20. 9-Marcos Ambrose, (Richard Petty Motorsports Ford)
Ambrose has won the last two races at Watkins Glen in stirring fashion. He has also proven to be vastly improved on the ovals. However, he is entering his fifth full season on the Sprint Cup circuit, so the time is now for him to finally conquer victory on a track that requires left turns only. If he can accomplish that, which is likely on a track such as Texas, Bristol, or Charlotte, he could emerge as a serious Wild Card threat, because it is plausible to believe that he will win at least one of the two road course races, if not both.
19. 78-Kurt Busch, (Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet)
Some pundits truly believed that Busch’s move to Furniture Row Racing was a lateral move from Phoenix Racing. However, that theory was debunked as soon as Busch stringed together three successive top ten finishes to conclude the 2012 season. With that said, I still do not see Busch as a serious threat to enter the Chase for the Championship. This organization has taken radical steps to succeed, as they are closely aligned with Richard Childress Racing, but there is too much talent near the front for this group to sneak into the Chase. A win, though, is possibly in the cards.
18. 31-Jeff Burton, (Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet)
Richard Childress Racing has been a difficult organization to figure out in recent seasons. I do believe we will see marked improvement from Burton’s team. Burton will welcome back crew chief Luke Lambert to the fold, and the two will possibly compete for some victories. I still doubt that they are Chase-material at this moment. It is has been quite awhile since Burton has truly been competitive. I think he is driving for his job in 2013.
17. 29-Kevin Harvick, (Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet)
I just do not see this ‘lame duck’ situation working quite like that of Matt Kenseth/Jack Roush and Tony Stewart/Darian Grubb. They are going to have some solid performances, as I believe that RCR is better than they were 2012. Still, I think that this team was doomed ever since the imminent move to Stewart Haas Racing for 2014 leaked out at Phoenix last November. Harvick will not be the top running RCR driver in 2013, and that will frustrate the fiery driver.
16. 39-Ryan Newman, (Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet)
Newman faces quite a bit of uncertainty heading in 2013. He signed a one-year deal to remain with the No. 39 team, and with the addition Danica Patrick and the impending arrival of Harvick, Newman could find himself searching for a new ride in 2014. Newman is a talented and astute driver who knows how to win, but without adequate sponsorship, this may be a stressful season. With that said, winning cures all, so if Newman can put together a few wins, he can rest much easier knowing that his services will be pursued for 2014 and beyond.
15. 22-Joey Logano, (Penske Racing Ford)
While I thought Sam Hornish Jr earned this ride with some solid performances after taking over for A.J. Allmendinger, Logano will get a second and perhaps final shot in the Sprint Cup series. He underachieved with Joe Gibbs Racing, but in all fairness, he was promoted long before he was ready. Logano should contend for some wins, and possibly a spot in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship. However, he is still considered a second-tier driver until he proves otherwise. I would be surprised if he qualifies for NASCAR’s version of the playoffs
14. 27-Paul Menard, (Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet)
Harvick’s impending departure may benefit Menard more than we presently know. In a sport that is starving for sponsors, Menard’s driving services is packaged in with big money sponsorship from his father’s family business. In a contract year, Childress would be wise to put a high priority on focusing more so than ever on Menard’s program, making sure he gets into victory lane and into the Chase. Menard has proven to have the consistency, as he rarely is involved in accidents. He just needs some speed, and this could be a year in which we see an upsurge in RCR’s program. Menard could be this year’s Martin Truex Jr. I think Menard and the Dillon boys are the future of RCR.
13. 56-Martin Truex Jr, (Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota)
The good news is that I believe Truex Jr will finally win a race for NAPA and MWR. The bad news is that I believe he will narrowly miss the cut for the Chase for the Championship. It is not that Truex lacks talent. I just believe that the pool of talent towards the front is too deep, and there will be some drivers that struggled in 2012 that will rebound nicely in 2013. Look for Truex Jr to continue to be fast, and win a race at an intermediate track, but fall just a bit short once September rolls around.
12. 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr, (Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet)
Earnhardt Jr’s comeback season was derailed by a concussion that eventually forced him to miss two races in the Chase for the Championship. His win at Michigan last summer was perhaps the most popular win since his previous win at Michigan in 2008. I can see Earnhardt Jr winning a couple of races in 2013, as he and Steve Letarte really seem to work well together. Not since Tony Eury Sr has a crew chief been able to put NASCAR’s most popular driver on the winning track. Expect another solid outing for Earnhardt Jr in 2013.
11. 99-Carl Edwards, (Roush Fenway Racing Ford)
After finishing on the losing end of an exhilarating championship duel with Tony Stewart in 2011, things only went downhill for Edwards in 2012. He failed to qualify for the Chase for the Championship and dropped a doughnut in the win column. Basically, Edwards would just as well forget the 2012 season ever happened. I expect some improvement from Edwards in 2013 with championship winning crew chief jimmy Fennig at the helm. He should return to victory lane, as well as the annual Chase for the Championship. If not, there will be some tough questions to answer at the end of the year for both Edwards and Jack Roush.