staying out of the way and not causing trouble for other drivers—could go a long way toward putting Montoya on solid footing going forward.

    That is, provided Montoya doesn't do what he did in last year's 500 and run into another track jet dryer. 

19. Marcos Ambrose

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 18th

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 1-3-8

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 13th (2012)

    We've been saying for the last four seasons that Marcos Ambrose is due for a breakout season.

    Could 2013 finally be that season?

    Ambrose has shown steady improvement since leaving his native Australia to come to the United States to seek fame and fortune in NASCAR.

    He has an innate talent that holds a great deal of promise. Will he finally see better performances to really showcase that talent in 2013? Yes, we think so.

    If he doesn't make the Chase this season, it would be very disappointing to Ambrose and his growing legion of fans.

18. Danica Patrick

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    2012 Nationwide Series Season Finish: 10th

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 0-0-4

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: Sunday is her first start

    Yes, we know this is Danica Patrick's first full-time season in Sprint Cup.

    While we still see her finishing the season somewhere between 20th and 25th in the final standings, her surprise pole position for the Daytona 500 puts Patrick on the radar as someone to watch this season.

    Who knows, she may even win Daytona. After all, stranger things have happened—just look at how Trevor Bayne came out of nowhere in 2011 to win the 500.

    With a few breaks and some good pushes in the final lap of Sunday's race, Patrick could continue rewriting NASCAR history.

17. Jamie McMurray

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 20th

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 0-0-3

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 1st (2010)

    Much like teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, Jamie McMurray needs a big comeback season in 2013, lest he may not be around in 2014—at least not with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.

    EGR has made a number of changes for 2013, including switching from motors built in-house through its partnership with Richard Childress Racing to purchasing powerplants from Hendrick Motorsports.

    If that doesn't show you how serious team majority owner Chip Ganassi is about taking his organization to the next level, wait until you see what Ganassi does if McMurray and Montoya fall far short of expectations again in 2013.

16. Joey Logano

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 17th

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 1-2-12

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 9th (2012)

    Joey Logano spent the last four seasons in the shadow of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. With his move to Penske Racing in 2013, which has also made him teammates with defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, don't be surprised if Logano has a significantly better season at his new home than he ever did at his old home.

    But let's not expect miracles, either. Still, Logano should likely improve at Penske Racing, and perhaps even make he Chase.

    The key for him will be to show what he can do now that he's out of Busch's and Hamlin's shadows.

15. Ryan Newman

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 14th

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 1-6-14

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 1st (2008)

    Ryan Newman may be yet another driver who is faced with the need to show a significantly better performance in 2013. Otherwise, he be looking for a new ride for 2014.

    With team owner Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick not going anywhere, and with Kevin Harvick set to join the Stewart Haas Racing stable in 2014, the pressure is definitely on for Newman in 2013.

    This season, it's imperative that he makes the Chase, wins at least a couple of races and does whatever he needs to do to keep his job at SHR.

14. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 12th

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 1-10-20

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 1st (2004)

    After winning his first race since 2008 last season, as well as a strong showing in the first 26 races of 2012, Earnhardt appeared poised to finally win that long-awaited first Sprint Cup championship.

    Unfortunately, he suffered a concussion at the fall Chase race at Talladega that knocked him out of the following two races and also ended his title hopes.

    Still, we have a good feeling about Junior in 2013, based a lot on what he did during the first two-thirds of the 2012 season.

    The most important thing is, while the consistency he showed last season was great, there's no question that he has to go out and win at least two or three races in 2013 and also become a bona fide championship contender.

13. Jeff Gordon

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 10th

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 2-11-18

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 1st (1997, 1999, 2005)

    Jeff Gordon's win in the 2012 season finale at Homestead showed that he still has a lot left in his tank.

    Plus, with the way he intentionally wrecked Clint Bowyer at Phoenix the week before, Gordon showed that he's not gotten soft and remains no one to mess around with.

