It's formal championship pick and season prediction time here at SB Nation NASCAR. While the season officially started on Sunday with Jimmie Johnson winning the Daytona 500, that race is largely seen as a season to itself and not indicative of how the rest of the season will play out.
Instead, most of the campaign will be contested on intermediate tracks and performing well on those circuits will be the key to making the Chase for the Championship.
I do not suggest taking these picks to your bookie but I do feel pretty confident about my predictions after correctly picking 10 of the 12 Chasers and predicting Brad Keselowski to win his first Sprint Cup Series championship last season.
Nevertheless, the new Gen-6 Sprint Cup car has generated a lot of questions. But even with all the variables, there are certain constants that are not changing anytime soon. So let's start with the Chase locks and fill in the rest:
All four Hendrick Motorsports drivers will make the Chase for a second year in a row. The only question mark here is Jeff Gordon and I don't see any way his bad luck from last year will carry over and make him miss the playoffs this season. Even with everything that went wrong in 2012, Gordon still made the Chase. Kasey Kahne will benefit from a second year in the organization and Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a lot of momentum from a resurgent 2012 season.
Johnson, meanwhile, probably should have won the championship last year if not for freak car failures in back-to-back weeks to close out the season. He's not missing the Chase either.
Carl Edwards was paired with veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig in the offseason after Matt Kenseth left for Joe Gibbs Racing. Fennig and Kenseth won three races last season and led the standings for much of the regular season. The bad luck and inconsistency that plagued Edwards in 2012 vanishes with the meticulous Fennig on top of the pit stand.
All three Joe Gibbs Racing cars will make the Chase in 2013. The addition of Matt Kenseth will bring some much needed veteran leadership on the driver's side and all three cars will be a threat down the stretch as long as Toyota can figure out the mechanical issues that showed its ugly head once again in Daytona.
Kevin Harvick. Don't call him a lame duck. Even with Richard Childress Racing in its current rebuilding phase, Harvick has remained consistent over the past few seasons. He just finds a way to win, even when it looks like RCR just isn't ready to contend. That trend will continue in his RCR swan song.
Brad Keselowski. I have some slight concerns that Penske will struggle with Ford but not enough to suggest that Keselowski will miss the Chase for the Championship. The introduction of Gen-6 was the ideal time to make the switch and Roger Penske wouldn't have done it if there were not competitive benefits in doing so. The defending champion makes the Chase on but new teammate Joey Logano does not.
So that makes 10 drivers who will make the Chase on points, leaving several noteworthy drivers on the outside of contention, looking for one of the two wild card spots.
Clint Bowyer earns one of them. The second-place jinx will bite Bowyer but it's more a case of Michael Walrip Racing not adapting to the new car rather than a mystical hex. When he was at RCR, Bowyer was able to gut out enough victories and top-10s every year to consistently make the Chase. He'll win two races this year, enough to earn him the spot.
The final wild card spot comes down to Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart. Both drivers earn two victories and it comes down to consistency heading into Richmond just before the Chase. Keeping Danica Patrick up to speed and Ryan Newman's contract status becomes too much of a burden and Greg Biffle edges out the three-time champion for the final spot.
And of course, once the Chase field has been decided and the playoffs begin, Jimmie Johnson gets that somewhat long-awaited sixth championship. To recap, here are my picks for the 2013 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup in the order they will finish at the end of the 10-race playoff format:
For argument's sake, I'm also going to predict who is going to win each of the 37-races (including the All-Star Race) this season, including my failed Daytona 500 pick, for reference's sake. We'll check back at the end of the season to see how I fared.
7. Ky. Busch
9. Earnhardt Jr.
DATE TRACK (Predicted Winner)
Feb. 24 Daytona International Speedway (Kyle Busch)
March 3 Phoenix International Raceway (Denny Hamlin)
March 10 Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Carl Edwards)
March 17 Bristol Motor Speedway (Jeff Gordon)
March 24 Auto Club Speedway (Greg Biffle)
April 7 Martinsville Speedway (Jeff Gordon)
APRIL 13 Texas Motor Speedway (Matt Kenseth)
April 21 Kansas Speedway (Jimmie Johnson)
April 27 Richmond International Raceway (Kyle Busch)
May 5 Talladega Superspeedway (Matt Kenseth)
May 11 Darlington Raceway (Denny Hamlin)
May 18 Charlotte Motor Speedway: (Kasey Kahne)
May 26 Charlotte Motor Speedway (Carl Edwards)
June 2 Dover International Speedway (Matt Kenseth)
June 9 Pocono Raceway (Juan Pablo Montoya)
June 16 Michigan International Speedway (Greg Biffle)
June 23 Sonoma (Tony Stewart)
June 29 Kentucky Speedway (Brad Keselowski)
July 6 Daytona International Speedway (Dale Earnhardt Jr.)
July 14 New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Clint Bowyer)
July 28 Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Jeff Gordon)
Aug. 4 Pocono Raceway (Jimmie Johnson)
Aug. 11 Watkins Glen International (Tony Stewart)
Aug. 18 Michigan International Speedway (Kyle Busch)
Aug. 24 Bristol Motor Speedway (Brad Keselowski)
Sept. 1 Atlanta Motor Speedway (Jimmie Johnson)
Sept. 7 Richmond International Raceway (Jeff Gordon)
Sept. 15 Chicagoland Speedway (Martin Truex Jr.)
Sept. 22 New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Jimmie Johnson)
Sept. 29 Dover International Speedway (Denny Hamlin)
Oct. 6 Kansas Speedway (Kasey Kahne)
Oct. 12 Charlotte Motor Speedway (Dale Earnhardt Jr.)
Oct. 20 Talladega Superspeedway (Kyle Busch)
Oct. 27 Martinsville Speedway (Jimmie Johnson)
Nov. 3 Texas Motor Speedway (Denny Hamlin)
Nov. 10 Phoenix International Raceway (Clint Bowyer)
Nov. 17 Homestead-Miami Speedway (Kevin Harvick)
What are your predictions? Tell us in the comments section below.