The Frontstretch: Closing NASCAR's Seventh Decade: The Top 12 Drivers -- Including The Champ Who'll Lead Us Into 2010 by Frontstretch Staff -- Tuesday February 10, 2009

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2009 closes out the first decade of the 21st Century for NASCAR, and what a long, strange trip it’s been. Who would have thought back in 2000 Petty Enterprises would cease to exist nine years later — along with no Adam Petty to lead NASCAR’s first family into the next generation? Or that Dale Earnhardt, Sr. would make only 37 more Cup starts, his death the impetus for a sudden wave of safety innovation no one would have even imagined? And who would have believed that a little-known Busch Series upstart named Jimmie Johnson would be the man rewriting the record books for three full seasons, becoming one of the best stock car drivers ever to set foot in the series?

With 2009 offering one last chance to shape the story of the decade, more outlandish stories beg to be written. Johnson will be looking to set a record never thought possible, especially under the Chase playoff format — four consecutive Sprint Cup titles. To do it, he’ll need to fend off perhaps the strongest field of challengers he’s ever had, with Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, and Kyle Busch the trendy picks to break his streak. In the background looms one of the better rookie battles of the decade in Joey Logano vs Scott Speed: NASCAR’s handpicked future messiah against the quirkiest newcomer it’s had in years.

Who will rise above the fray to end the 2000s with a bang? And who will fall flat on their faces, watching most of the season from the sidelines after failing to meet expectations? Our staff tries to give the answers with our annual season predictions. But while I’m sure we’ll be the ones who fall flat with several Chase selections gone bad, there’s one thing I hope we can all agree on — that an up-and-down decade for our sport closes on a very definitive high note, whoever the champion may be.

