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Ten can win. The Sprint Cup title, that is. These 10 drivers never have won a Cup championship. Each of the 10 is capable of doing so and becoming the second consecutive first-time champ.
The last time that happened was 2003-04, when Kurt Busch won the championship the year after Matt Kenseth did. But it hasn't happened in the Chase era.
Kenseth was the last champion in the full-season points system, so NASCAR hasn't seen back-to-back new champs under the playoff system.
That could change in 2013, considering these 10 guys with the skills to win a title but still looking for the first one.
So here's the list of 10 non-champs who can win the title if everything falls their way:
|Two reasons Denny Hamlin will challenge for the 2013 Sprint Cup title: He wins races, and he has a championship-winning crew chief in Darian Grubb.|
1. Denny Hamlin -- He almost did it in 2010, but the pressure of the moment might have gotten to him in the final race and he fell short, watching Jimmie Johnson take it from him at Homestead.
Hamlin looked as if he might do it in 2012. He was third with four races left, only 20 points behind leader (and eventual champ) Brad Keselowski, but Hamlin finished 20th or worse in three of the last four events.
Hamlin has two major assets that give him a great chance at earning the title. First, he wins races. He has 18 victories in the past four seasons, including five last year. Second, he has Darian Grubb, a championship crew chief who ranks among the best in the business, on the pit box.
Hamlin also has two teammates who will push him and make him better -- Kyle Busch and Kenseth, who joins Joe Gibbs Racing this season. Kenseth's quiet leadership style, professional demeanor and unparalleled consistency should work as a positive influence on Hamlin and Busch.
Only one problem: They both have to beat him to win the title.
2. Kasey Kahne -- His transition to Hendrick Motorsports started slowly last year, but it was clear by midseason that Kahne was the right man at the right place.
He won twice and made a strong showing in the Chase, posting five top-5s and ending up fourth overall. His average finish of 13.1 was the best of his career, and he averaged a 10.0 in the Chase.
Continuity is a good thing in racing. Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis are starting their eighth year together. Only Johnson and Chad Knaus have been together longer.
3. Clint Bowyer -- Who could have imagined that a move to Michael Waltrip Racing in 2012 would lead to the best season of Bowyer's career? MWR stepped up into the elite status of Cup teams, and Bowyer was the biggest beneficiary.
He ended the season with career bests in victories (three), top-5s (10), top-10s (23), average finish (10.9) and points ranking (second). Bowyer also showed he's not going to be pushed around by anyone, including a legendary four-time champ.
The image most fans will remember of Bowyer from 2012 is his angry sprint through the garage in Phoenix after Jeff Gordon deliberately wrecked him.
Bowyer still hasn't forgiven Gordon, but the wise move for 2013 is for Bowyer to go about his business and forget about paybacks. The best payback of all would be winning the title, and maybe keeping Gordon from winning a fifth one.
4. Kyle Busch -- The most talented driver in the sport who hasn't won a Cup championship. Frankly, saying that is getting a little old.
We've all heard this over and over, but the statistics don't match the rhetoric. Only twice in his eight Cup seasons has Busch finished higher than 10th in the standings. He never has finished better than fifth, and he has ended up 10th or worse in four of the past five seasons, failing to make the Chase in two of the past four years.
However, we've all seen him do things with a race car that few other drivers, if any, can do. So it wouldn't surprise many people to see him put it all together and win a championship.
The end of last season had to be encouraging for everyone on the No. 18 Toyota team. Busch had eight top-10s in the Chase, including finishes of fourth or better in each of the last four events.
His attitude about things isn't always the best, as everyone knows, but being around Kenseth every week this season is bound to rub off.
|The clock is ticking in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s quest to win his first Sprint Cup championship.|
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- If he wins the title this year, he will do something that hasn't happened in 30 years. Earnhardt will race in his 14th Cup season in 2013. Only once in NASCAR history has a driver won his first title as late as his 14th full season.
Bobby Allison won the 1983 championship in his 18th Cup season. Dale Jarrett did it in his 13th full season in 1999. Both those men were older than Earnhardt will be if he does it this year.
