David Poole covers NASCAR for The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer.
- 2004 Nextel Cup champion: Ryan Newman. While figuring out how to win races and poles last year, Newman and his team learned a lot about racing for a championship. The 10-race showdown at season's end is right up Newman's alley.
- Biggest surprise entrant in the final 10-race championship chase: Jamie McMurray. Eight or nine of the "Chase for the Championship" spots already are spoken for by the sport's core stars. McMurray wins the battle for the "at-large berth."
- Biggest surprise left out of the championship chase: Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace or Bobby Labonte. At least two and maybe three of those guys will be on the outside looking in.
- Best story line: The best possible story line would be if the focus of the sport turned back to what is happening on the racetrack. It probably won't happen, but it's worth hoping for.
Jim Utter covers NASCAR for www.thatsracin.com
- 2004 Nextel Cup champion: Jimmie Johnson. Remember the start of last season, when all the talk was of his "sophomore slump?" He finished second in points. 'Nuff said.
- Biggest surprise entrant in the final 10-race championship chase: Ricky Rudd. He struggled last season, his first with the Wood Bros. But all signs so far point to an exciting and promising 2004 for this veteran.
- Biggest surprise left out of the championship chase: At least two among the following won't make the cut -- Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
- Best story line: Which tracks will be in the final 10 for 2005?
John Sturbin covers NASCAR for the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram
- 2004 Nextel Cup champion: Jimmie Johnson. If NASCAR's revised "26-10" points system format was in effect last year, he would have been crowned Winston Cup champion.
- Biggest surprise entrant in the final 10-race championship chase: Ricky Rudd. He won't necessarily be in the top 10, but Rudd will have the Wood Bros. Ford within the required 400-point cutoff margin. Nice job!
- Biggest surprise left out of the championship chase: Rusty Wallace, whose winless streak will reach the magic 100-race mark Feb. 22 at the North Carolina Speedway.
- Best story line: Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson, and respective crew chiefs Matt Borland and Chad Knaus, hook up in the hottest Cup rivalry since the early days of Dale Earnhardt/Jeff Gordon in the mid-1990s.
Cammy Clark covers NASCAR for The Miami Herald
- 2004 Nextel Cup champion: Jeff Gordon. He's been rejuvenated by his new young teammate, Brian Vickers. And despite the emergence of Jimmie Johnson, Gordon still wants to be the top dog at Hendrick Motorsports and the first Nextel Cup champion.
- Biggest surprise entrant in the final 10-race championship chase: Brian Vickers might be only 20, but he's on a magical run that will continue. In two short years, he's gone from almost having to leave racing because of lack of funding to becoming the youngest champion ever in the Busch series to swiping the No. 25 Hendrick ride from veteran Joe Nemechek.
- Biggest surprise left out of the championship chase: This is a tough one. Last year Terry Labonte made a great late run and clawed into the Top 10. This year there are so many good drivers with good teams that he'll be edged out.
- Best story line: Toyota gets off to a slow start in its first season in the Truck Series, but comes on strong in the second half and wins the championship. It announces it will move into Nextel Cup racing in two years.
Mike Brudenell covers NASCAR for the Detroit Free Press
- 2004 Nextel Cup champion: Ryan Newman will move away in the last 10 races of the season, when the championship race begins. He will be pressed by Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.
- Biggest surprise entrant in the final 10-race championship chase: Kasey Kahne will show speed and maturity beyond his years on all types of tracks. Watch for him in the Daytona 500.
- Biggest surprise left out of the championship chase: Sterling Marlin will find it hard to regain the form of a couple of years ago.
- Best story line: Brendan Gaughan wins a race in his rookie year and hands out free tokens to his dad's casino.