Well, kids, it's the time of the year again. With the Daytona 500 just around the corner it's time for NASCAR writers of all shapes and sizes to make absolute fools of themselves by predicting who will make the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Who would have predicted that it would be Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer battling it out for the championship, leaving five time champion Jimmie Johnson in the dust?
Will we see something similar this season? Will a complete surprise- a Joey Logano, a Martin Truex, Jr., or a Ryan Newman- be holding the Sprint Cup Championship in Homestead? Will Johnson end his two year drought to earn his sixth? Can Jeff Gordon earn his way back to the champion's table for the first time in twelve years? We'll find out in 36 weeks, but for now here are my 12 picks, in no particular order, for the 2013 Chase:
Hamlin won five races in 2012 and entered the Chase leading the points, but an utter collapse by the No. 11 FedEx Toyota team saw Hamlin finish a disappointing sixth in the standings. In order to redeem himself and finally capture a championship in 2013, the new father has got to minimize poor finishes in final ten races.
Harvick nipped the 'lame duck' talk in the rear end by winning the Sprint Unlimited, and let there be no doubt that Harvick wants to win a championship for the team he began driving for after the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt. If Childress is willing to stand behind his number one driver for one more year, and the team continues the momentum they obtained after the return of crew chief Gil Martin, Happy Harvick could be hoisting the Cup in Victory Lane when the series rolls into Miami in November.
There is absolutely no reason on the planet for anyone to believe that Johnson won't make the Sprint Cup Chase. Despite the fact that Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski have kept the five time champ at the bay the past two seasons, counting Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus out of the championship would simply be ludicrous.
Despite the fact that Kenseth has moved from Roush-Fenway to Joe Gibbs Racing, I think the former Cup champ will make it three for three for JGR in the '13 Chase. Kenseth has only failed to make the Chase once, and his characteristic consistency will earn him a spot in the Chase, at least as a Wild Card.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Like Carl Edwards, I see Earnhardt, Jr. making the Chase, but beyond that I don't expect much from NASCAR's most popular driver. Junior's past runs at a championship has given me no reason to make a different deduction, but maybe with Danica around to take away some attention, things can turn around for the No. 88. Though I doubt it.
Despite the fact that NASCAR has banned drivers from Tweeting from their cars, look for our new champion to make a big splash in 2013, and the Chase. If Keselowski can repeat his five win, 23 top ten season, he might even take home Roger Penske's second Cup title.
Two 30th or worst place finishes in last years Chase doomed Gordon's otherwise spectacular run for the championship, where he won two of the last ten races. Like Hamlin, Gordon needs to better salvage bad runs if he hopes to win his first championship since 2001.
Some choices for who is making the Chase and who isn't are just obvious, and Stewart is one of those picks. Sure, he's going to have to deal with Danica Mania on a constant basis in 2013, but Smoke has never failed to make the Chase, and what evidence is there that this year will be any different?
Martin Truex, Jr.
Why not? Nobody saw one Michael Waltrip Racing car making the Chase last year, let alone both, with one making a run at the championship. I don't see any reason MWR won't continue to improve, and I predict Truex, Jr. will significantly improve upon his 11th place finish last season.
This is a bit of a long shot. For whatever reason, Newman just hasn't run as well as his owner and teammate Tony Stewart. With Danica moving to Cup, even more of Stewart Haas Racing's attention will be taken away from the struggling No. 39, but here's to hoping Newman can overcome all of that and make this prediction a correct one.
Busch failed to make the Chase in 2012 and had a dismal run for the Cup the year before that. Luckily for Rowdy, the third time will be the charm, because there's simply no way Joe Gibbs Racing will let their other star driver miss the Chase two years in a row. If Busch can keep his temper in check, and if Gibbs can avoid the engine problems that have so plagued them, Busch could become a favorite to win the title in 2013.
Cousin Carl will be a non-factor in the 2013 Chase, but hey, at least he'll be there. I see Edwards' getting into the championship hunt with one or two wins and several consistent finishes, but nothing spectacular.
So, my choice? Why not go out on a limb and pick Clint Bowyer. They say you have to lose a championship before you win one, and Bowyer barely let the 2012 Cup slip from his fingers. Let's see if 2013 can bring Bowyer and Michael Waltrip Racing their first Sprint Cup Championship.
Thanks to Racing Reference and NASCAR.com for the statistics used in this piece.