NASCAR 2013 Prediction No.13: Sprint Cup Series Champion and Top-5

by Ryan Isley

Writer’s Note: This is Part 13 in a 13-Part series. Each Friday from November 23rd to February 15th, Ryan will make a prediction for the 2013 NASCAR season spanning over all three main touring series – Sprint Cup Series, Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series. On February 8th and 15th, Ryan will predict the 12 drivers who will make the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase and the Sprint Cup champion. You can check out all of the predictions here.

Last week I examined the drivers who would make the Chase but would fall short of a top-5 finish. This week I work my way through the top-5 until I get to the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. (Don’t look ahead and kill the anticipation).

5. Jeff Gordon – No.24, Hendrick Motorsports

2012 Finish: 5th

Career Best Finish:  1st (1995,1997,1998,2001)

2012 Wins: 2

2012 Top-5: 11

2012 Top-10: 18

My pick to win the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, Gordon was the final driver to make the Chase when he passed Kyle Busch for the second wild card spot in the last race before the Chase field was set. Gordon is the active leader in career wins but has not won more than three races in a season since 2007 when he won six times.

After not winning a race in 2010 for the second time in three seasons, Gordon’s team saw a change at the top with crew chief Alan Gustafson coming on board. Since then, Gordon has five wins in two seasons, including two in the second half of last season. If the duo can build upon that success, Gordon will finish in the top-5 of the Sprint Cup standings for the 11th time in his career.

4. Brad Keselowski – No.2, Penske Racing

2012 Finish: 1st

Career Best Finish: 1st (2012) 

2012 Wins: 5

2012 Top-5: 13

2012 Top-10: 23

Despite what Jimmie Johnson did from 2006-2010, one of the hardest things to do in sports is to repeat as the champion. In fact, the last driver to win back-to-back championships before Johnson was Gordon in 1997 and 1998. Keselowski set the ground work for his championship by winning three times and grabbing 14 top-10 finishes in 2011 – just his second full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series. He improved on those numbers last season and then held off Johnson who was trying to win his sixth title in seven years.

Unfortunately for the driver of the “Blue Deuce,” he will be the center of attention for most of this season as the defending champion. While there are few that seem as equipped as Keselowski to handle the media attention, it will eventually take a toll. He will still finish fourth, giving him three straight seasons of finishing in the top-5.

3. Jimmie Johnson – No.48, Hendrick Motorsports

2012 Finish: 3rd

Career Best Finish:  1st (2006,2007,2008,2009,2010)

2012 Wins: 5

2012 Top-5: 18

2012 Top-10: 24

If there is anything we know, it is that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus simply know how to win races and championships.

Johnson enters 2013 looking to win his sixth title for the third consecutive season. After winning five straight, the driver of the No.48 Lowe’s Chevrolet has finished sixth in 2011 and then third last season. As last season came to a close, it looked like he was going to find a way to win that sixth title to put himself just one behind Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but Keselowski and Clint Bowyer were able to finish ahead of him when Johnson finished 32nd and 36th in the final two races.

Once again, Johnson will be in the mix coming down the stretch in 2013. But as was the case in 2012, the magic will run out a little too soon and he will take home a second straight third-place finish.

2. Denny Hamlin – No.11, Joe Gibbs Racing

2012 Finish: 6th

Career Best Finish: 2nd (2010)

2012 Wins: 5

2012 Top-5: 14

2012 Top-10: 17

Hamlin is coming off a season in which he found victory lane five times with new crew chief Darian Grubb after winning just one race in 2011. This is just two seasons after Hamlin won eight races in 2010. In the last four seasons, Hamlin has 18 wins despite that lone victory in 2011.

For Hamlin, 2013 will be a season in which he strives for more consistency. Despite the five wins, Hamlin also had eight finishes of 23rd or worse and had four finishes of 16th or worse in the 10 races of the Chase.

With the help of Grubb – who was the crew chief for Tony Stewart in his 2011 championship season – Hamlin will be a serious contender for the championship in 2013 but will come up just short.

1. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – No.88, Hendrick Motorsports

2012 Finish: 12th

Career Best Finish: 3rd (2003)

2012 Wins: 1

2012 Top-5: 10

2012 Top-10: 20

I really didn’t want to pick Earnhardt, Jr. Not because I don’t think he can win the championship, but because it seems like such an easy pick to make every season. I avoided doing it last season but I just think that 2013 will be the season in which he finally breaks through.

One of the reasons I believe this is the year for Earnhardt, Jr. is because he no longer has the winless streak hanging over him he has had the past few seasons. He was able to finally end that streak in Michigan last June after not finding victory lane for 143 consecutive races.

The driver of the No.88 Hendrick Chevrolet had one of his best seasons in some time in 2012, as his 10 top-5s were tied for his most since he had 16 in 2004 and his 20 top-10s were the most since his 21 in 2004. More impressive than his top-5s and top-10s however just might be the fact that he finished outside the top-20 in just five of the 34 races he entered. He also had just two finishes of worse than 25th with a 28th-place finish and a 32nd-place finish.

The partnership between driver and crew chief has continued to grow as this will be the third season for Steve Letarte as the crew chief for Earnhardt, Jr. The move to Letarte just may be what saved any chance that the 38-year-old driver had at winning a Sprint Cup Series championship in his career, a feat that his famous father accomplished a record-tying seven times.

After suffering multiple concussions in 2012 that ended any shot Earnhardt, Jr. had at winning the championship, his season of redemption will be 2013. I know Junior Nation is ready.

Well there you have it – all 13 of my NASCAR Predictions for the 2013 season. In perfect symmetry, there were 13 predictions for ’13 and it also began and ended with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Now let’s get ready enjoy another great season of NASCAR racing across all three of the main touring series.

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