By Brant James
February 09, 2010
NASCAR Power Rankings
1 Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 1
Jimmie Johnson
The four-time defending series champion can deadpan all he wants about using fear as motivation. "I'm entering this year saying we're going to get beat in my mind," he said. "That way I work as hard as can, the team works as hard as they can. We don't leave a stone unturned. I've always used fear to motivate myself. It's crazy. I typically start the season with nerves. Am I going to remember how to do this?" Yeah, whatever. The fact is, Johnson ended last season at the top of the Sprint Cup food chain, and his team returns virtually intact -- most importantly with crew chief Chad Knaus. Johnson has won the Daytona 500 before, so his place is atop these rankings.
2 Mark Martin
Last Week: NA
Mark Martin
Last year, the ageless one finished runner-up for the fifth time, succumbing to Johnson, the master of the Chase for the Championship. But Martin applied pressure all season, began the playoffs as points leader, and seemed to make his teammates work even harder than in previous years. He's apparently powered by nuclear fusion and therefore can be expected to maintain his energy/intensity level in what is presumably his next-to-last season as a full-time Sprint Cup driver. Martin is again looking for just a little racing mercy. A first win in the Daytona 500 might be a sign that the some is on tap. "I had the most fun of my life last year, and I'm going to have a blast this year," he said.
3 Denny Hamlin
Last Week: NA
Denny Hamlin
The anointed one. Two blown engines -- an anomaly for Joe Gibbs Racing -- and four DNFs in the Chase ruined any chance he had of catching Johnson, but Hamlin still managed to finish fifth in points. Two wins in his last five races -- plus a second and a third-place finish -- gave him a major push into the offseason where he has assumed the unenviable mantel of designated dynasty-buster. Carl Edwards withered in that role in 2009, but Hamlin says he's mature enough to handle the pressure. That remains to be seen. Oh, and he blew out his left knee playing pick-up basketball and will wait until after the season to have surgery.
4 Jeff Gordon
Last Week: NA
Jeff Gordon
Suddenly, he isn't the only active "Four-Time" champ anymore. Wouldn't it be compelling to see him create a real battle for the "Five-Time" moniker? Gordon's been around the hunt the past few seasons, finishing third last year, seventh in 2008, and second in 2007 when he went to Victory Lane six times and only a Johnson blitzkrieg in the last five races kept him from his first title in six years. He's won just once since, raising the question of whether he's still a true contender at 37. "There was a time I thought 2010 would be my last year," Gordon said. "You have to be healthy, competitive, you know? Those components are what's gonna keep me in the sport until that day or season comes to an end."
5 Juan Pablo Montoya
Last Week: NA
Juan Pablo Montoya
Fully acclimated to the Sprint Cup Series and beginning to assert his will on the race track, the former open wheel champion will be an extremely interesting study in 2010. He had on-track spats with Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart last season and is absolutely going to continue to tick off his competitors. Certainly, that will hurt him at times. But the maniacal laugh and glint in Montoya's eye suggest a peace with the mayhem. He's talented enough to continue his climb through the standings after finishing eighth last season.
6 Carl Edwards
Last Week: NA
Carl Edwards
A disastrous 2009 behind him -- he followed a nine-win 2008 with a winless campaign -- Edwards is in position to recoup his place as a prime championship contender. Unless someone popped him with a "Men in Black" mind-eraser, he hasn't forgotten how to drive. Team owner Jack Roush has vowed to make up for a three-win season (two by Matt Kenseth in the first two races) in which his team took the wrong tack technically. Roush has hired three dozen new engineers to figure it all out. That should translate into a better season for Edwards, if not a stellar one.
7 Kurt Busch
Last Week: NA
Kurt Busch
He was the highest-placing non-Chevy last season (fourth overall in points) and that has to be worth something. The 2004 Cup champ had a standout year, but lost crew chief Pat Tryson anyway. Now he'll try to do it with his little brother's old pit boss, Steve Addington. Busch's season promises to be interesting, not only with the addition of Addington, but also new teammate Brad Keselowski, whose nature could rub some teammates the wrong way. Busch relishes his role as captain, and it'll be interesting to see if Keselowski gets on his nerves. For now, Busch is a solid restrictor plate competitor -- probably the best in the series without a win at Daytona or Talladega. Keselowski already has one (last spring at Talladega. Wonder if he's mentioned that to Busch.
8 Jeff Burton
Last Week: NA
Jeff Burton
He was 18th in points, his worst finish and Chase miss since 2005, but his last five races helped send Richard Childress Racing into the offseason with some hope of recovering. Burton finished fifth at Talladega and ninth at Texas, then ended the season with runner-up finishes at Phoenix and Homestead. Childress said engineering issues were at the root of the problem. If they've been addressed, then Burton might be able to pick up where he left off in 2008.
9 Kyle Busch
Last Week: NA
Kyle Busch
The 24-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing star seems to have settled down personally, buying a truck series team, getting engaged, and signing a new long-term deal. Whether all that translates into a more settled-down driver remains to be seen, but Busch figures to find a middle point between his win-win season of 2008 and a 2009 in which he won four but missed the Chase for the first time since his rookie season.
10 Dale Earnhardt
Last Week: NA
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Really taking a leap of faith here. I'm doing a lot of buying in to his front-row qualifying effort for the Daytona 500 as well as the repeated assertions from Hendrick Motorsports crew chiefs and drivers about their new spirit of camaraderie and commitment to the No. 88 Chevrolet. Tony Stewart would have grabbed this spot (and maybe should have) if Stewart Haas Racing competition director Bobby Hutchens hadn't sounded so alarmed a few weeks ago about the prospect of a team slump this season.

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