2009 Chase lineup will include Vickers, Ragan and Martin; But no Stewart
-- Jimmie Johnson: Nothing to say here other than he and Chad Knaus are the greatest dynamic duo in NASCAR since Gordon and Evernham. An annual title contender.
-- David Ragan: After nearly sneaking into the Chase in 2008 and shocking the NASCAR world, Ragan is on track to actually make the field this time. He’s matured so much since his shaky debut season in Cup, and now can match up to the rest of Jack Roush’s talented stable. His star will continue to shine in 2009.
-- Jeff Gordon: I was tempted to say he’d slip out of the Chase in 2009, as he has once before. But then I realized this is Jeff Gordon, the man who sits atop nearly every record among current drivers. I don’t think he’ll be a championship contender, but he’ll race his way into the Chase.
-- Kevin Harvick: Last year, it was uncanny how Harvick would always seem to finish 6th or 7th, no matter where he started and where he was running all day. Look for more of that kind of consistency. But unless he starts to win races, he won’t be a title contender.
-- Carl Edwards: Everyone is saying he’s the best bet for the title, and based on his amazing year in 2008 I can understand why. He and Johnson should be among the last dogs in the fight in 2009.
-- Brian Vickers: The surprise entry this year in the Chase will be Vickers, the up-and-coming Red Bull driver who put on a great run in 2008, but didn’t reach the top 12. The Red Bull team will only grow stronger in 2009, and Vickers has the talent to make the Chase. If he does, he’s as much a contender as anyone else.
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.: His second year at Hendrick means Jr. will be more comfortable, and could make a serious run at the title. He’ll have to get past his teammates to win it, though.
-- Mark Martin: The fourth Hendrick driver, the respected Martin has finished second four times in the point standings. This year, he’ll do all he humanly can to make it to that No. 1 spot.
-- Greg Biffle: Finished 2008 on a tear, briefly emerging as a Chase presence. This year, he’ll try to make that last all through the Chase.
-- Matt Kenseth: Some call him vanilla and unexciting, but Kenseth knows how to finish consistently and always seems to find a way into the Chase, even if he hits a rough patch during the year.
-- Kyle Busch: Point blank, Busch can drive anything on four wheels and do it well. He’s kind of crazy at times, but that’s part of why he’s a special racer. Kyle will be back and win a lot more races. The question is can he maintain the consistency needed to fight for a championship.
-- Jeff Burton: Mr. Reliable. You can always count on Jeff to be running up front at the end of the day, even if you barely saw him all race. He’s not flashy, he doesn’t win a ton of races, but you’ll see him in the Chase once again.
THOSE LEFT BEHIND
Tony Stewart will threaten to make the Chase, but adjusting to a new crew chief, a new team and a new role as co-owner will cause him just enough trouble to leave him out of the hunt for the Cup. He’ll be back soon enough, but 2009 will not be his year to shine. He’ll be the best of the rest and finish 13th in points.
Also putting in a good run this year will be Joey Logano, the guy who replaced Tony at Joe Gibbs Racing. Unfortunately, there are so many great drivers with much more experience than Logano and it will be extremely difficult for him to compete for a Chase spot. He is going to make some rookie mistakes, and that will cost him a spot in the top 12. He’ll compete for titles in the future, but not this year. Also, his cohort at Gibbs, Denny Hamlin, will not have the goods to remain among the Chase contenders.
With four cars at Richard Childress Racing, there’s no way all of them make the Chase. I see both Clint Bowyer and Casey Mears missing in 2009.
Jamie McMurray will improve, but all four of his teammates will outrun him once again this season and he’ll miss the Chase.
Finally, Kasey Kahne will try his best, but still won’t be able to make the Chase. Once again, no Dodges will be among the top 12.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I see Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer missing out on the Chase this season, to be replaced by David Ragan, Brian Vickers and Mark Martin.