It's only 54 days until the 50th Anniversary of the Daytona 500 (as opposed to the 50th running; glad we can milk that twice), which can only mean one thing.
Time for predictions! We don't even know what car some people will be in, and yet, it's time for predictions!
It appears that, barring any further economic or political catastrophes (beyond the already bleak landscape), we should make it to the 2009 Chase, albeit with a lot less testing. Let's take a look at who might be in the field come September:
1. Kyle Busch
"Sometimes you just act like you're 18," said Rick Hendrick to the Shrub (at this year's ball; foreboding picture posted above). Act your age, not your car number, Kyle! I expect Kyle Busch to (slowly) mature, as he continues to add fans and wins by being the "bad boy" of NASCAR. He has another year of experience, another year of multiple wins, and a chip on his shoulder the size of Todd Parrott's ego. That spells trouble for the rest of the field yet again, at least in the regular season.
2. Jimmie Johnson
He has made every Chase thus far, and there is no reason whatsoever to believe that he won't make the 2009 version as well. He can be expected to strongly contend for his fourth straight title. He'll certainly have stiff competition in the Chase, but there should be no doubts that he will be there to defend.
3. Carl Edwards
The top of the list is easy. The Carl can dominate anything from shadow boxing (hi, Matt Kenseth) to video-game driving to hood-ornamenting (a la Kevin Harvick's goon squad). And, oh yeah, he can win a bunch of races, too. Will Ford being the healthiest of the Big Three at the moment translate into an advantage for Roush Fenway and Edwards at the track?
4. Kevin Harvick
Speaking of Happy, Kevin may be in the best position to step up at RCR and take advantage of a clearly improved engine program (Earnhardt Childress). Expect Harvick to come charging out of the gate; it wouldn't surprise me if he was leading the points after Bristol. A fourth car is likely to help the RCR drivers, especially in an environment of reduced testing.
5. Denny Hamlin
This young man is now the senior driver at JGR. Though he had a very disappointing Chase, he is a proven winner and shows some significant dominance at many of the tracks that make up the "Race to th3e Chase". He has become arguably the best flat-track racer in NASCAR and has drastically improved his road course skills during the term of his short career.
6. Greg Biffle
Biffle was awesome during the Chase, providing for some time the only competition to Edwards and Johnson. Expect his upswing to continue, as Roush Fenway always keeps himself positioned to take advantage of any economic disparities. Unlike the last two years when he had to overcome slow starts to make the Chase, Biffle may be there all along in 2009.
7. David Ragan
The third of the Roushkateers. Ragan proved during the Chase that he will be a winner at the Cup level. His consistency and finishes were head-and-shoulders above many of the actual Chasers during the final ten races of 2009. He needed some experience, and now he's got it. He could easily notch multiple wins this year. As he did last year, he should benefit from the quality of his teammates as well.
8. Jeff Burton
Mr. Consistency was pretty inconsistent during 2008's Chase. Still, he has the equipment, the motivation, the character, and the drive to succeed in 2009, at least getting back to the "playoffs." It's hard to picture him a threat for the title, but he is at his best when underestimated. Like Harvick, he should benefit from the ECR engines. He might be running out of time to capture his first championship, which may make him even more motivated to succeed.
9. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
He had no problems making the Chase last year; his problems were primarily in the Chase. There are already calls for Tony Eury, Jr.'s head after several questionable calls in 2008, but he can be expected to lead Jr. back to the Chase, at least. If he fails again there, his head may indeed be on the chopping block. Jr. can't afford another "good, but not great" season or his critics will grow even louder, and his confidence will take another hit. If he wants to succeed, he needs to have fun on the track. The best way to do that is to win.
10. Martin Truex, Jr.
Finally, a new face! After all, this list was starting to look like the 2008 regular season standings. With an improved engine package and improved teammates, Truex has the opportunity to be the #1 driver at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. CGR and DEI were moving train wrecks last year, but even with all of the distractions, Truex narrowly missed the Chase in 2008. He has the talent, but will he have the equipment? An upgrade in teammates and another year of experience should be enough to push him over the edge and into the Chase.
11. Brian Vickers
Inconsistency and parts or engine failures marred a very impressive season from the star of Red Bull Racing. If Red Bull can provide more consistent equipment, Vickers has the talent to contend for a top-five nearly every week. He has a new teammate in Scott Speed, an enthusiastic and sometimes controversial talent that shouldn't be underestimated. Underneath the piercings and black nail polish, Speed certainly has the capability to haul the mail. I think he needs another year of Cup experience before he truly contends week in and week out, but he can only help Vickers.
12. Mark Martin
He gets the nod over Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon for the 12th spot. If this prediction is accurate, Steve Letarte will not last the year. Gordon does not lack talent by any stretch of the imagination; that isn't the problem. The problem is that ever since Letarte took over crew chief duties, he unloads with issues on Day 1 and has to spend the whole weekend just making the car driveable. If that same pattern persists in 2009, Gordon may very well miss his second Chase. Has his family been a distraction from racing or a welcome respite? I'll let the psychoanalysts cover that topic.
Back to Martin, however. He may be everyone's feel-good pick. He was Chase-worthy in the DEI equipment he ran in 2008. It's hard to imagine he won't be even better in a Hendrick machine in 2009. He should be considered a threat not just for the Chase, but for the Championship. Expect him to finish in second place by less than ten points, possibly followed with a retirement and un-retirement.
13. (On the Bubble and Out in the Cold)
Jeff Gordon: as detailed above
Clint Bowyer: There are too many changes to absorb, even if the majority of his crew stays together. He is one bad qualifying wreck from not making the field (he will not be in the top-35 to start the year), which would likely be a death knell for making the Chase.
Jamie McMurray: It's hard to say why Jamie won't make the Chase, except that there just might be too much talent ahead of him. It won't surprise me if all of the Roushkateers make the field after the way they finished 2009, but Jamie has a habit of inconsistency and bad luck during the "regular season," which he can't afford if he wants to get in this year's Chase.
Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman: Give them some time. They won't be ready for the Chase in Stewart-Haas' first year.
Dodge, The Whole Dodge, and Nothing But the Dodge: This manufacturer landed exactly no one in the Chase in 2008 and has actually gotten worse. As Chrysler verges on bankruptcy and teams are rumored to be ready to bolt, there is a question as to whether Dodge will even be around in 2010. My guess is that they won't. Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne are very talented drivers who deserve better, but Dodge in 2009 can't be expected to do much of anything. Worse yet, the new engine package does not look like anything special, putting even more distance between Dodge and the other three manufacturers.
I look forward to your feedback (whether or not you agree) and your own opinion of who will contend in 2009. Have a great holiday season and I'll see you next year!