2009 Sprint Cup Title Predictions
Expert Tom Bowles Matt Taliaferro Toni Montgomery
Title Editor-In-Chief Assistant Editor Senior Editor
1st Mark Martin Jimmie Johnson Carl Edwards
2nd Carl Edwards Carl Edwards Jimmie Johnson
3rd Kyle Busch Kyle Busch Jeff Gordon
4th Jeff Gordon Mark Martin Greg Biffle
5th Matt Kenseth Greg Biffle Mark Martin
6th Jimmie Johnson Jeff Gordon Kevin Harvick
7th Kevin Harvick Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Matt Kenseth
8th David Ragan Matt Kenseth Jeff Burton
9th Kurt Busch Jeff Burton Denny Hamlin
10th Jamie McMurray Kevin Harvick Kyle Busch
11th Dale Earnhardt, Jr. David Ragan Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
12th Jeff Burton Denny Hamlin David Ragan
First Driver Fired Reed Sorenson Sam Hornish, Jr. Elliott Sadler
Rookie Of The Year Scott Speed Joey Logano Joey Logano
Why They Picked How They Did Back in December, I had these rankings flip-flopped, with Edwards first and Martin second. But there’s just something about Martin’s one-time return to the series that has me thinking great things. Sources keep telling me he’ll have the best equipment money can buy at HMS; and at 50, he’s got plenty of experience chasing these titles. I think Johnson will finally have bad luck in the Chase that will open the door, and the driver of the No. 5 will want it just that much more than anyone else – simply because it’s his last chance. A few other quick thoughts I have: don’t expect the Big Four to come back to the pack, do expect Speed to be better than anyone thinks, and be totally unsure what to expect from mergers like RPM, EGR, and an 18-year-old Logano messiah crowned just a bit too soon. Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus are sure-fire No.1 until someone proves they can knock them off their perch. Anyone who says they aren’t the team to beat obviously doesn’t know much about this sport. Or any other, for that matter. As for Hornish, he has no guidance in the form of a teammate who will pull him aside and show him what he’s doing wrong. If it weren’t for the money, he’d be back in the IRL by now. Jimmie Johnson could win four in a row, but Edwards won’t be content to be a bridesmaid forever. And no one can mount a come-from-behind charge like Carl “Elway” Edwards. As for Logano, that choice was not as simple as it might seem — Scott Speed is not going to be a pushover, and neither will Team Red Bull.
2009 Sprint Cup Title Predictions
Expert Cami Starr Amy Henderson Tony Lumbis
Title Fantasy Racing Editor Assistant Editor Writer / Marketing Director
1st Jimmie Johnson Greg Biffle Kyle Busch
2nd Greg Biffle Jimmie Johnson Jimmie Johnson
3rd Kevin Harvick Carl Edwards Jeff Gordon
4th Kyle Busch Kyle Busch Carl Edwards
5th Tony Stewart Jeff Gordon Jeff Burton
6th Mark Martin Mark Martin Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
7th Matt Kenseth Matt Kenseth Mark Martin
8th Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Kevin Harvick Matt Kenseth
9th Jeff Gordon Jeff Burton Kasey Kahne
10th David Ragan Denny Hamlin Greg Biffle
11th Carl Edwards Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Tony Stewart
12th Jeff Burton Brian Vickers David Ragan
First Driver Fired Elliott Sadler Jamie McMurray Elliott Sadler
Rookie Of The Year Joey Logano Joey Logano Scott Speed
Why They Picked How They Did Johnson and Knaus play the Chase game to perfection, don’t outright blow the first 26 races, and then beat everyone else the last ten. I don’t see anyone beating them at the game they have perfected. As for Sadler, most of the time when you break up with someone and then decide to take them back later, it turns out to be the wrong decision — and you look for any reason to dump them again. He’ll be on a short leash. Biffle has quietly and methodically put himself in position to make a legit title run for the last few years. His “know when to hold ’em; know when to fold ‘em” approach shows a maturity that few of the competition have. It’s hard to bet against Johnson — who could easily win a fourth title this year — but given that his team relied so heavily on testing in 2008, I think the ban really hits this team where it hurts more so than the competition. Still, Johnson will be there every step of the way There is a belief in the world of sports that you have to lose a championship before you can win one. I think that’s exactly what Kyle Busch and the No. 18 team will do after letting one slip through their fingers in 2008. I think the field will be ultra-competitive for the Chase; but in the end, it will be mostly the same teams competing for the championship in the final ten events.
2009 Sprint Cup Title Predictions
Expert Bryan Davis Keith Mike Lovecchio Phil Allaway
Title Assistant Editor Assistant Editor Website Contributor
1st Jimmie Johnson Carl Edwards Carl Edwards
2nd Carl Edwards Jimmie Johnson Jeff Gordon
3rd Jeff Gordon Kyle Busch Jimmie Johnson
4th Greg Biffle Jeff Gordon Kevin Harvick
5th Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Matt Kenseth Kyle Busch
6th Matt Kenseth Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Matt Kenseth
7th Kyle Busch Mark Martin Denny Hamlin
8th Kevin Harvick David Ragan David Ragan
9th Denny Hamlin Greg Biffle Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
10th Mark Martin Denny Hamlin Mark Martin
11th Jeff Burton Joey Logano Clint Bowyer
12th Tony Stewart Tony Stewart Tony Stewart
First Driver Fired Reed Sorenson Elliott Sadler Reed Sorenson
Rookie Of The Year Joey Logano Joey Logano Joey Logano
