Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week.
Turn 1: We've crowned a new Sprint Cup champion -- congratulations to Brad Keselowski -- so who are you picking to win it all in 2013? Explain why.
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: I'll probably change my mind 10 times before the start of the 2013 season, but for now, I'm going with Matt Kenseth. I know transition teams often take half a season of so to get in sync and race their best, but I believe Kenseth is highly motivated to prove he can win another title, and he has the team to do it with the No. 20 Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing. Kenseth also will make crew chief Jason Ratcliff better because a veteran such as Matt can relay information on the car's setup to improve it every time he gets on the track.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Brad Keselowsk and I will repeat in 2013 -- Brad by winning a second straight championship, and me by picking him prior to two straight seasons. He and Paul Wolfe are at the top of their game, and so is the whole Penske Racing shop. Keselowski is the strongest leader I've seen win a championship since Richard Petty. The team's transition from Dodge to Ford shouldn't be a problem, because they'll be in the same boat as everyone else in adjusting to the 2013 cars. I was the Lone Ranger in picking them this past January, but I'm sure I'll have plenty of company this time.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: It's hard not to go with the 48. They aren't going to be denied a title three years in a row, right? And I think he doesn't have to worry about the Runner-Up Curse because he fell to third. But I also have my eye on Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards. Kahne just had his best year, in my opinion even better than '06, and that's with his horrible start. And Cuz is getting Jimmy Fennig. That's big.
David Newton, ESPN.com: Matt Kenseth. You can't pick Clint Bowyer because of the jinx that goes with finishing second in the Chase. You can't pick Jimmie Johnson because he (sarcasm here) is washed up. You can't pick Brad Keselowski because there'll be some growing pains moving from Dodge to Ford, and it's just not easy to repeat unless our name is Johnson. You can't pick Kyle Busch because … well, you just can't. Not mentally tough enough. That leaves Kenseth, who has the talent to go with a lot to prove moving to Joe Gibbs Racing. The 2003 Cup champion won two races in the Chase with Roush Fenway Racing equipment that quite honestly wasn't very strong. If JGR can avoid the quality control issues it has had in the Chase in years past, Kenseth's consistency will lead him to the top once again.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Jeff Gordon. The 24 had elite speed all year in 2012, but incessant bad luck of nearly every possibly variety foiled it. Hendrick Motorsports will out-test everyone else with the new car and its teams will benefit, and Gordon will prevail to win his first Chase and fifth overall championship. I'd have gone with Clint Bowyer on this one -- he's on the brink of something special, and if he does keep winning races and ultimately wins a title, he could be a linchpin personality between past and future for which fans yearn -- but the second-place jinx is no joke right now.
Turn 2: It always seems to be a popular discussion, so let's have at it. Is Homestead-Miami Speedway the best place to have the season finale? If so, why? If not, where would you put it?
Blount: I thought the racing Sunday at Homestead was sensational, so don't give me that bull about all 1.5-mile ovals being boring. There was side-by-side racing all day, including several battles up front for the lead. However, the best place to end the season is Las Vegas. The Miami area just doesn't have the overall interest in the event that Vegas would generate. I realize that means the teams would have to go home for Thanksgiving then turn around and come back for the awards ceremony the next week, but the answer to that is ending the season earlier. Of course, politics gets in the way of this ever happening. Homestead is an ISC track, meaning it's controlled by the France family. Vegas is an SMI track, meaning it's owned by Bruton Smith. Our government ending the nation's fiscal crisis is an easier compromise.
Hinton: Of course it's not. South Florida just isn't a NASCAR hotbed, and the travel distance is just too far for gas-price-conscious grassroots NASCAR fans. We're stuck with it because it's a warm-weather venue for November. But that could be resolved by doing what I've proposed since the Chase began in 2004: The season should begin and end at Daytona. Move the 400-miler from July to November, and take Talladega out of the Chase because you don't want two plate races in the playoffs. I've never thought running in Alabama in the middle of football season was a good idea anyway, and attendance in the fall has been poor in recent years. Phoenix or Las Vegas would be better than Homestead. But of course, none of this is going to happen.
McGee: I like it. I like the location and I think the track staff hits it out of the park. We've had more memorable finales there than forgettable ones. And I like that we only run there once. There's a curveball involved with that. The talk about Vegas and Daytona just seems crazy to me.
Newton: Homestead is the ideal track to end the season other than moving the finale to Daytona International Speedway, where you're guaranteed suspense until the very last lap. The 1.5-mile track is racy, the South Florida weather is ideal for a Super Bowl type setting and the mojitos are quite tasty. If you ask me, NASCAR should not only end the season here, it should hold the banquet here a day or so afterward like it does in the Truck and Nationwide Series.
Smith: No. Give me Daytona. The biggest -- and certainly most valid -- argument against it is the great unknown that is plate racing, given that so much of every driver's outcome is out of his own hands. That's why drivers hate it. And that's the beauty of it for the consumer. At least this consumer.
