The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is right around the corner. The Shootout at Daytona is a week from Saturday, with the Super Bowl of NASCAR, the Daytona 500, officially kicking off the new season Feb. 24. The circuit introduces a Gen-6 car this year, which is drawing raves as an upgrade on the Car of Tomorrow.
Few people saw Brad Keselowski’s run to a Sprint Cup Championship last year coming. It was only Keselowski’s third year as a full-time driver on the Sprint Cup circuit, but he won the title in the season’s final race at Homestead over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson to deliver the first Sprint Cup to Penske Racing.
Consistency was what won it for Keselowski. He had five victories and spread them out throughout the year: March at Bristol, May at Talladega, late June at Kentucky and then at Chicago and Dover in the Chase for the Championship. Overall, Keselowski had 17 top-10 finishes in the final 20 races of 2012. During the Chase, he never finished lower than 15th and bested his career average finish at every track. It took Keselowski 125 career starts in the series to win the points title, the fewest since Jeff Gordon in 1995 (93 starts).
So now Keselowski has a target on his back, and he is the 15-2 second-favorite at Bovada to repeat. Throwing out Johnson’s epic five straight titles from 2006-10, no driver has repeated as champion since Gordon in 1997 and ’98. In addition, Keselowski’s Penske Racing team is switching manufacturers from Dodge to Ford this year.
Johnson is the 17-4 favorite to win title No. 6, which would move him within one of the record seven held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Johnson was the only other driver with a chance to beat out Keselowski at Homestead, as he was 20 points down. But mechanical issues plagued Johnson, and he finished 36th in the race. A blown tire the week before in Phoenix led to a 32nd-place finish for Johnson and gave Keselowski a nice lead heading into the finale. Johnson’s biggest problem came in the four restrictor-plate events Daytona and Talladega. Johnson had an average finish of 32.5 in those races. An average of 14 spots better, and Johnson would have won the Sprint Cup.
Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch are at 17-2. Hamlin finished sixth in the points last season. He tied Keselowski and Johnson for the series lead with five wins but was well behind those two with 17 top-10 finishes overall. He had seven finishes outside the top 10 in the final 11 races. Busch, Hamlin’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, had one victory in 2012 and finished 13th in points. Busch, who failed to qualify for the Chase, was among the NASCAR’s lap leaders, but mechanical issues plagued his car often.
Kasey Kahne (9-1) rounds out the favorites. Many are calling him the potential Keselowski of this year. Kahne won twice a year ago and finished a career-high fourth in points. He was 31st in points after the first six races but had those two wins among 12 top-five finishes and 19 top-10 results afterward.
Is this the year Dale Earnhardt Jr. (14-1), NASCAR’s most popular driver, joins his late daddy as a Sprint Cup Champion? Junior ended his 143-race winless streak in 2012 and was among the points leaders much of the year. However, a concussion forced Earnhardt to sit out two Chase races and ended his championship hopes. He finished 12th in the points.
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