Posted: Mon January 21, 2013 12:17PM; Updated: Mon January 21, 2013 12:17PM
Dustin Long
Dustin Long>INSIDE NASCAR

Is this Junior's year, can Danica break through, more burning questions

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Dale-Earnhardt-Jr
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has amassed an impressive 32 top-10 finishes in the past two Sprint Cup seasons.
David Griffin/Icon SMI

The Daytona 500 is barely a month away. NASCAR's media tour is underway. Testing already has taken place at Daytona and Charlotte. What little offseason there is in the sport is gone.

Teams are busy building new cars for the season and testing at various tracks. With so much happening, here's a look at 10 burning questions to ponder while waiting for the green flag to fly on the 2013 season.

Is this the year for Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

If not now, then when?

Earnhardt is trending up as he enters his third year with crew chief Steve Letarte. They've made steady progress. Letarte rebuilt Earnhardt's confidence and then tuned the car to Earnhardt's preferences. Earnhardt responded with his first victory in four years last season.

At age 38, Earnhardt's window of opportunity for a championship is narrowing. What's encouraging for Earnhardt fans is that he's had 32 top-10s in the past two seasons -- more than the total of top-10 finishes he had combined between 2008-10. Also, his longest stretch without a top-10 finish last year was three races. In 2011, he had a stretch where he finished outside the top 10 in 11-of-12 races.

The point is he's getting better with Letarte. They're poised to make this a year where they challenge for the title.

Something else to consider: The past two champions (Brad Keselowski in 2012 and Tony Stewart in 2011) were in their third season with their crew chief. Keselowski had worked with Paul Wolfe since 2010, beginning in the Nationwide Series, and Stewart won the title with Darian Grubb, a pairing that first happened in 2009. Notice a trend?

Will the new cars make the racing better?

The new cars look good but that doesn't mean they will provide the type of racing fans want to see -- side-by-side action. These cars still face the same aerodynamic issues previous cars have faced on the big tracks. It's just tough to run together, which leads to the field strung out.

"At the end of the day, the better the cars are stuck in the race track, the closer the cars run to each other,'' Jeff Burton said. "[NASCAR has] looked at a lot of different things, and what's come out of it is it appears that more downforce, more grip, those things are going to make the racing better. I believe we are going to make more grip this year than we have ever made.

"Now that's not to say every race is going to be the greatest race in NASCAR's history. We have to have realistic expectations. Some races are going to be boring. Some football games are boring. Some basketball games are boring. But, the average race has got to be a fun race to watch. I believe that more grip gives the drivers more opportunity to put their car in a position that they wouldn't be able to put it if they didn't have that grip.''

Will Danica Patrick finish in the top 20 in points?

No. While she showed progress late last season in the Nationwide Series, Patrick's fans will need to be patient this season. She'll be helped with the new testing policy, allowing organizations four tests at tracks that host Cup races, but she still has a ways to go before she's competitive each weekend.

Consider this, Aric Almirola finished 20th in the points last year. His average finish for the season was 20.0. Patrick's average finish last year in the Nationwide Series was 18.8. It's hard to imagine that if she can barely run in the top 20 in the Nationwide Series that she would do better than that in her first Cup season.

While she'll garner as much attention as someone who makes the Chase, her goal should be finishing in the top 25 in points. That's possible. Just don't expect much more than that.

Can Joe Gibbs Racing put all three cars in the Chase?

Yes. The difference maker will be Matt Kenseth. The team has not had a Cup champion since Tony Stewart left after the 2008 season. Kenseth will be one to watch with the new car. He's smooth and knows how to get them most out of his equipment -- he's made the Chase all but one year since its inception in 2004.

Kenseth should provide the leadership that will help teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch excel. With the strength of Toyota last season -- just look at Michael Waltrip Racing's success -- it isn't far-fetched to believe that Gibbs can put all three cars in the Chase for the first time since 2008 when Stewart was joined in the Chase by Hamlin and Busch.

Do you believe in curses?

It only took the Boston Red Sox 86 years to erase "the Curse of the Bambino,'' and the Chicago Cubs have yet to exorcise the "Billy Goat Curse,'' which was placed on them in 1945, so what about this curse for those who finish second in the points in NASCAR? It doesn't have the history as those other curses but it seems to be as effective.

In the last 10 seasons, the runner-up in the points did not win the title the next season. The runner-up to the title has an average finish of 9.6 in the points the following season.

Thus, when people discuss Clint Bowyer's title hopes this season, it often will include this curse, which, if you believe in, has afflicted Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards, among others through the years.

A curse won't be the reason Bowyer fails to win the title. There will be somebody else better.

Who is the title contender nobody is talking about?

So many names are being mentioned but here's one that you're probably not hearing as much: Kasey Kahne.

The last time NASCAR introduced a new car, the Car of Tomorrow in 2007, Hendrick Motorsports won the first five races and nine of the 16 races run with that car that season.

So it makes sense to keep an eye on Hendrick this time around. Yet, it's easy to overlook Kahne on a team that features Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Don't make that mistake.

Kahne is coming off his best season in the points, finishing fourth and tying his career high with 19 top-10 finishes. Kahne rallied after an awful start where he was 31st in the points after six races and made the Chase. He's got the experience and the equipment. Now is his time.

Has time passed Jeff Gordon?

Not yet, but it is starting to gain on him.

Gordon, who is 41 years old, last won the title more than a decade ago. He scored two victories last season and easily could have had more, yet didn't. What's most troubling is how little Gordon is leading these days. Yes, he lead 568 laps last year to rank sixth in the series, but look deeper. He led 421 of those laps in the two Martinsville races. Thus, he led only 147 laps the rest of the season. To contend for titles, a driver has to lead more than that.

As long as his car has speed -- and he's good at getting that out of the car -- he has a chance. To win a title, though, he and his team have to be better than what they have been in recent years.

What will be the most boring race? The most exciting race?

The Daytona 500 will be both. While teams will have plenty of time to adjust to the new car before the season-opening race, testing showed that bump drafting is going to be tricky. That could lead drivers to be cautious for much of the 500 before the typical chaotic finish where drivers take more chances.

Expect the action to accelerate in the final 20 laps and for a caution within the final 10 laps for a big crash. Until then? Once drivers get settled, they might just decide to play nice and bide their time until the finish. That might mean a little less excitement for the first part of the race with the payoff in the final laps.

Who is a driver who didn't make the Chase last year but will make it this year? And who made the Chase last year but won't make it this year?

Kyle Busch will make the Chase after missing it last year. He'll take the spot of Kevin Harvick.

Busch was hindered, in part, by engine issues last year. Avoid those same problems and he'll make the Chase easily.

Harvick is entering his final season at Richard Childress Racing. That won't be easy to be, in essence, a lame-duck driver for an entire year. That's not to say he can't lead his team to the Chase but the key will be if things don't go well how will Harvick and the team react? Another issue is that RCR has been up-and-down in recent years. Can this organization bounce back?

What will Brad Keselowski do for an encore?

It won't be tweeting a photo from his car in a race during a red flag after he was penalized late last year for that.

So, he'll have to go for winning back-to-back titles. That won't be easy with who he'll have to beat. A true student of the sport, he and crew chief Paul Wolfe outfoxed other teams at times with their strategy. The question is if they can do it again? The odds are against it, but that doesn't mean they'll be too far behind the points leader as the season comes to a close. If they're close, keep an eye on what they do.

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