Why They Picked How They Did Chad Knaus and the No. 48 team were the first ones to figure out how to treat the Chase as a playoff, and while the rest of the Cup field has caught on, there’s still no team better at the season’s final ten-race stretch than the reigning champs. Plus, with the ban on testing, the rich are only going to get richer in 2009. Meanwhile, Sorenson’s once-promising career has proven to be all but a bust, and his new ride at RPM is no improvement over his old one at CGR. With A.J. Allmendinger waiting in the wings for a full-time ride, Sorenson will have to start red-hot to improve his job security… and there’s no reason to think he’ll get that start. Edwards went toe-to-toe with Johnson last year, but two mistakes cost him and his team the championship. If they learn from last season’s Chase, the No. 99 team will have a shot again this year. Other big stories will include David Ragan breaking into the Chase — along with Joey Logano in Gibbs equipment. Edwards can easily win the championship if he keeps up his form from the end of 2008. However, he’ll still face the Hendrick onslaught. As for Gordon, he’s not going to go winless again this year. Instead, he’ll likely get to the disputed log jam for third on the all-time wins list this season (84). The rookie race will be closer than people would think between Logano and Speed, but Logano will get the upper hand — thanks to Greg Zipadelli.
2009 Sprint Cup Title Predictions
Expert Beth Lunkenheimer Vito Pugliese Matt McLaughlin
Title Senior Writer Senior Writer Senior Writer
1st Jimmie Johnson Mark Martin Carl Edwards
2nd Carl Edwards Carl Edwards Jimmie Johnson
3rd Jeff Gordon Matt Kenseth Kyle Busch
4th Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Denny Hamlin
5th Mark Martin Kyle Busch Matt Kenseth
6th Tony Stewart Jimmie Johnson Jeff Gordon
7th David Ragan Jeff Gordon Greg Biffle
8th Clint Bowyer Greg Biffle Mark Martin
9th Kevin Harvick Denny Hamlin Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
10th Matt Kenseth Jeff Burton Jeff Burton
11th Ryan Newman Brian Vickers Kevin Harvick
12th Kurt Busch David Ragan Clint Bowyer
First Driver Fired Joe Nemechek Sam Hornish, Jr. Elliott Sadler
Rookie Of The Year Scott Speed Scott Speed Joey Logano
Why They Picked How They Did Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have won three championships in a row, and it’s hard to bet against them making the Chase. While four in a row has never been done, Johnson is the one that has the potential to make history with the 2009 season. Nemechek won’t necessarily be fired — he’s the driver/owner — but he will probably be a team that ends up having to drop out due to lack of funding and sponsorship dollars. Is my Championship pick based anywhere remotely related to reality? Not a chance. However, if I am right, I will be forever vindicated after 20 years of perpetual heartbreak – as will one of the iconic drivers in the history of the sport, and the last link to the previous generation of drivers who helped bring the series into national prominence. Otherwise, just pencil in Jimmie Johnson for a record breaking fourth consecutive championship. Since the advent of the Chase, Johnson and the No. 48 team have shown the rest of the drivers and teams how the game is played. But in doing so, they’ve made themselves a stationary target. In 2008, Carl Edwards chased Johnson with the boundless determination, endurance, and joy of a retriever puppy chasing down ground balls. He and the No. 99 bunch will learn from the mistakes they made and present a formidable challenge to the seemingly invincible No. 48. If not Edwards… then who? One of the Wonder Bread Twins from Hendrick: Johnson or Gordon. Also, watch for Kasey Kahne as a dark horse.
2009 Sprint Cup Title Predictions
Expert S.D. Grady Mike Neff Danny Peters
Title Senior Writer Senior Writer Senior Writer
1st Jimmie Johnson Jimmie Johnson Jimmie Johnson
2nd Kyle Busch Kyle Busch Carl Edwards
3rd Carl Edwards Carl Edwards Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
4th Jeff Gordon Mark Martin Mark Martin
5th Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Greg Biffle Matt Kenseth
6th Mark Martin Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Greg Biffle
7th Greg Biffle Jeff Gordon Denny Hamlin
8th Denny Hamlin Matt Kenseth Jeff Gordon
9th Jeff Burton Jeff Burton Kevin Harvick
10th Clint Bowyer Kevin Harvick Kyle Busch
11th Kevin Harvick Tony Stewart David Ragan
12th Scott Speed Denny Hamlin Jeff Burton
First Driver Fired Kirk Shelmerdine No One Elliott Sadler
Rookie Of The Year Scott Speed Joey Logano Joey Logano
Why They Picked How They Did My Top 12 is mostly in the order I thought of them. If Jimmie stumbles in the playoffs, Kyle may not have the same stupid bad luck as 2008. Then again, Carl Edwards is looking hungry for the Cup. Yes, I know — same drivers / different year. But with all the instability in the garage during the offseason, I don’t see how 2009 will end up that much different from 2008. Missing somebody? Penske seems to have lost the magic touch, and the Ganassi/Petty/Gillett-Evernham/DEI tumult has effectively removed the chances for those drivers in 2009. Johnson’s won three in a row, and Chad Knaus is still on the pit box. As long as those two are together, there is no reason not to think they’re the preseason favorite to win the Championship. If Knaus puts his mind to it, they very well could win seven straight. Edwards is most peoples’ pre-season pick to pull the upset; but in the end Roush can’t compete with Hendrick. Jimmie makes it four in a row in a nail-biting last race of the season. Ragan and Martin replace Stewart and Bowyer in the field of 12. As for the rookie race, it will be a close battle with Scott Speed; but I’m tipping Sliced Bread to win this award and launch what — if the hype is to be believed — will be a Hall of Fame career.

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