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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Closing NASCAR’s 7th Decade: The Top-12 Drivers – Including the Champ Who’ll Lead Us Into 2010

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
ExpertTom BowlesMatt TaliaferroToni Montgomery
TitleEditor-In-ChiefAssistant EditorSenior Editor
1stMark MartinJimmie JohnsonCarl Edwards
2ndCarl EdwardsCarl EdwardsJimmie Johnson
3rdKyle BuschKyle BuschJeff Gordon
4thJeff GordonMark MartinGreg Biffle
5thMatt KensethGreg BiffleMark Martin
6thJimmie JohnsonJeff GordonKevin Harvick
7thKevin HarvickDale Earnhardt Jr.Matt Kenseth
8thDavid RaganMatt KensethJeff Burton
9thKurt BuschJeff BurtonDenny Hamlin
10thJamie McMurrayKevin HarvickKyle Busch
11thDale Earnhardt Jr.David RaganDale Earnhardt Jr.
12thJeff BurtonDenny HamlinDavid Ragan
First Driver FiredReed SorensonSam Hornish Jr.Elliott Sadler
Rookie Of The YearScott SpeedJoey LoganoJoey Logano
Why They Picked How They DidBack 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 and EGR, and an 18-year-old Logano messiah crowned just a bit too soon.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.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 – Speed is not going to be a pushover, and neither will Team Red Bull.
2009 Sprint Cup Title Predictions
ExpertCami StarrAmy HendersonTony Lumbis
TitleFantasy Racing EditorAssistant EditorWriter/Marketing Director
1stJimmie JohnsonGreg BiffleKyle Busch
2ndGreg BiffleJimmie JohnsonJimmie Johnson
3rdKevin HarvickCarl EdwardsJeff Gordon
4thKyle BuschKyle BuschCarl Edwards
5thTony StewartJeff GordonJeff Burton
6thMark MartinMark MartinDale Earnhardt Jr.
7thMatt KensethMatt KensethMark Martin
8thDale Earnhardt Jr.Kevin HarvickMatt Kenseth
9thJeff GordonJeff BurtonKasey Kahne
10thDavid RaganDenny HamlinGreg Biffle
11thCarl EdwardsDale Earnhardt Jr.Tony Stewart
12thJeff BurtonBrian VickersDavid Ragan
First Driver FiredElliott SadlerJamie McMurrayElliott Sadler
Rookie Of The YearJoey LoganoJoey LoganoScott Speed
Why They Picked How They DidJohnson and Knaus play the Chase game to perfection, don’t outright blow the first 26 races, and then beat everyone else the last 10. 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 10 events.
2009 Sprint Cup Title Predictions
ExpertBryan Davis KeithMike LovecchioPhil Allaway
TitleAssistant EditorAssistant EditorWebsite Contributor
1stJimmie JohnsonCarl EdwardsCarl Edwards
2ndCarl EdwardsJimmie JohnsonJeff Gordon
3rdJeff GordonKyle BuschJimmie Johnson
4thGreg BiffleJeff GordonKevin Harvick
5thDale Earnhardt Jr.Matt KensethKyle Busch
6thMatt KensethDale Earnhardt Jr.Matt Kenseth
7thKyle BuschMark MartinDenny Hamlin
8thKevin HarvickDavid RaganDavid Ragan
9thDenny HamlinGreg BiffleDale Earnhardt Jr.
10thMark MartinDenny HamlinMark Martin
11thJeff BurtonJoey LoganoClint Bowyer
12thTony StewartTony StewartTony Stewart
First Driver FiredReed SorensonElliott SadlerReed Sorenson
Rookie Of The YearJoey LoganoJoey LoganoJoey Logano
Why They Picked How They DidKnaus 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 10-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 AJ 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 Ragan breaking into the Chase – along with 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 logjam 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
ExpertBeth LunkenheimerVito PuglieseMatt McLaughlin
TitleSenior WriterSenior WriterSenior Writer
1stJimmie JohnsonMark MartinCarl Edwards
2ndCarl EdwardsCarl EdwardsJimmie Johnson
3rdJeff GordonMatt KensethKyle Busch
4thDale Earnhardt Jr.Dale Earnhardt Jr.Denny Hamlin
5thMark MartinKyle BuschMatt Kenseth
6thTony StewartJimmie JohnsonJeff Gordon
7thDavid RaganJeff GordonGreg Biffle
8thClint BowyerGreg BiffleMark Martin
9thKevin HarvickDenny HamlinDale Earnhardt Jr.
10thMatt KensethJeff BurtonJeff Burton
11thRyan NewmanBrian VickersKevin Harvick
12thKurt BuschDavid RaganClint Bowyer
First Driver FiredJoe NemechekSam Hornish Jr.Elliott Sadler
Rookie Of The YearScott SpeedScott SpeedJoey Logano
Why They Picked How They DidJohnson and 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 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, 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 Kahne as a darkhorse.
2009 Sprint Cup Title Predictions
ExpertS.D. GradyMike NeffDanny Peters
TitleSenior WriterSenior WriterSenior Writer
1stJimmie JohnsonJimmie JohnsonJimmie Johnson
2ndKyle BuschKyle BuschCarl Edwards
3rdCarl EdwardsCarl EdwardsDale Earnhardt Jr.
4thJeff GordonMark MartinMark Martin
5thDale Earnhardt Jr.Greg BiffleMatt Kenseth
6thMark MartinDale Earnhardt Jr.Greg Biffle
7thGreg BiffleJeff GordonDenny Hamlin
8thDenny HamlinMatt KensethJeff Gordon
9thJeff BurtonJeff BurtonKevin Harvick
10thClint BowyerKevin HarvickKyle Busch
11thKevin HarvickTony StewartDavid Ragan
12thScott SpeedDenny HamlinJeff Burton
First Driver FiredKirk ShelmerdineNo OneElliott Sadler
Rookie Of The YearScott SpeedJoey LoganoJoey Logano
Why They Picked How They DidMy 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, 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 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’ preseason 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 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.