1 CARL EDWARDS | 2008 SEASON: 2nd place; 9 wins; 27 top 10s
Excluding back-to-back nightmare races during the Chase (29th at Talladega; 33rd at Charlotte), he was the best Cup driver in 2008, and he enters the new season as the unrivaled top dog in the formidable Roush Fenway garage. His go-for-broke style is both his great strength and Achilles' heel: The late-race wreck he caused while attempting to pass at Talladega last fall ultimately cost him the Cup. "The key to catching Jimmie [Johnson] is to make our bad days into O.K. days, which is what he does," says Edwards. "When we have a 25th-place car, we need to finish 10th. I think you'll see us be more consistent this year with our finishes."
2 JIMMIE JOHNSON | 2008 SEASON: 1st place; 7 wins; 22 top 10s
His steady performance throughout the Chase—average finish: 5.7—was enough to hold off the charging Edwards and win his third straight Cup. Provided he stays away from kitchen knives (an off-season accident required minor surgery on his left hand), he remains the guy to beat, though he'll have no room for error against the raw speed of Edwards. Even Johnson says of his great run at Hendrick Motorsports, "Someday this is all going to end."
3 KYLE BUSCH | 2008 SEASON: 10th place; 8 wins; 21 top 10s
In his first year at Joe Gibbs Racing he was a smashing success, dominating the regular season with eight wins in the first 22 races, only to suffer a hugely disappointing Chase. The newly mature Busch, who in seasons past had often been his own worst enemy, was undone by circumstances beyond his control, including accidents caused by other drivers and mistakes by his crew. Expect crew chief Steve Addington to keep his team focused down the stretch this year.
4 GREG BIFFLE | 2008 SEASON: 3rd place; 2 wins; 17 top 10s
After missing the Chase in 2006 and '07, the Comeback Kid returned to the postseason with a flourish, winning the first two races and remaining in the hunt for his first championship until the last three weeks. There's little doubt that his Roush Fenway cars will be plenty fast, and Biffle—an intense but unflappable racer—protects his equipment as well as any driver. In sync with crew chief Greg Erwin (a 2007 hire), he's a threat to win any race.
February 16, 2009
5 MARK MARTIN | 2008 SEASON: 28th place; 0 wins; 11 top 10s
Now that's he's joined the powerful Hendrick stable and returned to full-time racing, the 51-year-old Martin, a fan favorite and probably the most respected driver among his peers, seems a cinch to make the Chase for the first time since 2006. There are even whispers in the garage that a reenergized Martin has a shot at winning his first Cup. "I was apprehensive about the full schedule," he says, "but there was no way I wasn't going to get behind the wheel of the number 5 car."
6 JEFF GORDON | 2008 SEASON: 7th place; 0 wins; 19 top 10s
It's hard to believe, but the four-time Cup champ has become an also-ran at Hendrick. Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte have struggled mightily to master the bulky new car. Their winless 2008—Gordon's first Cup season without a stop in Victory Lane since 1993—is proof of that. With the new ban on off-season testing, Gordon will be hard-pressed to win races early on. Still, at 37, NASCAR's winningest active driver can't be written off yet.
7 JEFF BURTON | 2008 SEASON: 6th place; 2 wins; 18 top 10s
After he won at Charlotte last fall, Burton, the bluntest man in NASCAR, acknowledged that his Richard Childress Racing car simply hadn't been as fast all season as those from Gibbs, Hendrick and Roush Fenway. But like teammate Kevin Harvick, Burton is a consistent top 10 finisher, which should guarantee him a spot in the Chase again. Wins, though, will still be hard to come by. "Without testing," he says, "we really don't know what we have."
8 DAVID RAGAN | 2008 SEASON: 13th place; 0 wins; 14 top 10s
Look for the quietly intense 23-year-old, in his third Cup season, to deliver on the enormous promise he showed in 2008. The most consistent driver to miss the Chase a year ago, he's poised to make the leap to race winner. With Roush Fenway equipment and his blend of natural ability and professionalism beyond his years, Ragan should be a contender for a long time. He sure sounds ready. "I wouldn't be surprised to win any race this year," he says.
9 MATT KENSETH | 2008 SEASON: 11th place; 0 wins; 20 top 10s
No victories and a bumpy ride through the Chase relegated Kenseth to his worst overall finish in seven years. The 2003 champ enters '09 with a new crew chief (Drew Blickensderfer) and renewed confidence, in part because Chip Bolin, last year's pit boss, has returned to his full-time role at Roush Fenway as Kenseth's team engineer. "We took too much time away from Chip working on the race car," says Kenseth. "This has energized our team."
10 KEVIN HARVICK | 2008 SEASON: 4th place; 0 wins; 19 top 10s
He parlayed a strong showing in the Chase (average finish: 9.1) into his best overall ranking since 2006, when he won five races. But finishing isn't the problem; Harvick has gone 80 races without a DNF. Winning is the problem—he hasn't taken owner Richard Childress to Victory Lane since the '07 Daytona 500. "We need to get a little bit better in every area," Harvick says, "but if we try to force it, we'll only make things worse."
11 DALE EARNHARDT JR. | 2008 SEASON: 12th place; 1 win; 16 top 10s
Junior started strong last season, his first with Hendrick, but faded late when he and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. began tinkering with setups in preparation for the Chase. (Earnhardt had only five top 10s following his June 15 win at Michigan.) His crew's biggest fix is going to have to come in late-race adjustments, as the car rarely got better as races wore on. Beyond that, NASCAR's most popular driver still must prove he can win consistently.
12 DENNY HAMLIN | 2008 SEASON: 8th place; 1 win; 18 top 10s
With Tony Stewart's departure from Joe Gibbs Racing, Hamlin has been saying he will take the leadership role on his team. To do that, he's going to have to cut back on late-race mistakes—something he and crew chief Mike Ford have spent the winter analyzing. "Things like fuel mileage really hurt us last year," he says. Always one of the top drivers in terms of laps run on the lead, he could, with even a small improvement, be a serious Cup contender.