With the 2012 NASCAR season firmly in the rearview mirror, our eyes begin to cast a gaze on 2013.
And while a lot will change between now and Daytona, here is an early look at the pretenders, contenders and everyone in between:
Yes, that whole switch from Dodge to Ford has placed a giant question mark over Penske Racing. And yes, only one driver in the last 30 years has won the championship the year after he won his first. Nevertheless, this team has made it a habit of proving its detractors wrong.
We already know Jimmie Johnson is a virtual lock to win somewhere around four races, as well as be a factor in the Chase. And the conversion to the "Gen 6" car only plays into this thinking, as the vast resources of Hendrick Motorsports should have the team ahead of the curve.
In his first season working with new crew chief Darian Grubb, Denny Hamlin won five races – and if it weren't for mechanical gremlins, he would have been more of a factor in the Chase. With Hamlin in his prime and Grubb firmly entrenched at JGR, there is no reason to expect any kind of dropoff in Year 2 of the Hamlin/Grubb partnership.
Matt Kenseth may be in his first season with JGR, but it won't take much time for him to get comfortable at his new home. A second Cup title is very realistic.
He may not have made the Chase, but Kyle Busch was still second in laps led and ended the year with top-five results in seven of the last eight races. Assuming he shakes the black cloud following him around, you can go ahead and write Busch's name in pen as a contender.
Contenders...but with questions
Sometimes a driver will have that season where everything that can go wrong, will go wrong – and in a nutshell, that's what happened to Carl Edwards in 2012. However, the addition of sage crew chief Jimmy Fennig should revitalize the No. 99 team and put Edwards back up front.
After finishing a career-best fourth in the standings in his first season under the Hendrick umbrella, there is a lot to like about Kasey Kahne entering 2013. Yet the concern lies in the fact that not once has he made the Chase in consecutive seasons.
Jeff Gordon is going to win a race or two, we know that. But does he still have what it takes to win a championship? After all, he hasn't been in serious title contention since 2007 and is on the wrong side of 40.
There was something amiss with Tony Stewart and the No. 14 team in the second half of last year. And if that downward trend continues, it will lead to questions about the job status of crew chief Steve Addington.
He may not get the headlines like some of the drivers above, but finishing fifth or better in the standings three times in his career indicates that Greg Biffle is more than worthy of being in this category.
Not Quite There
Until proven otherwise, let's presume that Clint Bowyer will be the latest victim of the runner-up curse.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr.
The consistency demonstrated by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. is a great. However, for either one to win a championship, they need to lead more laps, collect more bonus points and win with more frequency.
Building For The Future
Out of Tony Stewart's shadow after four years, Joey Logano needs to produce with his new team. The good news for him is that he will be given every opportunity to do so as the 22 team is desperate for stability after two chaotic years.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Call it a youth movement if you will, as the two-time Nationwide Series champ takes over for the departing Matt Kenseth. While it will undoubtedly take some time for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to adapt to running Cup full time, the odds favor him figuring it out sooner rather than later.
In his first full season in Cup, Aric Almirola continued to show progress as the year moved along. But taking that next step hinges more on his underfunded team than anything he can do behind the wheel.
Much Work To Do
Working on a one-year contract, Ryan Newman will be under the gun to find the consistency he's been lacking the last few years. And with Stewart-Haas Racing expanding to three cars – and a possible fourth next season – you have to wonder if Newman may find himself the odd man out.
Until Marcos Ambrose wins on an oval, it's hard to envision him being much of factor in the championship.
Paul Menard runs well in spurts but is lacking consistency, not to mention there's no telling whether Richard Childress Racing improved after a miserable 2012 campaign.
This is the perfect one-year stopgap for Kurt Busch, who will be afforded fast cars and a team which has proven capable of winning at Furniture Row Racing. And although Busch isn't going to win the title, there's no reason he can't make an appearance in the Chase.
Hey 2014, You Can't Get Here Soon Enough
How Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress coexist will be one of the most fascinating subplots of 2013. History says that lame-duck drivers don't win titles in their last season with a team, and the guess is that Harvick won't be the one to break that trend.
Veteran Drivers Facing Uncertain Futures
Is it possible Jeff Burton can snap his four-year winless streak and win his first title? Sure. Is it likely? No.
A veteran driver on the backside of his career paired with a single-car team usually doesn't lead to success.
Your Guess Is As Good As Mine
Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya
The good news for the pair from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing is they can't be much worse than they were a year ago. The bad news is it's hard to envision either being significantly better.
Believe it or not, Danica Patrick actually improved as the season moved along, with the impetus seemingly being the addition of crew chief Tony Gibson. That said, 2013 is going to be a season filled with growing pains.