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Archive for Thursday, February 8, 2007

Ranking the field

Defending champs lead annual preseason picks

February 8, 2007

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As many things as there are that seem different as a new Nextel Cup season dawns this weekend at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, the names look mighty familiar at and near the top in That's Racin's preseason top 40 team rankings.

Adaptation figures to be the critical factor for success this year, as the "car of tomorrow" is featured in 16 races and drivers and crews have to get used to that new implement while still maintaining a mastery of the "old" car.

Our guess - and history shows that's all it is - is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The sport's most powerful and successful teams, we figure, will be the ones who're best able to cope with all of the new things thrown their way in 2007.

So nine of the 10 drivers who made last year's Chase for the Nextel Cup start out the year in our preseason top 10. Add Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle - a trio of drivers who surprised the sport by failing to make last year's Chase - and you have our 12 predictions for this year's championship field.

Kurt Busch, Scott Riggs, Clint Bowyer and even Juan Pablo Montoya drew consideration for being in that top 12, and it's a safe bet to say that someone from outside this top 20 will be in the Chase come September. Denny Hamlin was 27th in the preseason last year, and Jeff Burton was 21st. But we have to start somewhere.

1. Jimmie Johnson (car No. 48): Nobody has won back-to-back titles since Jeff Gordon in 1997-98. This team has been so solid, though, that they could be the first. No. 1 is theirs until someone takes it. Final 2006 ranking: 1.

2. Tony Stewart (car No. 20): If anyone can cope with different cars, it figures to be the sport's most versatile star. Final 2006 ranking: 5.

3. Kasey Kahne (car No. 9): Dangerous if a new car helps on short tracks since this team had 1.5-mile tracks nailed. Final 2006 ranking: 6.

4. Kevin Harvick (car No. 29): Has Richard Childress Racing bridged the gap between itself and sport's elite? Final 2006 ranking: 3.

5. Matt Kenseth (car No. 17): Always steady and sometimes spectacular, this team also has been a Chase perennial. Final 2006 ranking: 2.

6. Denny Hamlin (car No. 11): Sophomore jinx? We'll see; this team fashioned an absolutely stellar 2006 season. Final 2006 ranking: 4.

7. Jeff Gordon (car No. 24): Making the Chase ought not be enough. Let's say it - the No. 48 team is what the No. 24 team once was. Final 2006 ranking: 8.

8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (car No. 8): Trendy pick for this year's title. If contract mess lingers, though, that won't happen. Final 2006 ranking: 7.

9. Kyle Busch (car No. 5): Fell apart after making the Chase last year, but this team still feels like it's on the rise. Final 2006 ranking: 11.

10. Jeff Burton (car No. 31): Could go way up, could slip a bit. This team needs to run up front a lot more. Final 2006 ranking: 9.

11. Carl Edwards (car No. 99): Crew chief Bob Osborne's back. Edwards hopes he brings magic from 2005 with him. Final 2006 ranking: 13.

12. Greg Biffle (car No. 16): A lot depends on how the switch from Doug Richert to Pat Tryson as crew chief pans out. Final 2006 ranking: 12.

13. Kurt Busch (car No. 2): These guys need to worry less about their driver's image and more about going fast. Final 2006 ranking: 15.

14. Clint Bowyer (car No. 07): Is RCR really deep enough to put three teams into contention this year? Final 2006 ranking: 16.

15. Scott Riggs (car No. 10): Repeatedly on the verge of a break-out season. Maybe it'll come in 2007. Final 2006 ranking: 21.

16. Ryan Newman (car No. 12): Not sure what went wrong, so we lack confidence anybody's figured out how to fix it. Final 2006 ranking: 18.

17. Elliott Sadler (car No. 19): If Evernham Motorsports' tide goes as high as some think it might, this boat will float upward, too. Final 2006 ranking: 22.

18. Casey Mears (car No. 25): Mears joins the Hendrick Motorsports fleet and gets his best shot to show his stuff. Final 2006 ranking: 14.

19. Juan Pablo Montoya (car No. 42): We figure he'll have some noteworthy successes and some spectacular failures, too. Final 2006 ranking: 17.

20. Jamie McMurray (car No. 26): No question, about it, the time has come for McMurray to fish or cut bait with Roush. Final 2006 ranking: 34.

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