Tom Bowles
Monday November 30th, 2009

We figured we'd dispense with an end-of-season power rankings. After all, with Jimmie Johnson's history making fourth straight title, there's no doubt who finished the year number one...

Instead, it's time to look ahead to 2010, where the No. 48 remains the prohibitive favorite in the Chase. With crew chief Chad Knaus and sponsor Lowe's both returning, it's going to be difficult to knock Johnson off his game. Who's in the best position to challenge their dominance? Here are the 10 drivers, in order, who have the best chance:

Who can challenge Jimmie Johnson in 2010?
1Mark Martin
Mark Martin
This year's championship runner-up will also return with his team virtually intact for 2010. With five victories -- his most since 1998 -- 14 top-five finishes, and 21 top-10s, he held the torch for all athletes 50 or older in 2009. Can Martin do it again at age 51? The key is keeping his relaxed attitude. While he is still looking to win a Daytona 500 and to add a championship to his resume, he no longer seems burdened by the pressure of those expectations. That explains why the five-time championship runner-up was excited about finishing second instead of being devastated this one didn't work out. "I know y'all would love it, but there's no frustration," he told the media at season's end. "I'm very proud of what we accomplished." Don't be surprised if he accomplishes more in 2010.
2Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin
With his win at Homestead, Hamlin cleared a major hurdle by recording his first career win on an intermediate. But the biggest key for Hamlin next year will be consistency inside the Chase; despite a number of top-five finishes, Hamlin finished 317 points behind Jimmie Johnson, a gap which can be attributed to three DNFs at California, Charlotte, and Talladega. "It's tough to play the numbers game and what if," he said. "But all I know is we've been competitive enough to run with those guys. I think this Chase has just made us stronger, because now I think everyone is focused and everyone is fired up about next year knowing that we're one of the few guys that can run with that 48 every single week."
3Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth
I know you're sitting there scratching your head -- this team didn't even make the Chase in 2009. But let's not forget, this team also won the first two races of the year and finished with more victories than any other Roush Fenway car. A new generation chassis brought this team to life during the playoffs and three top-5 finishes suggested that they've righted the ship for 2010. During Johnson's four-year run, Kenseth has come the closest to knocking off the No. 48 -- finishing within 56 points of him in 2006 -- and the 2003 champ has both the experience and consistency to challenge. The key will be whether crew chief Drew Blickensderfer can step up his game and evolve into the defining leader Kenseth needs in his second season on top the pit box.
4Carl Edwards
Carl Edwards
Edwards went from nine wins in '08 to zero in '09, a feat that hasn't been accomplished since Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson went from 13 wins in 1965 to none in '66. It was an admittedly difficult season for the one-time championship runner-up, whose car never had the raw speed to seriously contend. But crew chief Bob Osborne and most of the core pieces are expected to return, and the cyclical nature of this sport would have you believe it's only a matter of time before the No. 99 gets it together. Edwards turns 30 next year, and it's clear that he has yet to peak as a driver. Better yet -- promising runs by Kenseth and A.J. Allmendinger during the last three weeks are an indicator the Fords have started to figure this new car out.
5Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon
After winning his fourth title in 2001, Gordon was nicknamed "Four-time" by Jimmie Johnson. Now, however, Gordon has competition in his "Drive For Five." As always, the biggest roadblock for the 38-year-old is the fact that he isn't alpha dog within his own shop. The difference between Gordon and Johnson always comes late in races, where No. 24 crew chief Steve Letarte adjusts the wrong way the second the No. 48 gets it just right. But it's not just the crew chief that needs to improve. Restarts have been awful for Gordon when he's not up front in clean air, leaving him guaranteed to drop half-a-dozen spots in the first few laps after a yellow. On the plus side, Gordon is more motivated than ever to win a title under this new format, looking refreshed behind the wheel and ready to race three to four more years. You'd think at some point during that stretch Johnson would stumble... right?
6Juan Pablo Montoya
Juan Pablo Montoya
This year's Chase Cinderella surprised many with four top-5s in the first four playoff races, which set him up to be Johnson's primary challenger before a Charlotte wreck saw it all go to pieces. Still, the open-wheel convert's most successful season in stock car racing (18 top-10 finishes) has him heading in the right direction for 2010; but his success depends on whether the resources will continue to back him up. Montoya is half of a two-car team which will add new driver Jamie McMurray next year -- will that be enough to compete with the four-car behemoths of Roush and Hendrick when the going gets tough?
7Kurt Busch
Kurt Busch
With a fourth-place finish in the final standings, the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge was the best-performing car this season -- not owned by Rick Hendrick. But several changes will be made to the team next year, leaving many skeptical that he'll back up that mark in '10. Dodge is scaling back its involvement, and will focus on just the Penske team next season, with rumors they might bail altogether by 2011. With crew chief Pat Tryson leaving for Michael Waltrip Racing in 2010, the impending adjustment period doesn't bode well for Busch; after all, no team has won the title with a new head wrench since the Andy Petree/Dale Earnhardt combo in 1993. Knowing the obstacles in front of him, it's no wonder Busch has been pushing for the team to hire a replacement ASAP. "These guys from Hendrick, they'll beat you left and right if you're not looking," he said at season's end. "We just have to keep pushing them, find new ideas, and go after them in 2010."
8Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch
Last year's regular season points champ had a disappointing 2009 in which he failed to make the Chase. That inconsistency sealed the fate of former crew chief Steve Addington, who was replaced by Dave Rogers for the last three races of '09 and beyond. The new pairing seemed to show a marked improvement right off the bat, as Busch nearly won Texas before running out of fuel with two laps left. But it's still too early to determine whether the duo will click over the long haul. One thing that'll help Kyle next year is refocusing on his Cup effort, as he pledged limited schedules in the Nationwide and Truck Series after being spread too thin for a second straight year (although he did come away with the 2009 Nationwide title for his troubles).
9Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart
The owner/driver had a successful first season in the series, winning four races and the regular season points title, with 23 top-10s. Still, it's hard to consider him a true title contender when the team gets its engines and chassis from a major Chase competitor, Hendrick Motorsports. Both sides insist that there isn't a difference in equipment, yet when push came to shove, Johnson, Martin, and Gordon ran circles around Stewart down the stretch, as he didn't finish in the top-five in the final six races. When you're fourth on the totem pole, you need a whole lot of luck in order to contend.
10Jeff Burton
Jeff Burton
Richard Childress Racing endured a winless season for the first time since 2004, but the new combination of Burton and crew chief Todd Berrier has led to a recent resurgence. The duo ended the year with two runner-up finishes and four top-10s in four weeks, and look to build the program in 2010. The key will be maintaining their momentum; this team has proven that with the right equipment, it can not only make the Chase, but also lead the championship standings. "I think all of us are fairly encouraged," Burton said at season's end. "We've made up a lot of ground, but we can't take the approach going into next year that we've got it figured out. We've got to find a way to continue to improve, which is what we didn't do last year, and we have to be on full alert to not let that happen again."

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