Friday September 18th, 2009

Five drivers. That's how many, in my book, that have a realistic shot of winning the Sprint Cup championship. But as the circuit heads to New Hampshire on Sunday for Chase race No. 1, one thing is clear: Jimmie Johnson, the three-time defending champion, is still the man to beat.

Here's a look the serious title contenders:

1. Jimmie Johnson. Even though Johnson enters the Chase with just one top-10 finish in his last six races, that stat is a little deceiving. He's consistently run strong over that stretch but has been undone by some uncharacteristic mechanical problems and by mistakes by his pit crew. Still, if you polled every driver in the sport on their favorite to hoist the Cup at season's end, Johnson would win in a landslide.

This team, after all, has a history of coming on when it matters most. Plus, the schedule sets up beautifully for Johnson. There's not a single track on the circuit that intimidates him. In fact, he's won at every Chase track except Homestead. Also, Johnson has always flourished on the intermediate-length tracks, and there are five of them in the Chase. "This team has just gotten the Chase figured out," says Darrell Waltrip. "You have to win races in the Chase to win the championship, and nobody is better at that than Jimmie Johnson. He's got to be considered the favorite."

Indeed, he is.

2. Mark Martin

Martin starts the Chase in the points lead as a result of his season-high four victories in the regular season. He's like Johnson in a lot of ways: He rarely makes mistakes on the track, he's in top-line equipment and has one of the brightest crew chiefs in the sport (Alan Gustafson) atop his pit box. But there's an X-factor that's working against Martin: He may be the most snake-bitten driver in NASCAR history. Four times he's been oh so close to winning the championship, and four times he's come in second in the final standings.

But Martin should get off to a fast start. He's been the series top driver this season on flat tracks like Loudon, which is why he's my pick to take the checkers on Sunday.

3. Tony Stewart

Stewart won the regular season points title, but like Johnson, he's been struggling of late. Since winning at Watkins Glen in August, he hasn't had a top-10 finish in the last four starts. But he does have history on his side, because the last time he was the regular season champ -- in 2005 -- he went on to win the championship.

I spent a lot of time with Stewart recently for a feature in Sports Illustrated this week, and what really struck me about Stewart is that he's in a very good place right now in his life. He's building an elite organization, he's winning, and he seems as happy and as content as I can remember in the eight years I've been covering the sport. Will this translate into this third Cup championship? Perhaps.

4. Denny Hamlin

Hamlin, who won last week in Richmond, is peaking at the perfect time. He has flashed impressive speed all season, but can a Toyota from Joe Gibbs Racing run nose-to-nose with Chevys of Hendrick Motorsports and its satellite team Stewart-Haas Racing for the 10 weeks of the Chase? I doubt it, but on Friday at New Hampshire, Hamlin was very much looking like the driver to beat this weekend. And a fast start is absolutely critical for this team, if for no other reason than to give it confidence that it can outrun the fleet of Hendrick Chevys.

5. Carl Edwards

Though Edwards has yet to win a race this season, I still think he has an outside shot at the title. Remember: No driver in the series is better on intermediate tracks. And though the entire Roush-Fenway team has been down this year, it has a history of starting strong in the Chase. Last year Roush's Greg Biffle, who hadn't taken a checkered flag all season, won the first two races in the Chase. Don't be surprised if Edwards has a top-five run on Sunday.

So who will be your 2009 winner? I'm going with Johnson, who'll be the first driver in NASCAR history to win four straight titles.

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