Since the Chase format began in 2004, only Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth have made every Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
That won't change in 2009, but Sporting News doesn't see all twelve drivers who made the Chase in 2008 returning in 2009. Out are Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton and Denny Hamlin, with Mark Martin and Kurt Busch returning to the Chase and David Ragan, who just missed the 2008 Chase, breaking through for the first time.
Who will win it all? We'll let you know 13 September, the day after the Chase field is set at Richmond.
In the meantime, watch these twelve drivers excel…
1. Jimmie Johnson
#48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
He's in if: He, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the #48 team continue to do the things that won them the past three Sprint Cup championships. No team is better at staying cool under pressure and shrugging off adversity - and Johnson has the speed to complement his tenacity.
He's out if: Hell freezes over, the sky falls and plagues of frogs and locusts invade the #48 garage stall. Barring a succession of epic calamities and uncharacteristic mechanical issues, Johnson will maintain his perfect record when it comes to making the Chase.
He wins at: Lowe's, Dover, Texas, Martinsville, Phoenix (and any track in the Chase).
Now hear this: “How can you bet against the #48 team?” asks team-mate Jeff Gordon, who owns a piece of Johnson's car. “(Last year), they didn't start out as the best car and the best team, and the way that they stepped up when it came time for the Chase was to me something that's scary for every other competitor out there. There's no doubt that they've got an excellent shot at doing four in a row, and they've got a lot of pressure on them, as well.”
2. Carl Edwards
#99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
He's in if: He continues to race with the aggressiveness that got him a series-high nine victories and a runner-up finish in the Chase last year. Edwards has a handle on NASCAR's new racecar, and he and crew chief Bob Osborne continue to grow as a team.
He's out if: A remarkable combination of wrecks and mechanical failures derails him. That's not likely to happen, though. Edwards had a career-high four DNFs in 2007 (three for engine failures) and a 100-point penalty in 2008 and still made the Chase both years. The only thing that can keep him out this year is catastrophic misfortune.
He wins at: California, Las Vegas, Bristol, Kansas, Chicago.
Now hear this: “I think on the mile-and-a-half, two-mile stuff, those guys not only are fast, but they're able to get the fuel mileage,” Jimmie Johnson says of Edwards. “What makes Carl even more of a threat this coming year is the fact that he's done a good job of understanding Martinsville, Phoenix, tracks that have been tough for him.”
3. Jeff Gordon
#24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
He's in if: He continues to turn in the consistent performances that carried him to the Chase the past three seasons. Despite early-season wrecks at Las Vegas and Texas and four DNFs in the first 26 races last season, Gordon ran well enough in the other 22 events to qualify comfortably.
He's out if: He and crew chief Steve Letarte can't improve the speed and handling of the #24 car and competitive drivers who missed the Chase last year - Kurt Busch, David Ragan and Kasey Kahne, for example - make gains that carry them past the four-time champion.
He wins at: Infineon, Phoenix, Martinsville
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