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
Now hear this: "It's tough to predict a championship, but Jeff Gordon will win races in 2009," says ESPN analyst Ray Evernham, who was crew chief on three of Gordon's four championship teams. "I'll guarantee he'll be a factor going into the Chase, and he will win races."


4. Greg Biffle #16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
He's in if: He maintains the pace he set in 2008. Biffle was fast all year, and only a succession of freakish mechanical issues, like the loose wheels at Darlington, prevented him from winning a race before the Chase started. This year, Biffle will win early.
He's out if: He falls victim to the sorts of gremlins that kept him out of the Chase in '06 and '07. Biffle had eleven DNFs in those two seasons combined, compared with three last year. It took him a while to get used to the new car, but now he's comfortable - and fast.
He wins at: Darlington, New Hampshire, California.
Now hear this: "I think he's absolutely going to be in the Chase, and it's just a matter of having a little bit of luck and ten great races the last ten races of the year," says team-mate David Ragan.


5. Kevin Harvick #29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
He's in if: He keeps finishing races. Harvick hasn't won a Cup points race since the 2007 Daytona 500, but he and crew chief Todd Berrier have set a new standard for reliability. Harvick has been running at the finish of 80 straight races. If he keeps that streak alive, he'll make the Chase.
He's out if: All the crashes and mechanical problems he has avoided over the past two seasons catch up with him. Harvick isn't going to win five races, as he did in 2006; he'll have to maintain his hallmark consistency to assure his place in the Chase.

He wins at: Richmond, Watkins Glen.
Now hear this: "He's the gung-ho hard racer, and all of a sudden you look at it, and it's like, man, he's finished a lot of laps, he's been on the lead lap, and look where he finished in points," says Ron Hornaday Jr., who drives for Harvick in the Camping World Truck Series.


6. Kyle Busch #18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
He's in if: His cars don't fall apart. During the first 26 races of 2008, the transition to a new team inspired Busch, who earned the top seed in the Chase with eight victories. Busch's formidable talent allowed him to drive his cars on the edge of disaster and bring them to victory lane.
He's out if: His team can't correct the weaknesses that were exposed during the first three Chase races last season. Mechanical problems at New Hampshire, Dover and Kansas KO'd the team and dropped Busch from the top of the Chase standings to the bottom.
He wins at: Atlanta, Talladega, Daytona.
Now hear this: "It's like I told Joe and J.D. (Gibbs) when they were thinking about hiring Kyle, I said, by far he's one of the top three talents in the garage," says Denny Hamlin, Busch's team-mate. "I think there's definitely that handful of guys that every year you're going to see up front. You're going to see those guys rise to the top, and I think Kyle is one of them."


7. Clint Bowyer #33 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
He's in if: He continues the improvement that propelled him to big performances in 2007 and '08, when he finished third and fifth, respectively, in the final standings. Bowyer's dirt-track background is a plus when it comes to driving the new car, and he's a fearless competitor.
He's out if: It takes Bowyer and new crew chief Shane Wilson too long to get in sync. Despite two straight top five finishes in the Chase, Bowyer is moving to the #33 car this year. New RCR hire Casey Mears is getting Bowyer's old car (#07), sponsor (Jack Daniel's) and crew chief (Gil Martin).
He wins at: Richmond, New Hampshire.
Now hear this: "If I had to pick a dark horse for the championship this year, it would be Clint Bowyer," says renowned prognosticator H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of the Wheeler Group. "Clint's got an enormous amount of potential, and I really like the way he handles a racecar."


