As we near the start of another NASCAR season it is time for many to really look at what has changed. So this could be considered the year of the merger as you have Gillett Evernham Motorsports and Petty Enterprise came together to form Richard Petty Motorsports.
Dale Earnhardt Inc. joined forces with Chip Ganassi Racing to form Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Tony Stewart left the only team he ever knew to start his own team and brought Ryan Newman. Mark Martin made Hendricks' super team complete by coming out of partial retirement to try and win a championship.
Overall, there have been 13 major driver changes. Dale Jr. has had an offseason that was very uneventful. But my biggest surprise leading into 2009 is the appearance of Jimmie Johnson's facial hair.
So on we go to who I believe will be the top 12 at year's end.
He will be the runaway Rookie of the Year and will make it to the Chase. Expect him to win a couple races in 2009. Unfortunately he will fade late in the season and will have a few rookie mistakes that will keep him off the stage in New York.
Stewart was never happy in a Toyota. He would constantly find something wrong with the way they drove last season. But he once again will sport a bowtie and a larger role as team owner. He will struggle early because that's what he does. Look for him to kiss the bricks at Indy and get one or two more wins before the season closes.
Jeff has been one of the best drivers over the past few years. He will get a few wins but will struggle to find a groove in 2009. He will make it into the chase but will struggle and never be a real contender for the title.
Jeff went winless in 2008 and really never looked like the Jeff Gordon of old. He lost the most hated driver in NASCAR title to Kyle Busch, and is part of the best team in NASCAR. Look for him to get back to his winning ways but much like Burton he won't really be a factor down the stretch.
The second DEI defector to come to Hendrick Motorsports in as many years. Look for him to have a year much like Dale Jr.'s 2008. Not running a full schedule in a while will hurt him in the chase and will cause him to once again miss out on the championship he longs for. Instead of running a partial schedule in 2010 he will be moved by his year and will give it one more try.
Kyle's ruthless recklessness will catch up with him this year. The most hated driver in NASCAR will be on the receiving end of a hefty fine and points penalty due to his irresponsible driving. This will come back to bite him as he will limp into the chase but will be never get into the running. He will get five wins in 2009 but will be pelted with more beer cans than anyone can imagine.
After really coming into his own last season, look for him to finally get win number one and two and three in 2009. He will be right in the middle of one of the most exciting chases yet. He is a really good driver who will win a championship one day.
He is a great driver. He is with a great team. He is a proven winner. And he will be right in the middle of it when the season comes to Homestead. Look for him to have several wins and really assert himself as Richard Childress' number one.
He is a great driver and will get Red Bull its first NASCAR win. He is my dark horse pick and I wouldn't be surprised if he was drinking bubbly after Homestead. He is another great driver and will give Toyota another legitimate title contender.
Number 4 is not in the cards for Johnson. He will win, he will struggle only to somehow get a top 10, and he will be in the thick of the championship. But it is hard for anyone to win back to back to back to back titles in any sport, and a late season mishap will hurt his quest for four.
He is the Mark Martin of my generation. He wins, he gets top tens, but he can't close the deal. He will back flip more times than can be counted on one hand and will lose in one of the closest title races in NASCAR history. But don't frown, Carl fans, he will get a Nationwide title.
13. Ryan Newman
14. Scott Speed
15. Denny Hamlin
Some will be happy with a top 15 in points but Denny Hamlin will end the year in disappointment as he is all of a sudden a third wheel at JGR.
And the 2009 champion will be...
We all know he has the bloodline to do it. We all know he has the equipment to do it. We all know he has the talent to do it. He is the face of NASCAR. And he now has the maturity to do it. He will hit the ground running in Daytona with his second Daytona 500 win.
And he won't stop there. Look for him to lead the points and have the most wins as the chase starts. He wins three of the last 10 but will go into Homestead with the slimmest of point margins and will beat out Carl by a very eerie three points. Oh and in the biggest surprise of 2009 he loses out in the most popular driver voting....Just kidding.