Allison was two weeks shy of his 49th birthday when he won it. Jarrett was five days from his 43rd birthday when he won the title. Earnhardt turns 39 on Oct. 10.
Earnhardt enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career last year despite missing two Chase races because of a concussion. He ended his four-year winless streak and had 20 top-10s, along with a career-best average finish of 10.9.
He loves the new Gen-6 car, which he feels races more like the pre-COT model in which most of his success came in Cup.
6. Greg Biffle -- Father Time is working against him. Biffle will be one month shy of his 44th birthday if he wins the title this year. Allison is the only driver in NASCAR history to win his first championship at an older age.
But 40 is the new 30 these days. Biffle enjoyed one of his best seasons in 2012, finishing fifth in the standings, winning twice and posting 21 top-10s. His average finish of 10.2 was the best of his career, and he was running at the end of every race for the first time in his 10 years of Cup competition.
If Biffle wins the crown, he'll become the first driver to win championships in NASCAR's three touring series -- Cup, Nationwide and the Camping World Truck Series.
7. Kevin Harvick -- Happy Harvick's chances might look better if things were a little happier around Richard Childress Racing these days. Harvick is trying to get it done as a full-season lame duck.
He's leaving RCR in 2014 to join Stewart-Haas Racing, giving the No. 29 Chevy team the longest divorce proceedings ever.
Maybe it won't matter. Maybe Harvick will go out with a bang, but 36 races over 10 months is a long time to act as though everything is hunky-dory.
The good news is Harvick finished the 2012 season on a high note, posting three consecutive top-10s, including a victory at Phoenix. And things should continue to improve with Gil Martin back on the pit box.
8. Martin Truex Jr. -- He's coming off his best season in most statistical categories. Truex had 19 top-10s, an average finish of 12.1 and lead-lap finishes in 29 races, all career bests. His 11th-place showing in the standings and seven top-5s equaled career bests.
But Truex needs to do one thing he hasn't done in the past five seasons if he hopes to compete for the title -- win. His only career victory came at Dover in 2007. Truex was the only driver in last year's Chase who failed to win a race in 2012.
He was the runner-up at both Kansas races and finished third twice -- Bristol in the spring and Pocono in August. Truex should find a way to win in 2013 because he's driving for an organization on the rise at MWR.
9. Carl Edwards -- Could he actually go from a winless 2012 season and a 15th-place showing in the standings to a championship in 2013? History has something to say about that.
As a two-time runner-up, including 2011, many people will rate Edwards' chances of winning the title as pretty good. Guess how many times in NASCAR history a driver has gone from as low as 15th in the standings to the Cup title the next season?
That would be zero. Nada. It never has happened, not for a guy who ran the full season the year before winning the title.
David Pearson won the 1966 championship after finishing 40th in 1965, but he ran only 14 of 54 races. About the same is true for Tim Flock. He won the 1955 title after racing in only five events in 1954.
Alan Kulwicki went from 13th in 1991 to the title in 1992. Dale Earnhardt went from 12th in 1992 to first in 1993 for his sixth of seven championships.
Only once in the past 20 seasons has a driver won the title after finishing worse than ninth the previous year. Kurt Busch was 11th in 2003 before winning the 2004 title.
The biggest jump to the top in back-to-back Chase seasons came in 2011, when Tony Stewart won it after finishing seventh in 2010.
10. Ryan Newman -- He has the same problem as Edwards. Newman was 14th in the 2012 standings, so winning the title in 2013 would be a historic achievement, but not impossible.
Newman has 16 career victories, but he never has finished in the top five in the season standings. Only once in the past seven years has he finished better than 10th, and that was ninth in 2009.
What Newman has to do to contend is lead more laps. He led a career-low 39 laps in 2012. Things should improve this season with Matt Borland back as his crew chief.
One big unknown for Newman and teammate Stewart this year is how having a third car full time will affect things -- and whether driver Danica Patrick will be a distraction or an asset.