    We think Gordon still has it in him to win that elusive fifth Sprint Cup championship, especially since his last Cup crown was 12 years ago in 2001.

    Perhaps more so than any other driver, it's going to be very interesting watching Gordon in 2013.

12. Carl Edwards

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 15th

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 0-3-13

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 2nd (2011)

    Carl Edwards hasn't won a race in his last 69 starts. He's also coming off a terrible season in 2012 after losing the championship in 2011 by a tie-breaker.

    Edwards needs a huge comeback season and a strong showing at Daytona will go a long way towards helping him achieve that goal.

    Edwards has it in him to win four or five races, and with veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig atop the war wagon this season, he could bounce back to mirror what he did in 2011, while also finally forgetting completely about what he didn't do in 2012.

11. Denny Hamlin

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 6th

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 5-14-17

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 4th (2012)

    Much like the question is with Dale Earnhardt Jr.: will Denny Hamlin ever win a Sprint Cup championship? He had a great chance in 2010, only to fold at the end of the season.

    Hamlin tied Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson for the most wins in 2012 with five, yet he finished a disappointing sixth in the overall standings while Keselowski won the championship and Johnson finished third.

    Hamlin needs to return to where he was at in 2010 and become a serious player in the championship battle in 2013.

10. Greg Biffle

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 5th

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 2-12-21

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 3rd (2010, 2012)

    If there's a darkhorse for both Sunday's Daytona 500 as well as the overall Sprint Cup championship in 2013, it's Greg Biffle.

    Biffle almost won the Daytona 500 last year and had a strong Chase for the Sprint Cup last season as well.

    But it's time for him to step up and win that elusive Cup championship. If he does, he would be in a class of his own, becoming the first driver in NASCAR history to ever win championships in all three pro classes, after having already won titles in the Nationwide and Camping World Trucks series.

    We feel strongly that 2013 could be Biffle's year. All he has to do is go out and perform.

9. Matt Kenseth

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 7th

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 3-13-19

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 1st (2009, 2012)

    The defending Daytona 500 winner is with a new team in 2013, Joe Gibbs Racing, but he's still the same old Matt, a.k.a. Mr. Consistency.

    Kenseth is one of the most consistent drivers on the Cup circuit, and even with the move to JGR, he should have no problem picking up where he left off from in his final season at Roush Fenway Racing in 2012.

    In fact, we wouldn't be surprised to see Kenseth pull off a huge upset in 2013 and win his second career Cup championship.

8. Jimmie Johnson

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 3rd

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 5-18-24

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 1st (2006)

    After watching his five-year championship run end in 2011, Jimmie Johnson came back with a vengeance in 2012.

    Unfortunately for him and his fans, he fell short when mechanical problems at Homestead cost him the championship.

    From everything we've seen and heard from Johnson thus far during the offseason and in Speedweeks, his motivation is as strong as it was during his championship years.

    The 2013 Sprint Cup championship is there for the taking for Johnson, who wants a sixth title perhaps even more than any of the first five titles he won from 2006-2010.

7. Kasey Kahne

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 4th

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 2-12-19

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 7th (2007, 2008)

    Kasey Kahne has always had the potential to win the Daytona 500 as well as a Sprint Cup championship.

    Unfortunately, the equipment he was in wasn't always equal to the task. That is until 2012, when Kahne—in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports—flew under the radar most of the season and ultimately finished a career-best fourth in the final standings.

    We see Kahne doing even better this season. It would be great to see him win the Daytona 500, and we wouldn't be surprised if he does so. 

    Keep a close eye on the No. 5 Chevrolet in 2013. Trust me, you'll thank me at season's end.

6. Brad Keselowski

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 1st

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 5-13-23

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 36th (2010)

    Brad Keselowski did in 2012 what Rusty Wallace, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and several other stars never could: give Roger Penske his first-ever Sprint Cup championship.

