For three months the grandstands are empty. But during the NASCAR offseason, the engines never stop revving. There are test sessions for the teams and countless hours spent in race shops fine-tuning the cars for 2013.
There has been more work than usual this winter, because teams will be using a new design of car starting with February's Daytona 500. The teams -- and the drivers -- that adapt the quickest to NASCAR's new Sixth Generation car will be the ones that will have the inside track on the 2013 championship.
Here are my ten drivers to watch next season -- nine of whom are credible threats to win the title:
The last time a new car was introduced into NASCAR, in 2007, Johnson won the second of his five championships. The No. 48 team, led by crew chief Chad Knaus, has consistently adjusted to NASCAR-mandated changes in the cars faster than anyone in the sport, and there's little reason to believe that this trend will change in 2013. Johnson narrowly missed winning his sixth title last year -- if he hadn't suffered a parts failure in the finale at Homestead he may have overtaken Brad Keselowski in the standings -- and he'll enter the month of February as the favorite this season.
Though Hamlin got off to an inauspicious start in the new car -- he crashed into the wall hard during its initial test at Charlotte Motor Speedway -- he liked the "feel" of it, how it gripped the track through the turns better than the old car. Hamlin prophesied that many track speed records will be broken in 2013 because of how the new cars, which have more manufacturer identification and look more like the cars in showrooms across America, sail through the turns. "The only thing that scares me," Hamlin said, "is the speeds we're running."
Hamlin, who finished third in the final standings last season, set career highs in average starting position (11.9) and finishing position (12.8). He should be even more formidable in 2013 with the addition of Matt Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing. Kenseth, who won the Cup in 2003, spent 13 years at Roush-Fenway Racing, and now he'll bring a career's worth of notes and experience to JGR. He'll do nothing but help Hamlin in his weekly search for speed.
It only took Earnhardt a few laps in the new car during a December test session at Charlotte to pronounce that he was smitten with it. "I'm really impressed," he said. "I really like the balance of the car, the downforce seems to be relatively good. The car has driven well for us."
According to several drivers, the new car has similar handling characteristics to the design NASCAR used in its fourth generation of car between 1992 and 2006. Back then, the cars were looser -- meaning its back wheels had a tendency to slide up the track through the turns -- and more difficult to control. This is also when Earnhardt enjoyed his most successful seasons (he won a career best six races in '04). So if the early reports on the new car are accurate, Earnhardt, who has always preferred a looser-handling racecar, may very well challenge for his first Cup title in 2013.
You could make the argument that Keselowski's run to the 2012 championship was one of the greatest underdog stories in the history of NASCAR. Going head-to-head against a five-time champion (Jimmie Johnson) that was on a team (Hendrick Motorsports) twice the size of his (Penske Racing), Keselowski was nearly flawless in the Chase, winning two races and finishing 11th or better in nine of the ten-playoff events.
Is Keselowski, 28, a one-year wonder? That question will be debated at length in the garage before the Daytona 500, but I don't think so. He's shown that he can run well on all types of tracks, and he appears to learn something new each race and apply it the next -- two traits that bode well for Keselowski's future.
It would surprise no one in the garage if Kenseth were atop the points standings after the first month of racing. The thinking is that his move to Joe Gibbs Racing will reinvigorate his career, not that he was even mid-pack driver at Roush-Fenway Racing. He's finished seventh or better in the points the last three seasons, but seemingly every year he's peaked too early and sputtered down the stretch run of the Chase. A new team -- and a new crew chief (Jason Ratcliff) -- could be the perfect tonic for that.
A year after losing the championship to Tony Stewart by a single point, Edwards was a non-factor in 2012. He finished a career-low 15th in the points and failed to win a race for the first time since 2009. Near the end of last season I had a long chat with Edwards and asked him for a reason of why he should be optimistic about 2013. After thinking for few moments, he laughed and said, "Can't really think of one."
He was joking -- sort of. But expect a bounce-back year from the No. 99 team. Edwards is still one of the best in the sport on the 1.5-mile tracks, and these venues form the core of the Chase. So if Edwards can simply qualify for the playoffs, he should be a factor deep into the fall. Plus, in his eight seasons in the Cup series, he's never missed the Chase in consecutive years.
Stewart shares a common trait with Jimmie Johnson: He can adapt to changes with startling quickness. That's why owner Roger Penske invited Stewart to pilot one his cars in the Indy 500 in 2013. Stewart declined the chance to drive the double -- race at Indy in the afternoon and in Charlotte in the evening for the Sprint Cup 600-miler -- because it would have cut into his commitments as the team owner of Stewart-Haas Racing. However the offer showed that Penske believes that Stewart, at age 41, is still as sharp as ever behind the wheel. I agree, and I think a year after coming in ninth in the standings that Stewart will be a top-five driver in 2013.
Busch is the owner of a dreaded title: the best driver currently in NASCAR never to have won a Sprint Cup title. But Busch, like his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, will greatly benefit in 2013 from the knowledge -- and calm demeanor -- of Matt Kenseth. JGR has never had a driver stable so deep and talented, and it says here all three will make the Chase in 2013.
But the problem for Busch, historically, has been that his best tracks haven't been in the Chase. Busch, though, is improving at these critical tracks. It was easy to miss this since Busch wasn't in the playoffs last year, but in the last four races of 2012, Busch had four top-four finishes and over that stretch scored more points than any other driver in the series. A harbinger for 2013? Perhaps.
Very quietly, Bowyer finished second in standings last year. Bowyer was never a threat to win the championship at Homestead -- he only passed Johnson in the points after Mr. Five Time puttered into the garage late in the season's final race with a mechanical failure -- but it was an impressive ten-week performance by Bowyer and his team, Michael Waltrip Racing.
Bowyer will be a main character in what will surely be one of the juiciest stories of the Speedweeks at Daytona: his feud with Jeff Gordon, who intentionally crashed Bowyer in the penultimate race of 2012 and, in the process, wrecked any shot Bowyer had at winning the title. Bowyer was icy toward Gordon in Las Vegas during the postseason award festivities -- he refused to look in Gordon's direction -- and this only fueled speculation that Bowyer will exact his revenge on Gordon in the season-opening Daytona 500. You'll be able to follow this this drama as it unfolds here on SI.com.
Patrick isn't a championship contender, but she belongs on every "drivers to watch" list simply because of her star power. A week before the Daytona 500, she'll appear in two Super Bowl commercials, which means (I believe) she'll be in two more spots than any other NASCAR driver. Like her or not -- and I happen to think she's terrific for the sport and a very enjoyable person to be around -- Patrick is relevant regardless of where she runs because so many eyeballs follow her every move.
This will be her first fulltime season in the Cup series, and a successful year for Patrick would be to finish in the top 20 in the points, stay on the lead lap in the majority of the races, and have one or two top-10 finishes. Could she win a race? Absolutely. In fact, keep an eye on her at Daytona. She sat on the pole at Daytona in the Nationwide Series last year and in 2011 she came in tenth in the Nationwide summer race at the 2.5-mile tri-oval.