Now, just wait a minute. We're going to go in reverse from fourth to first. Hold your boos, cheers, or complaints until the end!
4. CARL EDWARDS
Hometown: Columbia, MO
No. 99 Aflac Ford
Crew Chief: Bob Osborne
Owner: Jack Roush/John Henry
Carl Edwards had the competition seeing red in 2008, both figuratively and literally, as his red Office Depot machine led the series in victories and came up just short of a championship. 2009 brings Aflac on board full-time and a new bright green and black paint scheme. Let me tell you something—that scheme is sharp. I was able to spot it from blocks away in busy downtown Manhattan.
Cousin Carl, Bob Osborne, and the entire No. 99 team should once again be a serious title threat in the new season, and I would not be surprised, in the least, if they brought home Jack Roush's third championship in seven years.
Edwards runs well at pretty much every track (although he is still gaining his footing on the road courses). If there is one thing holding the former substitute teacher back, it would be his tendency to go overboard, at times, behind the wheel.
Yes, you have to be aggressive to win (see Kansas in September) but not at the expense of tearing up equipment and costing your team a good finish. Occasional antics aside, most fans adore Edwards and his victory back flips, so a championship by this team would be highly popular.
3. JEFF GORDON
Hometown: Vallejo, CA
No. 24 DuPont/National Guard Chevy
Crew Chief: Steve Letarte
Owner: Rick Hendrick
The fact that the famed DuPont No. 24 did not reach victory lane—for the first time since 1993—and did not seriously contend for a championship, pretty much sent fans, the media, and the garage into crisis lockdown mode. Was it the end of the dynasty that had ruled the sport for nearly 15 years?
I don't think the situation is that dire? Gordon, at age 37 (not very old, although it seems like he is old when it appears that he has been around forever), is still one of the top NASCAR drivers.
Gordon and Letarte put together a strong season in 2007, and if it weren't for Jimmie Johnson's Chase domination, would have brought home a fifth title for Gordon. They had a strong grasp on the COT from the very beginning, although getting it to handle well and run fast on the large tracks proved to be their downfall in 2008.
However, during the Chase, there were signs that the team had turned the corner and is capable of contending in 2009. It's now been over seven years since Gordon's last championship, and there are whispers that Gordon's focus is on his life outside of racing—not the job at hand.
That may be the case but let me tell you something—this guy still has the fire in his belly to win and the talent and team to do so.
2. JIMMIE JOHNSON
Hometown: El Cajon, CA
No. 48 Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevy
Crew Chief: Chad Knaus
Owner: Rick Hendrick
The last three seasons, I have not picked Jimmie Johnson as my preseason Cup champion. We see where that has gotten us, as Johnson enters 2009 looking to win an unprecedented fourth straight championship in NASCAR's elite division.
Everyone wants to know how they are consistently so good, but I think the answer is quite simple—a smart and talented driver, an even smarter crew chief, and a group of team-oriented support people who work together with astounding chemistry.
Oh yeah, the Hendrick equipment is top-notch as well, and Lady Luck seems to be a big No. 48 fan (although I think Lady Luck runs out for the Lowe's bunch during the 2009 Chase at some point in time).
Obviously, Johnson should once again be in the thick of the championship battle when the Chase rolls around. This team is awfully quiet for the first 26 races compared to some others, but when the time comes to race for a title, they are more prepared than anyone else.
Give credit to Knaus. I think he has figured out that his team is solid enough to "back in" to the Chase even with a few poor finishes, so he spends much more time making sure his cars are difficult to contend with at those ten race tracks where the championship is decided.
That's not to say that they slack off during February-September, but they realize much more is at stake in September-November.
1. KYLE BUSCH
Hometown: Las Vegas, NV
No. 18 M&M’s/Mars/Interstate Batteries Toyota
Crew Chief: Steve Addington
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Love or hate him, Kyle Busch burst onto the scene in 2008 and polarized the sport like no one since the days of Dale Earnhardt. He ruffled feathers with numerous drivers, but at the same time, won multiple races in not one, not two, but three series.
Rowdy took home eight of the 26 pre-Chase races on the Cup side and jumped out to a huge lead in the points standings, which of course evaporated when the final 10 events commenced.
While we all figured Kyle would still contend for the title when the points were reset at New Hampshire, I don't think any of us expected the myriad of problems that the team faced in the early stages of the championship run—the 10th place points finish or being shut out of victory lane down the stretch.
While the Chase was a nightmare for the No. 18 team, I think it may have been the best thing that could have ever happened to the talented, but nevertheless raw and immature, Kyle Busch, entering 2009.
Adversity tends to bring out the best in people, and after the disaster of last fall, Wild Thing will be hungrier than ever. This young man is a special talent who has just begun to realize his immense potential during his first season with the Gibbs organization.
Busch has a fire in his eyes like few others; not only does he want to beat the competition, he wants to obliterate it. And, I've never seen someone feed off so much negative energy from the crowd before.
A year older and months removed from a series of crushing defeats, I truly believe Kyle "Wild Thing/Shrub/Rowdy" Busch is ready to take the next step and become one of the youngest Sprint Cup champions in history.