    Now it's time for Keselowski to prove that 2012 was not a fluke. While oftentimes defending champions have let-down seasons after winning the championship the year before, we don't feel that way about Keselowski in 2013.

    He proved to be one of the toughest, most hard-nosed competitors in 2013, bringing back an old school style of racing that has been missing from the sport for a long time.

5. Kurt Busch

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 25th

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 0-1-5

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 2nd (2003, 2005, 2008)

    What, did I hit my head? Picking Kurt Busch for fifth place in the preseason NASCAR Power Rankings?

    Yes, I feel Busch could wind up being one of the biggest surprises of 2013.

    The elder Busch brother is poised to make a big jump up in 2013 with Furniture Row Racing. Not only does FRR have a better and larger organization than Phoenix Racing—whom Busch raced for most of last season before moving to FRR midway through the Chase—but he comes into this season hungry to get back to his former level as one of the top drivers in the sport.

    Remember, Busch won the first Chase championship in 2004 with Roush Racing and still has a lot of potential success left in him.

    Plus there could be some added incentive that Busch may be on the radar of even bigger and better funded teams for 2014, the most notable being Richard Childress Racing.

    Busch wanted a second chance after losing his ride at Penske Racing at the end of 2011, and he's getting that. How far he takes this second chance is up to him, but we think he can potentially shock quite a few fans in 2013. Time will tell.

4. Clint Bowyer

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 2nd

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 3-10-23

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 4th (2009, 2010)

    Clint Bowyer is my preseason favorite to win the Sprint Cup championship. He also has a good shot at winning the Daytona 500.

    Putting him fourth in the preseason rankings isn't a slight nor a knock. We just think Bowyer has some extremely strong competition ahead of him heading into 2013.

    How he responds Sunday and in the following five or six races will go a long way in determining if last year's runner-up finish was a fluke or a sign of even bigger and better things to come.

3. Kyle Busch

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 13th

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 1-13-20

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 4th (2008)

    Winning the second of the Twin Duels on Thursday further reinforced and reaffirmed our belief that after a terrible season in 2012, Kyle Busch will be out for vengeance in 2013.

    The younger Busch brother has had an outstanding career thus far, but he has never really come close to what every driver wants: a Sprint Cup championship.

    We get the impression, though, that Busch is going to come out of the box and go for the jugular immediately on Sunday—and then build from there.

    "Kyle Busch, 2013 Sprint Cup Champion," has a nice ring to it. The question is: can he finally deliver?

2. Kevin Harvick

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 8th

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 1-5-14

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 1st (2007)

    Kevin Harvick won the first of Thursday's Twin Duels to follow up on his win in the Sprint Unlimited last week.

    Even though this will be his final season of racing for Richard Childress Racing, Harvick has already made it quite clear that he won't be a lame duck in 2013.

    Rather, before he moves to Stewart Haas Racing in 2014, Harvick would like nothing more than to finally win his first career Sprint Cup championship. It would be a great way to say thanks to team owner Richard Childress for giving him a chance when the late Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

    Don't be surprised if Harvick adds yet another win to his early season success, namely Sunday's Daytona 500. He's already won one, so why not a second?

1. Tony Stewart

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    2012 Sprint Cup Season Finish: 9th

    2012 Wins—Top 5s—Top 10s: 3-12-16

    Best Career Daytona 500 finish: 2nd (2004)

    Tony Stewart has 14 starts in the Daytona 500 (Sunday will be his 15), yet he has never won the Great American Race.

    We think that will change Sunday. Much like the frustration the late Dale Earnhardt felt—waiting 20 years before finally winning his first, and only, Daytona 500 in 1998—Stewart has equally had his share of frustration in the season opener.

    But after his mediocre Chase last season, especially following his outstanding Chase in 2011 that included five wins en route to his third career Cup championship, we feel that Stewart will be a man possessed in 2013.

    And it will all start Sunday at Daytona. "Tony Stewart, Daytona 500 champion." You have to admit, it has a great ring to it, doesn't it?

    Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski


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