The NASCAR season unofficially got underway last Saturday night with the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona. In a wild race, Kevin Harvick used a last lap bump from behind to dash to the front of the field just before all hell broke loose behind him. On Sunday, Martin Truex, Jr. won the pole for this Sunday’s Daytona 500, and later today, positions 3-43 will be set for the race via the Gatorade Duels.
With all of this going on in the span of eight days, we found some time to do a quick preview of the drivers who we think will be around for the Chase come September.
12. Denny Hamlin (2008: 8th)
FedEx Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
Hamlin won a race last year (Martinsville, Spring), and with former teammate Tony Stewart gone from JGR, should get more of the spotlight batting from the #2 hole in that stable. He is always one of those guys who just hangs around until the end; not a characteristic of someone who can compete for a championship, but more of one who can find a place to win a race here or there and put up consistent numbers.
11. Kasey Kahne (2008: 14th)
Budweiser Dodge, Richard Petty Motorsports
Driving for the newly formed alliance of Evernham Motorsports and Richard Petty Motorsports, Kahne will look to build on last years successes, which included two race wins in early summer and a win in the All-Star Shootout. What could hold him back, how about the new team. In the recent past, Petty’s cars have been nowhere to be found and the chemistry may not be there for a run. Of the twelve picks, this is our least confident (Kevin Harvick could be the one who moves in, he was the one we left out).
10. Martin Truex, Jr. (2008: 15th)
Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
The polesitter for Sunday’s 500, Truex is due for his breakout year in 2009. Having one only once in his career, the 1 team figures to be in a lot of races this season after joining forces with Chip Ganassi during the offseason. Look for Martin to shine more brightly on short tracks, many of his best finishes have come on tracks a mile or shorter. Hopefully Juan Pablo won’t tear up all of his equipment.
9. Matt Kenseth (2008: 11th)
Dewalt Tools Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
Kenseth, who won the 2003 Sprint Cup, was relatively quiet last year and recorded no wins. In fact, it was his worst season statistically since 2001. We expect Kenseth to be there this year, mainly due to his Roush Fenway equipment; and I’m sure that the fact that most consider him the third best driver on the team drives him a little too.
8. Jeff Burton (2008: 6th)
Caterpillar Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
Probably the most underrated driver on the circuit, Burton had his best season since 2000 last year, winning two races and finishing sixth in the Chase. To not expect him back there this year, and towards the front of the pack after the opener at New Hampshire (a track he’s always dominated) would be a bit foolish.
7. Mark Martin (2008: 28th)
Kellogg’s Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
Having run only two-thirds of the schedule last season, the recently-turned 50 Martin will join the most powerful team in the game for this, his 27th season in the top division of NASCAR. The move figures to give Martin his best chance at a championship; he has finished second four times, third four times and fourth three times in championship standings. He’s also who we like to win Sunday’s 500, which would also be his first points-race win at Daytona International Speedway.
6. Kyle Busch (2008: 10th)
M&M’s Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
Nicknamed “Rowdy”, Busch had the most surprising season of anyone in 2008, dominating the first two-thirds of the year before fading to tenth in the Chase. His eight wins were second to only Carl Edwards’ nine, and he dominated the months of April-July in pretty much all three major series of NASCAR. He finished sixth in the Nationwide Series standings, despite not running six races. Alongside the aforementioned Edwards, he gave us the greatest moment of 2008 when he was spun out on the parade lap at Bristol in August.
5. Jeff Gordon (2008: 7th)
Dupont Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
2008 was Gordon’s first winless season since his rookie year of 1993. His four overall series championships are second to only Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, but he hasn’t been a real factor since NASCAR went to the Chase format. He won six races in 2007 though, so we’re thinking that last year was just an aberration.
4. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (2008: 12th)
National Guard/AMP Energy Drink Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
Junior was by far last year’s biggest disappointment, winning just one race (on fuel strategy, none the less) during the season after winning the Shootout and a Duel during Speedweeks. With Hendrick equipment, everyone expect great things from the son of a legend, and he should be right at the front towards the end of Sunday’s race. As far as the season goes, there is no doubt he should fare better the second time around with teammates Martin, Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
3. Carl Edwards (2008: 2nd)
Aflac Insurance Ford, Roush Fenway Motorsports
The most frequent winning driver on the circuit last year, Edwards nine wins came in a flurry; twice during last season he won three out of four races. He had a remarkable Chase, during which he recorded eight top-5 finishes. It wasn’t enough to beat Johnson, who won five of the last twelve races in 2008. Many would have Biffle and Edwards flipped in our rankings; we just believe that’s it’s Biffle’s time.
2. Jimmie Johnson (2008: 1st)
Lowe’s Chevrolet, Hendrick Motosports
Widely considered the most underrated driver in the history of NASCAR, Johnson has won three consecutive championships and has a chance to become the first driver to ever win four in a row. He seemingly struggled to find his way for two-thirds of last year before going on a tear during the last dozen races to come away with the hardware. We have him second because what he’s recently done is amazing, and to keep it up would just be further from all the averages. NASCAR, like most other professional sports, is a game of numbers, and Johnson is just due for something other than a championship.
1. Greg Biffle (2008: 3rd)
3M Ford, Roush Fenway Motorsports
Biffle quietly had a terrific year in ’08, finishing third in the points despite winning just two races. His finishes got better by the week and towards the end of the season things were beginning to gel in the 16 camp. He’s been great at the tracks where the Chase is at, and we look for him to carry over the momentum into 2009 and have a Terry Labonte-type season; not a lot of wins and scary consistency. All that, and we’re really hoping Jimmie doesn’t win again.