BROOKLYN, MI - JUNE 14: Mark Martin (L), driver of the #55 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota, talks with Carl Edwards (R), driver of the #99 Fastenal Ford, in the garage during NASCAR Sprint Cup Series testing at Michigan International Speedway on June 14, 2012 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)
NASCAR is six drivers short of the all-time record for most different Sprint Cup Series winners in a single season. So who are the drivers most likely to set the new mark?
When Marcos Ambrose scored the victory on Sunday at Watkins Glen, he became the 14th different driver this season to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
This puts NASCAR ahead of the pace set in 2001 when a record 19 drivers went to Victory Lane; at the same point in 2001, 13 drivers had posted at least one win.
But is 2012 destined to go down as the most competitive in NASCAR history? And are there six drivers out there realistically capable of winning a race in the remaining 14 weeks? The answer to both of these questions is: Yes.
So if the record is to fall this year and we see 20 different victors, here are the six drivers most likely to find their way to winner's circle:
1. Martin Truex Jr.
This is a bit of a no-brainer as Truex is the driver highest in points (sixth) without a victory, and has been on the verge throughout the year of snapping his 189-race winless streak. And if the Michael Waltrip Racing driver is to get his first victory since June 2007, look for it to occur at either Kansas – he finished runner-up in the spring event there – or at Bristol, where he's finished third and second in his last two starts on the high-banked oval.
2. Carl Edwards
That Edwards doesn't have a win already is one of the more surprising anomalies of the season – especially when you consider the overall speed of the Roush Fenway Racing cars this year. But miscommunication, bad luck and other factors have taken their toll, and the reality is Edwards is still looking for his first victory in 17 months.
The good news for last year's championship runner-up is there are plenty of upcoming opportunities on tracks where the 99 car should be up among the leaders. Included on that list is this weekend's race at Michigan – where Edwards snapped a lengthy winless streak in 2007 – and Richmond, where in the spring he led a race-high 206 laps.
3. Kevin Harvick
In 2010 and 2011, Harvick combined to win seven races and ended the year third overall. But a change in crew chiefs over the offseason hasn't worked as expected, as Harvick and Shane Wilson have failed to click.
However, despite having a goose egg in the win column, Harvick is still a virtual lock to make the Chase and he did finish second this year at Phoenix and Dover – two tracks the Cup circuit will again visit this fall. And, of course the 29 team is always formidable at Talladega.
4. Jeff Burton
On the subject of Talladega, that's where you need to keep an eye on Burton, as restrictor-plate racing is always an area of strength for his Richard Childress Racing team. That explains why Burton has been so good lately in plate races with four consecutive top-10s – including a second at Daytona in July and a second at ‘Dega last October.
5. Mark Martin
It doesn't matter if Mark Martin is running a partial schedule, as his advancing age doesn't seem to be slowing him down any. In 14 starts this year, he has finished in the top 10 five times and would have had more if it weren't for engine failures at Kansas, Charlotte and Michigan.
If Martin is to resume his winning ways for the first time since 2009, Michael Waltrip Racing needs to address the mechanical gremlins which have plagued the 55 team. However, if it can do that, Martin should be in contention at any of the 10 more races he's planning to run – particularly so at Chicagoland, Texas and Homestead.
6. Regan Smith
Every year, there seems to be at least one surprise winner who leaves everyone wondering, "How did that guy win?" Thus far in 2012 we really haven't had that moment – though a case could be made for Joey Logano.
Regardless, if the out-of-nowhere winner is going to happen this year, who better than Regan Smith? Remember, it was Smith who pulled off an improbable victory a year ago in the Southern 500 and has back-to-back top-10s since Todd Berrier took over as crew chief.
I don't know where that win is going to come, but if happens, remember you heard it here first. And if it doesn't, let's just pretend I never wrote this.