So much was made in 2012 about the surprising rise of Brad Keselowski from promising upstart to unlikely Sprint Cup champion.
Even though he finished fifth in the 2011 championship battle, it's likely few predicted Keselowski would win it all the following season. Not only was he tasked with replacing the fired Kurt Busch as the No. 1 driver in the Penske Racing stable, 2012 was only Keselowski's third full season in the Sprint Cup Series.
Yet, even with high odds, Keselowski delivered, winning five races en route to earning team owner Roger Penske his first Cup title in more than 30 years of trying.
So, who may become this year's Keselowski?
Based upon how he flew under the radar most of the 2012 season, only to finish fourth in the overall standings, something tells me this could be the long-awaited season Kasey Kahne's ever-patient fans have been waiting for.
There's no question that after years of his talent outshining the equipment he was in at Evernham Motorsports, followed by Gillett-Evernham Motorsports, Richard Petty Motorsports and finally Red Bull Racing, last season was essentially a breakthrough season for Kahne.
In other words, his immense talent finally was equaled by the outstanding equipment he had in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. He finally had what he needed to complement his innate and natural ability to wheel a race car.
When all was said and done in 2012, Kahne won two races, had 12 top-five and 19 top-10 finishes, wound up just 55 points behind Keselowski in the final standings and only 15 points behind HMS teammate and five-time champ Jimmie Johnson, who finished third behind Keselowski and runner-up Clint Bowyer.
Kahne turns 33 in less than two months and, as hard as it may seem to believe, enters his 10th full-time Sprint Cup season this year. Time has certainly flown for the Enumclaw, Wash., native.
And during that time, Kahne has won 14 races despite mostly average to mediocre equipment, and has qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup just three times in that nine-year span.
But based upon the best finish of his career last season—while he did win a high of six races in his first Chase appearance in 2006, he finished a disappointing eighth in the final standings—Kahne appears ready to carve out some bragging rights of his own at HMS.
He's already proven to be a strong complement to teammates Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson.
Even with his nine-year tenure already on the Cup circuit, if we base his potential season in 2013 on his performance last season, Kahne is just starting to get warmed up. Much like teammate Earnhardt, Kahne's fans have also waited for him to win a Cup championship—and 2013 may very well grant their wish.
Not only that, Kahne could be on the edge of a changing of the guard at HMS. Jeff Gordon will likely be retiring in a few years, and both Earnhardt and Johnson are closing in on 40 years old.
An argument can be made, however, that Kahne is coming into his prime. He could very well be the future of the Hendrick stable. And with longtime crew chief Kenny Francis a virtual brother to Kahne, the duo is poised to make some significant noise in 2013 and beyond.
While he's still fourth on the four-man depth chart at HMS for now, Kahne's potential gives the impression of many sunny days to come after some downright gloomy seasons with other organizations.
He's in the right place at the right time for perhaps the first time in his career—much like Keselowski was in 2012. It's all uphill from here.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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