1) Jimmie Johnson | No. 48 Lowe's/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Pros: Where to begin? Johnson became just the first driver since Cale Yarborough (1976-78) to win three straight Sprint Cup Series titles. His 141-point lead heading into the final race of 2008 meant that he only had to avoid a big crash in order to finish with the championship. He has very few weaknesses when it comes to track types. His average finishes over the last five years are as follows: fourth on superspeedways, flat and intermediate tracks, eight on short tracks and 11th on road courses. His team is among the strongest in NASCAR with two other drivers that finished in the Chase (Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr.). His crew chief, Chad Knaus, is among the best in NASCAR. In short, everything points to another strong year for Johnson. Johnson has experienced just one DNF due to mechanical error in the past three years.
Cons: Johnson will be fighting history during this season; no other driver has won four straight championships. The gap between Johnson and the next best finisher has dropped in each of the last two years. Among the few chinks in his armor - he started slowly last year with four finishes above 13th place in his first five races.
Fantasy Tip: With three straight championships, Johnson enters the 2009 season with the strongest recent history of any driver on the circuit; he should be viewed as the No. 1 driver but be aware the odds are against him to four-peat.
2) Carl Edwards | No. 99 Aflac Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Pros: Edwards came up just 69 points short of his first championship last year after a frantic finish to the season. He won three of his final four races and was a top-five finisher in seven of his final 10 races. His win total of nine was two more than he combined for in the previous four years. Roush Fenway Racing is one of the most powerful teams in NASCAR with three drivers that made the Chase for the Cup last year. In addition, owners can count on Edwards to complete most races as he finished with the fourth lowest accident rate last year (five accidents in 36 races). Edwards has finished second twice in the past four years and has posted no less than 6,222 points in three of the last four seasons.
Cons: The outspoken driver needs to improve his performance on the superspeedways; he has averaged a 26th-place finish at those types of tracks over the last five years. It will only be four races in 2009, but he will need to be better if he wants to overtake Jimmie Johnson at the top of the standings. Edwards has never been a big winner in the past as he tripled his wins from 2007 to 2008.
Fantasy Tip: Edwards is knocking on the door in the Sprint Cup; he finished with a career-high 6,615 points, and if not for some early mishaps, he might have prevented Johnson from winning his third straight championship. He is a strong No. 1 driver but carries mild risk due to his unprecedented explosion down the stretch in '08.
3) Kyle Busch | No. 18 M&M's Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Pros: After breaking free from Hendrick Motorsports in 2007 (fifth-place finish), Busch made the jump over to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008. He was off to a flying start with three top-five finishes, including one win, in his first four races. Busch would go on to finish with eight wins, most in the Sprint Cup, and 21 total wins between the Cup, the Nationwide and the Craftsman Truck Series. Another year driving with the Toyotas at Joe Gibbs should make him more comfortable working with the foreign car.
Cons: While his regular season was outstanding, Busch could not keep up the pace once the Chase began. After eight wins in the regular season, he fell back and wound up finishing 10th in the points. JGR won't have the veteran presence of Tony Stewart at helm, which deflected some of the pressure from Busch, who will be counted to lead the team this year. While Busch's aggressive racing style makes for an exciting race, it can also cause him trouble with regards to accidents, other drivers and/or the NASCAR governing body.
Fantasy Tip: Busch, 23, is one of the young stars of the NASCAR circuit and with Joey Logano, 18, joining the team, JGR has a great future. Busch ranks as a strong No. 1 driver for fantasy owners. He is a mild risk since he hasn't been dominant prior to last year, but it's awfully tough to ignore how good he was.
4) Jeff Gordon | No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Pros: Gordon was strong again in 2008. He finished seventh in the Chase and scored 13 top-fives and 19 top-10s. Hendrick Motorsports played second fiddle to Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing through the first half of the season, but came on strong at the end. Gordon was no exception having finished in the top 10 in seven of the last 10 races. He has finished outside the top 10 in points just once since 1993.
Cons: Last season was the first year Gordon went without a visit to Victory Lane since 1993. Unfortunately, he managed six DNFs after suffering just one in 2007. DNFs have been a recent problem as he had nine and seven in 2005 and 2006, respectively. Two of those DNFs last year were in Chase races, which severely dented his run at the top five in points.
