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Those who disapprove of the Chase format have a new standard-bearer in Busch, who was arguably the best driver in the Cup series in 2008, at least through the regular season. For the first time in his short but brilliant career, he won races on every kind of track that NASCAR could throw at him -- superspeedway, short track, road course and intermediate oval -- and he did it across all three series. He was undone in the Chase only by factors beyond his control, suffering a stunning series of mechanical failures and accidents in the first four races. If he and his team can avoid such mishaps in 2009, then his first Cup championship should be well within reach.
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Perhaps the most impressive thing about the way NASCAR's Mr. October earned his three-peat was how he kept his cool while his biggest rivals -- Busch and Carl Edwards, specifically -- found different ways to collapse around him
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Racing's backflipping hard body will be a title contender in '09 if he can put his nightmare start in the Chase behind him. He was a dominant driver at times, but there is a wide gap between Edwards and Jimmie Johnson in terms of maturity and steadiness -- otherwise known as cool professionalism. The trick for Edwards will be to keep his emotions in check and avoid the sort of late mistakes, such as the pileup he caused at Talladega, that spoiled his championship run last season.
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Biffle nearly won a championship in 2005, then spent two years out of Cup contention as he and owner Jack Roush figured out how to get this team running again with help from crew chief Greg Erwin (hired in May '07). He was solid all season in '08 and reminded everybody that he still knows how to win. It was a redemptive campaign, and there's little reason to think that it won't provide the Biff with a significant momentum boost for the '09 season.
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Dale Earnhardt Jr.
NASCAR's most popular driver has been fast and consistent since his move to Hendrick Motorsports, but he and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. lost at least a few victories because of strategic mistakes -- the car rarely seemed to get better as races wore on. The '09 season should tell us if they've learned from the experience.
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Hamlin led a respectable 766 laps in 2008, but only 120 of them came after June 1 -- about the time other teams began to show improvements following the open test at Charlotte in early May. To contend for a title, Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford have to improve at making adjustments during the season.
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After a monster 2007, Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte fell to earth in '08, failing to win a race and flailing in their efforts to adjust to the new car. Gordon was simply unable to compete at times -- most tellingly at Watkins Glen, where he usually dominates. It would be shocking if things didn't improve at least a little.
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The wizened wizard of NASCAR will be the season's wild card. With his jump to Hendrick Motorsports, the nearly 50-year-old Martin will get championship-caliber equipment. With his move to a full-time schedule, he'll also get plenty of chances to win his first race in more than three years, as well as a shot at the first Cup of his 26-year career.
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A notoriously poor qualifier, Burton excels at moving up through the field and staying out of trouble. That strategy earned him his best overall finish in eight years, even though he was admittedly slower than the top cars. If that's true again in 2009, a repeat of '08 is the best he can hope for.
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Kenseth failed to win a race in 2008, breaking a streak of six consecutive seasons with at least one victory. But what knocked him out of title contention was the five crashes he got involved in during the Chase. Without such bad luck, he'll be a dark-horse contender for his second title in the '09 season.
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Harvick hasn't been to Victory Lane since the 2007 Daytona 500, and unlike teammate Jeff Burton, he hasn't figured out how to put himself in situations where he can steal victories. It's as though he's forgotten how to win. Unless the RCR cars get faster, Harvick doesn't figure to be much better than a top 12 driver.
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More than in any season since he was a rookie, Stewart will be an unknown quantity in 2009. Normally, a driver for what is essentially a start-up team would not figure to vie for victories or a Chase spot. But Smoke's talent burns as bright as ever, and with his Stewart-Haas team using Hendrick engines and chassis, the two-time champ figures to be very much in the hunt.
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Last year was a breakout season for the 22-year-old native of Unadilla, Ga. Though he failed to get his first win, he emerged as a driver capable of running up front on a consistent basis. This year might mark two debuts for him: first in Victory Lane and then in the Chase.
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This might be the year that Bowyer's bubble goes pop! For the last two seasons, he has waited until the final moments to lock in his position in the Chase. But with several surging young drivers in the mix in '09, and with Martin's move to Hendrick, it's possible that Bowyer could be the odd man out next fall.
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For a moment last summer, Kahne seemed to be reclaiming the status he held in '06, when he won more races than any other driver on the circuit. But by season's end he was merely the best driver for a weak manufacturer. Dodge's problems are no secret, and unless a fix comes in '09, Kahne is unlikely to make the postseason.
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His win at the 2008 Daytona 500 was a big boost, but in the end it wasn't enough for him to stay with owner Roger Penske. Of all the intriguing things about the new Stewart-Haas operation, Newman might be the most interesting of all. Flyin' Ryan will start the season as a long shot, but he'll be a live one.
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There are times when Vickers looks very good, such as the fall race at Charlotte when he led 64 laps. He's got ability, but he is rarely able to maintain performance. He's driving a Toyota, so there's no question he's got the horsepower. It is up to his Red Bull team to keep him fast for an entire race.
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It's got to be tough watching your little brother turn into Dale Earnhardt. Making it even tougher on the 30-year-old Busch is the fact that he just hasn't been the same driver since he left Roush Racing for Penske. And driving a Dodge, he and crew chief Pat Tryson will be challenged to make the Chase in 2009.
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Martin Truex Jr.
Rather than jump to another team this season, Truex chose to remain at DEI, where he remains the No. 1 driver in the shop and a consistent threat to be in the top 10. If he can squeeze out a win or two next season while staying out of trouble, a berth in the Chase won't be out of the question.
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Talk about a wild card. Logano has worlds of talent and will be in the driver's seat for a team and a crew chief that have already won two championships. The only thing holding the kid out of the Chase might be inexperience. Logano has won titles in six levels of racing, and he should take the Rookie of the Year honors in a runaway.
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