Thursday, February 12, 2009

HENDRICK DYNASTY: Jimmie Johnson has won the past three NASCAR Sprint Cup championships for Hendrick Motorsports. But Johnson is hardly the only driver in the four-car stable with the potential to make it a four-peat for team owner Rick Hendrick. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon is due for a change of fortune after failing to win a race last season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is eager to prove that his talent is commensurate with his popularity in his second season at Hendrick after winning just one race last year. And Mark Martin is the sentimental favorite, lured back to full-time racing at the cusp of 50 by a race to contend for the title that has eluded him for nearly three decades.

FORD'S BEST HOPE: Carl Edwards had the season that most drivers only dream about in 2008, getting the chance to perform his celebratory back flip from his racecar nine times before heading to Victory Lane. Edwards was the pride of Roush-Fenway Racing and Ford Motor Co. alike, the only driver who gave Johnson a serious run for the title down the stretch. But despite nine wins, he came up short. Pundits think this could be Edwards's year. Says Edwards: "I want to win that championship. I want to know what it feels like. I'd take a championship with no wins rather than another nine-win season because I really want to accomplish that goal."

STEWART'S BIG GAMBLE: Plenty of drivers have tried owning their own race team and failed, underestimating the demands of running a business six days a week and competing on the seventh. Tony Stewart couldn't resist when given the opportunity, so he cut ties with team owner Joe Gibbs to become his own boss at Stewart-Haas Racing. Stewart had an impressive debut in last weekend's Bud Shootout, finishing third (his Chevy engines are supplied by Hendrick Motorsports). But it's a tough economy for launching a two-car team (defending Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman drives the other).

HOLLYWOOD VS. SLICED BREAD: Only two drivers are contending for rookie of the year honors this season -- former Formula One driver Scott Speed, whose nickname is "Hollywood," and stock-car phenom Joey Logano, dubbed "Sliced Bread" for all the hype that surrounded his emergence as NASCAR's next "greatest thing."

Speed, 26, a California native, has the more glamorous résumé though he never earned a podium finish in two seasons in Formula One. But Logano, 18, steps into the better situation, inheriting the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, as well as the crew chief that helped Stewart to two NASCAR titles.

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