8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
He's in if: He gets off to the kind of start he had in 2008. Earnhardt posted top 15 finishes, including a win and six other top fives, in 14 of the first 16 races. Even though Earnhardt and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. often seemed at odds on the radio, the car was consistently fast early in the season.
He's out if: His inconsistent finish to the 2008 season carries over into 2009 and he and Eury don't find a way to adjust as race conditions change. On more than one occasion last year - Atlanta, for example - Earnhardt was dominant on the first green-flag run, only to have his handling deteriorate.
He wins at: Talladega, Atlanta.
Now hear this: "I'm expecting a breakout season from him," says ESPN analyst Andy Petree, twice a Cup champion crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Sr. "I predict he's going to win three or more races this year and contend for the title. I think just having a year under his belt at Hendrick, and at the point he is in his life and career, all the stars are lining up for him to have a great season."


9. Matt Kenseth #17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
He's in if: He can find a little more speed to go with his ability to finish in the top ten, which Kenseth has done at least 20 times in each of the past three seasons. Kenseth was good in 2008, but he wasn't a match for his quicker team-mates, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle. With new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, that may change.
He's out if: Consistency alone isn't good enough. As teams develop and refine the handling and aerodynamic characteristics of the new car, race wins take on even more importance. Though Kenseth led 604 laps in 2008, down from each of the previous three years, he failed to visit victory lane for the first time since 2001. That has to change if he is to qualify for his sixth straight Chase.
He wins at: Lowe's.
Now hear this: "I think any time we see a change among crew chiefs in our sport, it's kind of a boost of energy to the team," says team-mate Greg Biffle. "I think that it'll be good for the 17 team."


10. Kurt Busch #2 Penske Racing Dodge
He's in if: He and crew chief Pat Tryson can build on the late-season gains they made after a switch to Dodge's new engine package. Though his performances remained spotty, the 2004 Chase winner posted four top six finishes in the final ten races, including a solid second at Phoenix. Owner Roger Penske has moved chief engineer Tom German from IndyCar to NASCAR, and that should help.
He's out if: He can't eliminate his horrible races. Last season, Busch crashed out of four events and blew an engine in another. He pushed 2008 team-mate Ryan Newman to victory in the Daytona 500, finishing second, but only four other top five results followed that promising start.
He wins at: Michigan, Pocono.
Now hear this: "I expect to see Kurt's season improve dramatically in 2009 because it ended on a pretty high note," says ESPN analyst and former Cup champion Rusty Wallace, who preceded Busch in the #2 Penske Dodge. "It looks like Penske has really made some changes in that organization. I think the #2 car will be much better off than it was last year."


11. David Ragan #6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
He's in if: He continues to improve at the same rate he has over the past two years. He transformed himself from a rolling wreck in 2006 to a talented driver who narrowly missed the Chase in 2008. In two full seasons of Cup racing - after jumping from nowhere to the big time - Ragan has won the respect of his fellow competitors.
He's out if: One or two long shots make the Chase field. If Tony Stewart, for example, qualifies for the post-season in his first year as an owner-driver or if Kasey Kahne gets his groove back, Ragan may be on the outside looking in.
He wins at: Daytona.
Now hear this: "I expect David to win this year," says Mark Martin, who preceded Ragan in the #6 Roush Fenway Ford. "I'm proud that he is driving the #6 car. I think that he's a good representative for that car that I drove for 19 years."


12. Mark Martin #5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
He's in if: He shows the same grit that carried him to the series points lead after four races in 2007 and to eleven top ten finishes in 24 starts in 2008. The cars Martin drove for DEI last year were good. The cars he'll drive for Rick Hendrick in 2009 will be better.
He's out if: The grind is too severe. Martin hasn't run a full schedule since 2006, and though he was a fitness buff before it was fashionable, he turned 50 on January 9. He'll also have to survive two races at Talladega, where the luxury of a partial schedule allowed him to miss The Big One last season by not racing there.
He wins at: Michigan.
Now hear this: "He's going to be tough," says Aric Almirola, who shared driving duties with Martin in the #8 Chevrolet last year. "That old man, he'll get up on the wheel. He won't laugh that I called him old man, but he is 50 this year. He's halfway through a century."
by Reid Spencer/Sporting News

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