NASCAR fans have almost made it through the dreaded two month offseason that the sport must experience each year, as tomorrow’s Sprint Unlimited—formerly known as the Budweiser Shootout—marks the first Cup Series event of the year and comes a day before the much anticipated Speedweeks in which the drivers qualify for the Daytona 500 this Sunday, battle for the chance to improve their starting position on Thursday in the Budweiser Duels, and then race for the right to bring home the Harley J. Earl Trophy on Sunday.
The 2013 season will be one full of many significant changes to the Cup Series, namely in the race cars used. The much-maligned Car of Tomorrow is now a thing of the past, as NASCAR finally abandoned the transitional car design and switched to the Gen 6, which makes the cars most distinguishable according to their manufacture and rids the sport of the box-shaped car that featured unattractive spoilers and front splitters that constantly were bent and banged to a point in which handling the car was out of the question. Although there are still many questions concerning the Gen 6 which will continue to linger for the first part of the season, the Gen 6 has had favorable reviews from several drivers and spectators thus far, something that the COT unfortunately never garnered.
As important as the cars are to the sport, the drivers behind the wheels of these aforementioned automobiles are as equally crucial to the Cup Series due to each one’s popularity and ability to keep fans talking and showing up at the tracks. This offseason saw several notable drivers leave their longtime homes to venture out to greener pastures, which will undoubtedly be highly critiqued as the season gets going. Meanwhile, the series also had provided driving opportunities for some younger talent that has been silently waiting in the wings, making for the best Rookie of the Year battle since 2007 when Juan Pablo Montoya took home the award.
Without further ado, here’s a look at the ten Cup regulars who you need to keep an eye on during the duration of the 2013 season:
Danica Patrick, #10 Go Daddy Chevrolet – Like it or not, Danica Patrick is currently the face of auto racing, and this is the year that the thirty-year old must put up or shut up when it comes to competing in NASCAR. Patrick finished 10th in the Nationwide standings last season while piloting a car fielded by JR Motorsports, but she has yet to be in the hunt for a win in a stock car. Fans better prepare themselves for a slow transition by Patrick into the highest level of racing NASCAR offers and must also get ready to see Patrick climbing out of banged up race cars from time to time.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr, #17 Best Buy Ford – Stenhouse Jr’s second straight Nationwide Series championship seems to be forgotten by most this year mainly due to the fact that he is currently dating Danica Patrick, who will be his main competition for the series’ Rookie of the Year award. Tabbed to replace Matt Kenseth in the #17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, Stenhouse has proven that he can drive during his successful stint in the Nationwide Series, but it is not clear at this point if he can balance racing for a championship against the likes of Johnson, Gordon, and Earnhardt. Keep a look out for Stenhouse, who has the makings to be the sport’s next young gun to take the bull by the horns.
Brad Keselowski, #2 Miller Lite Ford – Keselowski surprised everyone last season with his great performance down the stretch in the Chase, as he notched two wins and eight top-10s on his way to the Sprint Cup championship in just his third full season in Cup. Only twenty-nine years old, Keselowski still has plenty of time to make some more noise on the NASCAR circuit, and judging by his tendency to say just about whatever he thinks, it appears that he will do just that in 2013 and in the years to come.
Matt Kenseth, #20 Home Depot Toyota – One of the most consistent drivers in NASCAR history, Kenseth made a huge career move following the end of the 2012 season, opting to leave Roush Fenway Racing, which failed to secure reliable sponsorship for the 2003 champion, for Joe Gibbs Racing, which is seeking its first championship since Tony Stewart brought the team the title in 2005. Although it will take the spectators a good bit of time to adjust to not piecing Kenseth and the #17 together anymore, Kenseth being competitive on a week-to-week basis will not take any time at all. Don’t be surprised if the Cambridge, Wisconsin native is in the running for the championship once the teams head to Homestead in November.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr, #88 Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet – The sport’s most popular driver for the last decade, Earnhardt finally got things going at Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, which saw Little E win his first race since 2008 and compete for his first Cup title until a concussion sidelined him for two races in October. Now rested and ready to make another run at the Cup, Earnhardt has the eyes of nearly all of his father’s fans set on him, wondering if this will be the year that an Earnhardt brings home a Cup championship again.
Jeff Gordon, #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet – NASCAR’s most talented and most hated driver over the past twenty years, Gordon has continued to show that he is not going to hang back and drive around on Sundays, instead opting to battle for leads and push the envelope, just as he has done for his entire Cup career. Now without iconic sponsor DuPont on his hood (the company was bought out by Axalta Coating Systems), the #24 may look different on the outside, but there’s seems to be absolutely no evidence to say that it will be driven any different this year.
Tony Stewart, #14 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet – While the 2012 season was by no means a failure for Stewart (3 wins and 16 top 10s), it was not as successful as his 2011 championship venture, and when it was all said and done the veteran finished 9th in the standings. Now with Danica Patrick running for Stewart Haas Racing full-time, it will be interesting to see if the new aspects of his team become a distraction to Stewart, a driver that has had plenty in his time behind the wheel but has never let a single one become a distraction.
Carl Edwards, #99 Fastenal Ford – Edwards followed up just missing out on the 2011 championship with a disastrous 2012 season, managing just 2 Top 5s with 0 wins—his first winless season since 2009—which led to Edwards missing the Chase. Edwards is one of the most popular and most competitive drivers in NASCAR, so keeping the 99 car running at the front of the pack will definitely be an acceptable and realistic goal for 2013.
Kurt Busch, #78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet – Kurt Busch has been the Charlie Sheen of the Cup Series over the last few years, as the Nevada native has been given several high-prestige opportunities only to show his hind-end and let his anger management issues get the best of him; come to think of it, I guess Kurt would be a perfect guest star on Sheen’s Anger Management. Busch goes into the 2013 season with Furniture Row Racing, a small-scale Cup team that had fifteen minutes of fame when Regan Smith drove the #78 to victory in the 2011 Showtime 500 at Darlington. If Busch keeps his cool and races with his head placed firmly on his shoulders, Furniture Row could be in the top 15 more often than not; if Busch loses his mind and makes a mockery of NASCAR again, not only will it be a replay of his tenure with Phoenix Racing, but it could also lead to the talented driver’s ouster from Cup.
Jimmie Johnson, #48 Lowes Chevrolet – Do you really think you could leave off 5-Time from any NASCAR countdown list? Arguably one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers, Johnson’s lack of championships over the past two years is not from a lack of trying, because in that time frame he has racked up seven wins, thirty-two top 5s, and 45 top 10s. Barring some sort of incredible setback, expect the Lowes Chevy to be pulling into Victory Lane several times this season.
And just for a little added bonus, here’s my prediction on how the 2013 final standings will look:
1. Danica Patrick (Sorry guys, but this isn’t Hollywood!)
1. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
2. Matt Kenseth
3. Jimmie Johnson
4. Carl Edwards
5. Brad Keselowski
6. Jeff Gordon
7. Kyle Busch
8. Kevin Harvick
9. Denny Hamlin
10. Clint Bowyer
11. Tony Stewart
12. Joey Logano
Also, your 2013 Daytona 500 Champion will be… Mr. Kyle Busch.