We are quickly approaching the quarter mark of the 2013 Sprint Cup season, a time when themes have started to develop and patterns have begun to form. The ninth of the 36 races on the Cup schedule will take place at Richmond (Va.) International Speedway on Saturday night. But before the engines fire at RIR, let's hand out SI.com's first quarter awards.
Best driver: Brad Keselowski
I'll be the first to admit that the biggest surprise of my dozen years on the NASCAR beat was Keselowski winning the title last season. Many in the garage believed his charge to the championship was fueled by a mechanical advantage that his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, had discovered in the setup of the No. 2 car during the weeks before the start of the 2012 Chase. So, in other words, not many in the sport believed that Keselowski could sustain his run at the top.
Well, he has. Though he has yet to win this season, he leads the Cup series in top 10 finishes, with seven, and his average finish (7.2) is actually higher than it was in 2012 (10.1). He's currently second in the standings behind Jimmie Johnson.
I spent a lot of time with Keselowski, his father, and his sister before the season-finale last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway. What I took away from those hours sitting side-by-side with that hardscrabble family from Michigan was that Brad genuinely believes he has the talent to one day be known as one of the best to have ever driven a stock car. He has many miles to go before he arrives at that destination, but so far in 2013, he sure has the look of multi-year NASCAR champion.
Best crew chief: Todd Berrier
Before this season, Furniture Row Racing had a grand total of three top-five finishes in 199 starts dating back to 2005. A single-car team based in Denver -- far away from the NASCAR hub of Charlotte, where about 95 percent of the teams are based -- Furniture Row is the ultimate underdog in this sport.
But this season, Berrier has created some magic with Kurt Busch, the driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevy. Through eight races, this tandem has two top-five runs -- almost as many as the organization had authored in its previous eight years. Sure, Busch deserves a lot of credit, but to me, no crew chief in NASCAR is making more out of his resources than Berrier. As I've written before, if you like rooting for long shots that have the talent to pull off the occasional upset, then this should be your team for 2013.
Best owner: Rick Hendrick
After winning the championship with Jimmie Johnson for an unprecedented five straight years from 2006 to '10, Hendrick is now in throes of two-year title drought. So what did he do? He threw as many resources as any owner into gaining an understanding of the new Gen-Six car. The investment has produced downright impressive returns: After eight races, Hendrick drivers rank first (Jimmie Johnson), second (Kasey Kahne) and fifth (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) in the standings.
Biggest disappointment: Tony Stewart
Stewart claims this dreaded award in a landslide. Two years removed from winning the championship, he has suddenly -- and stunningly -- devolved into a middle-of-the-pack driver.
A three-time Cup champ, Stewart is currently 21st in the standings, the lowest he's ever been through eight races during his 15-year Cup career. How to explain? Clearly, his team, Stewart-Haas Racing, focused on the wrong things in the off-season as it attempted to understand the new Gen-Six car.
But as I've noted many times in this space, Tony Stewart is always at his best in the summer heat. He grew up racing on dirt tracks in the Midwest, where the cars slip up the track through every turn. Stewart loves the rhythms of racing on hot surfaces, and that is reflected in the fact that the majority of his 47 career wins on the Cup circuit have occurred in the summer months, when the sunbaked tracks are slick.
Can Stewart mount a comeback when temperatures begin to rise? I think so. It says here he makes the Chase. He'll win two of the next of 18 races.
Best bet to win the 2013 title: Jimmie Johnson
Johnson is in a familiar spot right now: atop the points standings. He leads the series in average finish (6.6), is tied for the most wins (two) with Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, and only Kenseth has led more total laps (482) than Johnson (439).
The last time NASCAR introduced a new generation of car, in 2007, no duo adapted faster to the changing aerodynamics of the vehicle and its altered weight-balance issues than Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus. It appears that this narrative is unfolding again in 2013.
Knaus is the Nick Saban of NASCAR, always preparing and always keeping an eye on what it will take to flourish in the final month of the season. The fact that the No. 48 team is leading the points this early in 2013 is indeed not good news for the rest of the sport: It will give Knaus months to tinker with new setup ideas before the start of the Chase without having to worry about qualifying for the playoffs.
So with 28 races to go until a champion is crowned at Miami-Homestead Speedway on Nov. 17, you heard it here first: Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus will be high-fiving as they hoist the Cup in South Florida that night.