IT'S ALL ABOUT THE CHASE. After a 26-race "regular season," the top 10 drivers in the standings put the hammer down for a 10-race "playoff" in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. Here's how they'll rank when the checkered flag falls at Homestead on Nov. 20 ('04 finish in parentheses). --L.A.
1 JEFF GORDON (3) Under the old points system Gordon would have won his fifth title in '04. At 33 he says he's better than ever. Believe him. He'll get number 5 in '05.
2 JIMMIE JOHNSON (2) Last season JJ was otherworldly at times, winning eight races. This year he'll battle Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon for the title.
3 KASEY KAHNE (13) As a rookie he had more top five finishes (13) than seven of the 10 drivers who qualified for the Chase. Look for him to start winning now.
4 KURT BUSCH (1) Expect another late-season surge from the defending champ; Busch's average finish of 8.9 was the best of any driver in the final 10 races.
5 MATT KENSETH (8) After taking two of the first three races last year, the '03 champ didn't win again. This year he won't carry the burden of defending champ.
6 TONY STEWART (6) Joe Gibbs Racing hasn't been as strong since the owner returned to the NFL. Still, Stewart, the '02 champ, should be in the title mix again.
7 DALE EARNHARDT JR. (5) After replacing his crew chief and several team members, Junior will likely struggle early in the year at non-restrictor-plate tracks.
8 ELLIOTT SADLER (9) Last year's revelation, Sadler needs to rebound from his Chase swoon; he finished 30th or worse in four of the final five races.
9 RYAN NEWMAN (7) Perhaps the most inconsistent driver of '04, with nine poles set against nine DNFs, but if his engine holds up, he's always a threat to win.
10 MARK MARTIN (4) This will be his 22nd--and final full-time--season of Cup racing. Expect him to win at least two races and be a factor in the Chase.
11 JAMIE MCMURRAY (11) He finished '04 on a roll, racking up 12 top 10 finishes in the last 14 races. He could be the surprise of '05--or just miss the Chase again.
12 KEVIN HARVICK (14) Harvick's durability--from Nov. '02 to Aug. '04, he finished a record 58 straight races--makes him a contender to qualify for the Chase.
13 KYLE BUSCH (2, BUSCH SERIES) Kurt's little brother, who had five victories in the '04 Busch Series, is the front-runner for Rookie of the Year honors.
14 DALE JARRETT (15) The '99 champ hasn't visited Victory Lane in almost two years, but his improved Ford engine makes him a dark horse to win at Daytona.
15 BRIAN VICKERS (25) Though his best finish was seventh last year, the '03 Busch Series champ has the talent--and the Hendrick muscle--to be a winner in '05.
16 GREG BIFFLE (17) If he can pick up where he left off--a victory in the season finale at Homestead--Biffle will be a threat to qualify for the Chase.
17 JEREMY MAYFIELD (10) He won one race in '04--his first in nearly four years--and qualified for the Chase, but don't count on him repeating either feat this year.
18 BOBBY LABONTE (12) New crew chief Steve Addington will try to turn around a team that fell apart late last season and went winless for the first time since '94.
19 JEFF BURTON (18) He's not the driver he was in the late '90s, but now that he's with Richard Childress Racing, he should excel at restrictor-plate tracks.
20 CARL EDWARDS (37) He took over Burton's ride with Roush Racing midway through '04 and had five top 10 finishes in his first 13 starts.