Fantasy Tip: Gordon has won on almost every track that the Sprint Cup Series races on. It seems like he has just as much desire as he always has to get his fifth championship, too. Hendrick's already powerful team will get even stronger with the addition of Mark Martin. With the veteran driver joining Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., it should create a powerhouse team with all sharing notes and taking part in the team's development. Gordon is a strong No. 1 driver for 2009.
5) Matt Kenseth | No. 17 DeWalt Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Pros: The former Sprint Cup winner (2003) signed a long-term deal with Roush Fenway Racing last year, though he didn't provide much early return on their investment. Regardless, the talented driver is surrounded by one of the stronger teams with Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards. His 2008 crew chief, Chip Bolin, will be replaced by Drew Blickensderfer this year. Blickensderfer helped Carl Edwards to seven wins in his final 19 races during the Nationwide Series last year. This should help Kenseth, who trailed off last year and finished 11th despite making the Chase. Perhaps the new crew chief will also help Kenseth win a few races, though he still finished near the top with 20 top-10 and nine top-five finishes last year.
Cons: For the first time since 2001, Kenseth failed to win any races in the Sprint Cup. He has never been a much of a qualifier, but he failed in his bid to win any poles last year, for the third straight year. Although he has experience with Blickensderfer in the past, the two might still take a few races to get on the same page. He finished 15th or worse in four of his last seven races (two accidents).
Fantasy Tip: Kenseth should be selected as a strong No. 1 driver; he might be overshadowed by Carl Edwards in the No. 99, but Kenseth's history makes him a stable option as the anchor of your drivers.
6) Denny Hamlin | No. 11 FedEx Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Pros: Hamlin had a fairly positive season in 2008. He ended the year with one win, 12 top-fives and 18 top-10s; his exact same stats from 2007. He made the Chase for the third straight year and finished eighth in points (6,214). Hamlin is especially good on intermediate tracks with a career average finish of 14.1. Two of his best tracks have been the Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7.3 average finish) and Pocono Raceway (6.2). A fantasy owner would do good to have Hamlin on his roster at such tracks.
Cons: One disappointing track type on Hamlin's resume is superspeedways. He had three DNFs in 2008 and one came at Talladega Superspeedway. Hamlin's career average finish at Talladega is just 18.3 and 26.8 at Daytona International Speedway. He could improve on his qualifying as Hamlin averaged just a 15th-place start in 2008; he qualified better than 11th only once in his final eight races.
Fantasy Tip: Since Joe Gibbs Racing was so strong in 2008 it should be no surprise that they are tipped to be strong again in 2009, if not even better. Hamlin will have a new teammate in Joey Logano and will still have Kyle Busch to compare himself against. All in all, Hamlin should be considered a midrange No. 1 driver for any fantasy roster. He has made the Chase three years running and there is no reason to believe he can't do at least the same in 2009.
7) Tony Stewart | No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
Pros: Stewart could be one of the best all-around drivers in NASCAR; he has a great history on all tracks, with an average finish of 15.2 on intermediate tracks being his worst during the last five years. He has the best average finish on road courses and restrictor plate tracks (superspeedways) since 2003; he is fourth in short tracks. Stewart will also be returning back to the Chevrolet model, which is the car he enjoyed his most success in the past.
Cons: The obvious disadvantage will be the switch to a new team. Stewart will be running his first races in NASCAR without Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief Greg Zipadelli. The lack of testing at all NASCAR-sanctioned races could hurt the team even more based off their inexperience working together. His ninth-place finish during last year's circuit was the second worst of his career, and he hasn't finished in the top three since 2005. By taking over as a part-time owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, Stewart could find it difficult dealing with the driver, owner and manager duties.
Fantasy Tip: Owners might be scared off by Stewart's poor showing the last two years and his switch of teams. He should still be considered a strong No. 1, though you should temper expectations early in the year when the team might still be working out the kinks.
8) Jeff Burton | No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
Pros: Burton finished sixth in the standings in 2008 and also picked up two wins along the way. It was one of his best seasons, and in the end he claimed seven top-fives and 18 top-10s. He only had two DNFs and both were the result of accidents. His best track tends to be Las Vegas Motor Speedway where his average finish is 10.5 in his 11 starts there. Burton has won at short tracks, intermediate tracks and superspeedways though, even picking up one of his 2008 wins at the oddly shaped Phoenix International Raceway.