Turn 3: Jimmie Johnson said during the Chase his ultimate goal is to win eight Sprint Cup titles. He's holding at five. Do you think he will get to eight? Why or why not?
Blount: Had he pulled off the six-pack Sunday, I would have said his chances are good. Now it's a little tougher. Jimmie is 37. I don't see him winning titles in his late 40s, so he probably has seven or eight years to win three more championships. I think it's 50/50 at best. And who knows whether Chad Knaus will stay on top of the pit box that long? Keselowski hasn't come close to reaching his career peak yet, and Johnson likely will be challenged from his own teammate -- Kasey Kahne. Both drivers at Michael Waltrip Racing -- Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. -- also look like title contenders now. All three drivers at Gibbs -- Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch -- are capable of winning it. JJ has his work cut out for him to get to eight.
Hinton: Very doubtful now, at age 37. He could be headed the way of his mentor, Jeff Gordon, who has been stalled at four titles since 2001. And JJ clarified Sunday night, in defeat, that eight wasn't so much a goal as "on that big wish list. ... We all have a wish list. The reality of that isn't something that motivates me, and I'm not focused on it …" Throwing out the number eight "was really to give everybody an answer because everybody would ask me, 'What's next?'"
McGee: I really thought his chances for eight kind of depended on this year. If he'd gotten the sixth this year then I think it would've been in reach. But history says that once the momentum slows, even a tad, and you have a couple of near-misses … they start becoming harder and harder to win. Just ask Jeff Gordon. At least seven seemed like a sure bet after he won his fourth Cup in '01. More than a decade later, he still has four.
Newton: No. I did until his team let one slip away on Sunday night. He had No. 6 well within his grasp if the race played out without him having the pit road penalty for a missing lug nut and catastrophic failure thanks to a pin-hole leak in the drive line soon after that. You could see the disappointment on his face and hear it in his voice more than ever, realizing he missed a golden opportunity. He understands that with each passing year, the window to get to eight gets smaller. Does that mean I believe he won't win another title? No. But three? The same thing could happen to him that happened to teammate Jeff Gordon, who won three titles from 1995 to 1998, another in 2001, and none since. It's not that easy, folks. That's why fans should appreciate the five in a row instead of complaining.
Smith: Six was right there in the palm of his hand. It was right there. And it fell off, like a big ol' slice of birthday cake on the end of the fork that ends up crumbled in little morsels of goodness all over the kitchen floor. That stings, and despite Johnson's innate mastery of compartmentalizing failure, this will stick with him. He'll have the opportunity for eight. He'll contend every year -- it's what he does. He is in my estimation the greatest of all time. But it's so difficult to win championships in today's NASCAR, that winning three more, in my opinion, is an awfully steep climb.
Turn 4: Which driver in any of the three NASCAR national series surprised you the most this season -- good or bad -- and why?
Blount: I have to say Carl Edwards. The man just dropped off a cliff, from tying for the title (points-wise) in 2011 to almost disappearing in 2012. Edwards failed to make the Chase, finished 15th in the standings and posted only three top-5s. He had only one top-5 in the last 31 races. It's the worst drop ever for a runner-up in the Chase era and the worst overall since 2003, when Mark Martin was 17th after his runner-up year in 2002. Losing crew chief Bob Osborne for health reasons hurt Edwards, but the No. 99 Ford team wasn't running well before Bob left. Hopefully, teaming Edwards with Jimmy Fennig next year will get things back on the right track.
Hinton: The biggest surprise was also the biggest disappointment: Carl Edwards not only going winless but not even contending very often for wins. The misery was magnified by pretty good success on the part of two of his teammates, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. So the problems appeared to be internal in the 99 unit of the operation. Edwards' longtime crew chief, Bob Osborne, stepped down in July, citing health issues, and Edwards just never clicked with Chad Norris the rest of the way.
McGee: I'm still just totally flummoxed by Carl Edwards. Especially when you consider how well his teammates ran. But I am even more surprised by Clint Bowyer. I thought he was committing career suicide moving to a team that had never even put one car into the Chase. So did he. But he finished second in points, and if not for his two Chase crashes, he might have won the whole thing.
Newton: Carl Edwards. I know you're probably looking for a surprise as in did better than you expected here. But Edwards gets the nod because of how poorly he and his team performed after losing the 2011 title on a tiebreaker. Other than the first Richmond race, when he was penalized for jumping a restart near the end, he was almost nonexistent. Even worse, he doesn't have a clue as to exactly why. It was so bad that people were making jokes about it. He went from 19 top-5 finishes to three, from 26 top-10s to 13. You can't blame the second-place jinx all on that one. It wasn't just a surprise, it was stunning.
Smith: Easy. Brad Keselowski. I didn't know he had this in him. I'm not sure anyone did, other than him.