On the first episode of the Granite Stripe Podcast, I made my predictions for the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup's final standings. Here's a written look at my picks and my reasoning.
Non-Chase Driver of Interest
Marcos Ambrose - It's unlikely he'll make the Chase, but he's a road course expert and he seems to be developing on the ovals. If he can win both road course races at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen, it's possible he could sneak one of the Chase's wild card spots with those two wins, because he should finish the season in the top-20.
Dark Horse for the Chase
Matt Kenseth - Okay, he's not at all a "dark horse," but if I referred to him as the season's "wild card," it could easily be confused with him making the Chase as a wild card, so I'm going to stay away from that term. I have a fork ready to eat my words that he won't make the Chase, but I truly don't know what to expect. He was at Roush Fenway Racing for so long that a change in both race team and manufacturer could prove to be a learning curve. It's also worth noting that Joey Logano wasn't overly successful with the No. 20 team, so I'm not sure if Kenseth will fare better. He's definitely has Chases left to make in his career, but I think he just misses in 2013.
The Chase's Final Standings
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Many of Junior's fans are excited about the Generation-6 car, saying it's similar to the Generation-4 in which he was very successful. That might be wishful thinking. I definitely see Junior in the Chase, I just don't see him as a top contender at season's end. With the exception of a six-win season in 2004, he's really never been the driver to beat.
11. Joey Logano - At just 22 years of age, Logano is already in his fifth Sprint Cup season. This kid honestly was just up too early, and after nine wins in the Nationwide Series last year, it appears he's following the natural progression of someone his age, and he should develop into a great Cup driver soon. The fresh start with a new team and the unveiling of a Gen-6 car he claims drives like last year's Nationwide ride, both seem to hint he's about to emerge.
10. Tony Stewart - Aside from his phenomenal run to the Sprint Cup championship in 2011, Stewart hasn't been an elite driver over the past few seasons. He didn't win in 2011 until the Chase, and while he had flashes of brilliance in 2012, he was more miss than hit. He's definitely a great driver, but he tends to be inconsistent.
9. Carl Edwards - I'm not sure what happened to the No. 99 team in 2012. After an incredible 19 top-fives in 2011, Edwards had just three in 2012. The struggles prompted the midseason removal of crew chief Bob Osbourne, but the team didn't fare any better without him. You have to expect Edwards will have better luck than 2012, but he doesn't appear close to being a top contender like he was in 2011.
8. Clint Bowyer - Michael Waltrip Racing was the biggest surprise in 2012, and Bowyer was the biggest beneficiary. I have to expect more things will go wrong than last year, which was a nearly flawless season for MWR, but I do expect Bowyer to be firmly entrenched in the Chase.
7. Brad Keselowski - The 2012 champion still isn't earning the respect he deserves. He's only 29, so he definitely has more championship runs left in him, but he hasn't been dominant to the point that he's the clear favorite for 2013.
6. Jeff Gordon - After a questionable and championship-less experience with the Car of Tomorrow, Gordon is beaming about the Generation-6 car. I still think that he wins one for the thumb (a reference to the Pittsburgh Steelers' lengthy quest for a fifth championship ring), and I expect he'll contend for that this season.
5. Kyle Busch - In most seasons, Busch puts together a great 26-race regular season and tanks in the Chase. Last year, he was phenomenal during the Chase, although he wasn't a part of the event. He's one of the most talented drivers in NASCAR - only the irrational deny that - and he's going to be very successful when he pieces together a whole season.
4. Kevin Harvick - With nothing to lose in the final year at Richard Childress Racing and an agreement to join Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, Harvick can just go out and drive. It seemed to work well for Matt Kenseth last year, who was in a similar situation, and I'm expecting big things from the No. 29.
3. Denny Hamlin - Ever since his near-miss at a championship in 2010, I've been expecting Hamlin to make another run. He won five races with Darian Grubb as his crew chief last year and the two appear to be one of NASCAR's best tandems.
2. Jimmie Johnson - Speaking of NASCAR's best tandems, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus nearly won their sixth championship in seven seasons last year before some bad luck in the final two races. Those that expect the team won't make a quick transition to the Gen-6 are kidding themselves; this team seems to be a step in front of most when it comes to the car and that's not going to change.
1. Kasey Kahne - I'm sure many expect a good season out of Kahne, but I'm probably in the minority in picking him to win the whole thing. Like Busch or Stewart, he seems to be able to drive anything with wheels and has a noticeable amount of driving talent. The switch to Hendrick Motorsports was the move he needed to make him an elite driver, and he finished fourth in last year's Chase, his first with the team. I expect this to be the year it all comes together for him.