Cons: If Burton has a negative, it is that he has yet to dominate a given season. Eight of his roughly 15 years in NASCAR Sprint Cup have resulted in top-10 finishes in the annual standings, yet he has not won the championship yet. His highest number of wins came in what was arguably his best season to date, 1999, when he scored six. Fans are still waiting for the championship, though.
Fantasy Tip: Burton is another driver who is a solid choice at just about every track. For 2009 he will have a new sponsor in Caterpillar, but remains with Richard Childress and the No. 31 car. With the nuances of the Chase, if Burton can save his strongest form for the end of the season, he might just pick up that first Cup. Owners should consider him a fairly consistent, if unspectacular, option as a midrange No. 1 driver.
9) Kevin Harvick | No. 29 Shell Penzoil Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
Pros: After falling to 10th place in 2007, Harvick matched a career high with a fourth-place finish and set a career high with 6,408 points. He failed to win any poles or races, but he managed seven top-fives and 19 top-10s, the latter being the second most of his career. He is a streaky driver, but when he gets on a roll - as he did in 2006 when he posted five wins, 15 top-fives and 20 top-10s - he can race with the best out there. Harvick has spent eight of the last nine years in the No. 29 car, so there is plenty of familiarity in the car. As well, he has the backing of one of the strongest teams in the circuit.
Cons: Outside of his 2006 year, Harvick has done little in the way of winning with just six checkered flags in his seven other years on the Sprint Cup. His streakiness can also work against him; such as last year from April through July when he managed just two top-10 finishes in 15 races.
Fantasy Tip: With three straight seasons of 6,000-plus points, Harvick is clearly a consistent option, if streaky during the season. Be prepared for this if you select him. He is valued as a midrange No. 1 driver.
10) Clint Bowyer | No. 33 General Mills/BB&T Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
Pros: Bowyer turned in his second straight season of more than 6,000 points season in only his fourth Sprint Cup season. He dropped two spots in the standings; however, he surpassed his point totals from his previous third-place finish in 2007. Although he started slowly, Bowyer displayed his talent with seven straight top-10 finishes that culminated in his only win of the season at the Crown Royal Presents the Dan Lowry 400.
Cons: Although he has been on the circuit for four years, Bowyer has won only two races in that time. He failed to win a pole last year, with the only two poles of his career coming in 2007. He will also be making a switch from the No. 07 car to the No. 33 car. While he remains on the same team, there could be a period of acclimatization by switching cars; part of the switch means he will have a new crew chief, Shane Wilson. He needs to improve his five-year, 19th-place average finish at flat tracks and 16th-place average finish at intermediate tracks.
Fantasy Tip: Bowyer isn't quite in the class of the top drivers, but he is definitely knocking on the door as a low-end No. 1. Either way, it should be a great year for the No. 33 car, which hasn't reached quadruple digits in points since 2001.
11) Dale Earnhardt Jr. | No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Pros: Despite only one pole and one win last year, Earnhardt raced to an average finish (14) two spots ahead of his career average. He was also able to complete a career-high 99 percent of his laps. In addition, he has the backing of one of the strongest teams - both on the track and in the garage. Last year was his first driving for Hendrick Motorsports, so there should be more of a comfort factor entering 2009.
Cons: Junior managed just one win last year, bringing his total to three over the last four years. He has finished with more than two wins in a season only twice during his eight years in the Sprint Cup. Part of his poor season can be attributed to a horrific close to the year in '08 as he finished outside the top 10 in seven of his last nine races. He'll need to improve that if he wants to make a serious attempt at the championship. His finishes in the standings do not inspire a lot of confidence: 12, 16th, fifth and 19th in points in last four years, respectively.
Fantasy Tip: Earnhardt has value as a low-end No. 1, though he could be overvalued with the backing of Earnhardt Nation behind him. In other words, don't reach for him simply based on name value alone.
Editor's note: C.J. Radune, Bryce McRae and Cory J. Bonini contributed to this analysis.
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