Settling for second in the Sprint Cup Series isn't on Carl Edwards' agenda this year.

He got his fill of that position in the standings in 2008, when he lost a two-man battle for the series championship to Jimmie Johnson, who won his record-tying third straight title by 69 points over Edwards.

Though Edwards respects Johnson's accomplishments, he vowed to do everything in his power to stop the streak at three.

"What he did and what he's done the last three years is really special," said Edwards, who posted a series-high nine victories last year. "If it comes down to me and him again, I want to beat him really badly. I want to win that championship. I want to know what it feels like.

"Winning nine races and having a great year and all that is fine, but I'd take a championship with no wins rather than another nine-win, season because I really want to accomplish that goal."

Of course, Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the #48 Hendrick Motorsports team have other ideas.

Ask what he thought about Edwards' being the media's pick for the championship, Johnson reacted with amusement.

"Well, what about me?" he asked. "No, the funny thing is from a racer's standpoint is that we still have to go out and prove it. ... I just thought, well, darn, if you've won three championships in a row, you'd think that you'd be a favourite. We all have to go to the track and prove it out. So it was more of a funny moment where I'm like, 'Really?' What's a guy have to do to be considered the favourite?"

With twelve positions available in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Johnson and Edwards certainly aren't the only drivers with their eyes on the title. Kyle Busch won eight of the first 22 races last season in his Joe Gibbs Toyota, and despite a collapse in the Chase, he'll be in the mix again in 2009.

Johnson's team-mates at Hendrick Motorsports - four-time champion Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and veteran-turned-newcomer Mark Martin - all are likely contenders. Similarly, Edwards' teammates at Roush Fenway - Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, David Ragan and Jamie McMurray - all are capable of qualifying for the Chase.

Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing each placed three cars in the Chase last year. Childress has added a driver, Casey Mears, to his stable, while Gibbs lost his marquee star, Tony Stewart, who opted to compete as an owner/driver for Stewart-Haas Racing, with 2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman as his team-mate.

How Stewart performs with his new team, and how 18-year-old rookie Joey Logano performs as Stewart's replacement in the #20 JGR Toyota will be two of Sprint Cup's compelling story lines in 2009.

If the dominance of the "Big Four" teams seem to leave little room in the Chase for interlopers, don't tell Juan Pablo Montoya, a standard-bearer for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, formed during the off-season through a merger of Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.

"I think there are 20 or 22 guys who could make the Chase this year," said Montoya, who numbers himself among them.

Johnson, Edwards and Busch won 24 of the 36 points races in 2008. Greater balance, coupled with the ban on preseason testing at NASCAR tracks, should prevent that sort of monopolistic performance this season.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News



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