Desperate drivers: Seven who need to win the 2013 Sprint Cup

Michael Guadalupe

All of the drivers in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup circuit want to end the 2013 season with the championship trophy raised high above their heads.

There are several drivers, though, who desperately need to win the title more than others.

Some of the younger drivers on the circuit still have plenty of time to get fully adjusted to the Sprint Cup Series, and while they will be going for the title just like everyone else, they don’t need to win it as much as some veterans.

There are those who need to prove they are still relevant in NASCAR, and winning in 2013 would be the best way to prove that they are still a top driver in the sport.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 7

Dale Earnhardt Jr. managed to win a race last season and was voted NASCAR’s most popular driver for a tenth year in a row. He made it into the Chase as well, but suffered from a concussion that took him out of several races.

Junior has made it into the Chase two years in a row and has been a big part of Hendrick Motorsports. But while he did break his big winless streak in 2012, he seems to fall apart in the Chase.

He’s had some time now to fully settle into Hendrick Motorsports, and with a top team around him -- including crew chief Steve Letarte -- Junior has all the tools he needs to be one of the top drivers.

In 2013, Dale Jr. needs to desperately win the title. Of course, his popularity will never decline, but 2013 could be the last chance he has to walk away with the Sprint Cup championship.

The competition in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series will only increase as the sport moves forward, and Junior needs to take advantage of his solid grasp on NASCAR while he still has a chance.

Carl Edwards: 6

With Matt Kenseth leaving Roush-Fenway Racing, it’s time for one of the organization’s drivers to step up and lead. Carl Edwards needs to be that driver, but more importantly, he desperately needs to win the Sprint Cup title in 2013.

Edwards watched the Sprint Cup title slip out of his hands in 2011, as Tony Stewart passed him during the Homestead race and won the title based on wins. The next year then saw Edwards decline dramatically, as he failed to win a race and missed the Chase.

Now with crew chief Jimmy Fennig at the head of the No. 99 team, Edwards needs to be looking to do much more than just recover from last year: He needs to win the championship.

Kurt Busch: 5

Kurt Busch managed to win the Sprint Cup title back in 2004, the first year the Chase was introduced. Unfor-tunately, he hasn’t done much since.

He’s taken a step backward over the last two years, being dropped from Penske Racing, but he’s with Furniture Row Racing heading into 2013.

Busch likes to run his mouth a lot, and he seems to always find himself getting in trouble. Regardless, he is still a great driver.

But at this point in his career, he needs to make the Chase to stay relevant in the sport. And he desperately needs to win a championship to prove he is still a top driver.

If Busch were to win a title, he would also be placing Furniture Row Racing on the map as a solid organization, which always helps NASCAR when more racing teams can develop into top teams and compete.

When Busch was in a feud with Jimmie Johnson in 2011, Bush attributed Johnson’s success to his equipment.

“He’s been able to beat guys the last five years just by out-driving them with what he has for equipment,” Busch said via Jay Busbee of Yahoo Sports.

it’s time to prove he can win a title, even without having the best equipment.

Denny Hamlin: 4

Denny Hamlin has choked twice in the final stretches of the Chase.

Whether it’s because of bad luck or the pressure simply being too much for Hamlin and the No. 11 team, he has yet to reach the top level in NASCAR. And he is one driver who desperately needs to win the 2013 Sprint Cup.

Hamlin is one of the better drivers in the Sprint Cup series; he managed to win five races last season alone.

In 2010, when Hamlin was competing against Jimmie Johnson for the title, Johnson was able to get into Hamlin’s head. Hamlin couldn’t handle the pressure and caved in at the end of the season.

Last season, he ran into technical problems at Martinsville and failed to do anything for the last handful of races in the Chase.

“You can’t win all these races and not be a championship-caliber team,” said Hamlin via The Sporting News. “It’s the other things -- the teamwork, the luck, and things like that that make you champions. We know what our weak points are -- it’s been documented a thousand times.”

A championship for Hamlin in 2013 would prove he can overcome the pressure, earn Toyota their first Sprint Cup title and give Joe Gibbs Racing another championship.

Kyle Busch: 3

Busch is one of the better drivers in the sport but, like his brother Kurt, he tends to let his mouth and his actions get in the way of his driving ability.

He missed the Chase in 2012 but was able to compete for the win in several of the final races of the season.

At this point in his career, given how well Busch can drive, it’s time for him and the No. 18 team to step up and become a series contender for the Sprint Cup title.

With Matt Kenseth moving to Joe Gibbs Racing, he might be able to provide Busch with a little experience, since Kenseth has won a championship.

“It’s a huge disappointment,” Busch said of his 2012 year, via The Sporting News. “I can’t seem to put it all together when it matters, and you have to win in this sport, otherwise you’ll be kind of shown the door.”

Jeff Gordon: 2

Jeff Gordon hasn’t won a championship since 2001. He was one of, if not the top driver through a big part of the 1990s and into the turn of ?the century.

Last season, though, it looked like Gordon’s time as one of the top drivers in the sport was over. While he did make the Chase, he struggled all year and barely made it into the postseason.

He seemingly took out his frustrations on Clint Bowyer at Phoenix, when he decided that Bowyer had pushed him around for the last time and waited for his chance to wreck him.

He ruined any chance Bowyer had of winning the championship heading into Homestead, and it looked like Gordon hit a new low in his career.

Gordon did pull off the victory at Homestead, despite everything that had happened a week before at Phoenix. But whether Gordon slipped last season or bad luck was to blame, he had a pretty bad year.

The question remains, though, is he still a top driver in NASCAR, or has his time passed?

Jimmie Johnson: 1

Jimmie Johnson managed to win five consecutive championships since the Chase was implemented, and he remains the man to beat as drivers head into 2013.

Why should Johnson desperately need to win the 2013 title then?

Over the last two years, Jimmie has stumbled. In 2011, Johnson had a bit of a feud with Kurt Busch, and while he did make it into the Chase, he ran into bad luck early on and never fully recovered.

Last season, Johnson seemed tangled in a battle with Brad Keselowski, and he even managed to take the lead in the Chase toward the end of the season. Again, though, Johnson ran into bad luck and lost his grip on the title.

Regardless of how Johnson and the No. 48 team failed to capture the Sprint Cup title during the last two seasons, they have set the bar in NASCAR with their past success.

Now with NASCAR debuting a new car in 2013, Johnson needs to win the championship. Hendrick Motorsports is one of the top teams, and it will take full advantage of the new technology next season.