1) Jimmie Johnson | No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
PROS: Johnson heads into this season going for his third consecutive Cup title. He set or matched career highs in just about every statistical category, compiling 10 wins - four of which came during the critical Chase for the Cup - 20 top fives and 24 top 10s. Johnson, whose No. 48 car is owned by teammate Jeff Gordon, should continue to benefit from racing under Hendrick Motorsports; NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France called Hendrick the New England Patriots of NASCAR. Crew chief Chad Knaus, who is considered one of the best pit bosses in the business, has kept Johnson within the top five in championship points since he began working with him in 2001. Johnson doesn't appear to be weak on any type of track.
CONS: While it may not seem like Johnson has any chinks in his armor, even the champ has room for improvement. He ended the season with four DNFs, the most since he had five in 2005. Johnson also received two harsh penalties in 2007. He lost crew chief Knaus for six weeks when the car was found to be outside template qualifications. He also, along with Gordon, received an unprecedented penalty when he wasn't allowed to practice or qualify for a race. He was forced to rely on his position in the top 35 in owner points to make the field.
FANTASY TIP: Johnson is the most dominant driver in NASCAR, backed up by some of the best equipment, one of the best pit crews and one of the best teammates. He should be one of the first two drivers selected in fantasy formats and is a low fantasy risk. Johnson should hold his fantasy value and is set to make a run at becoming the only person to win three straight Cup titles since Cale Yarborough (1976-78).
2) Jeff Gordon | No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
PROS: Gordon had one of the most successful campaigns of his career last season. He won six races, including a win in back-to-back races twice during the year. He also concluded the year with 21 top-five finishes and a career-high 30 top-10 finishes, which set a modern NASCAR record for most in a season. Not to be overlooked were his seven pole wins, his second place finish in the Nextel Cup Series standings, and his affiliation with one of the most successful racing teams in the sport in Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon found great success in the Car of Tomorrow, placing first in three and finishing in the top 10 in 14 of the 16 races. Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte have worked together for two full seaons and have made the Chase for the Cup in each.
CONS: Even with his recent successes, Gordon has not won a championship since 2001. He started off on the wrong foot last season when the No. 24 car failed inspection during the Daytona Duels and had to start in the back during the Daytona 500. Gordon also ran into major sanctions in June 2007 when his car and fellow teammate Jimmie Johnson's car was found to be in violation of four sections of the NASCAR rulebook. Gordon was fined 100 driver championship points, while Letarte was fined $100,000 and suspended for six races. Since Gordon owns the No. 48 car driven by Johnson, he also lost 100 car owner championship points.
FANTASY TIP: Gordon continues to be one of the top drivers in NASCAR and is backed by one of the best racing teams in the sport. He should be one of the first two drivers chosen in fantasy drafts, because he showed his consistency last year and has throughout his career, which makes him a low-risk pick.
3) Tony Stewart | No. 20 Home Depot Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
PROS: After missing out on the Chase for the Cup in 2006, Stewart was able to make it last season behind three trips to Victory Lane. He also earned 11 top-fives as well as 23 top-10 finishes, which helped his entrance into the chase. Stewart has been very successful on road courses. In his career, he has won six of the 18 races he has participated in and has finished in the top 10 12 times. Stewart will again work with crew chief Greg Zipadelli. The two have worked together for the past nine years, which is the longest driver/crew chief combination currently in NASCAR.
CONS: Stewart did have a little trouble keeping his car clean after getting involved in four accidents last season. He also finished a race 30th or worse seven times. Stewart was penalized some driver points last season, but it did not have anything to do with the No. 20 car. In April 2007, he was fined $10,000 and placed on probation until the end of the year for failing to fill his post-race media obligation. In July 2007, he was docked 25 driver points and fined $25,000 for using profanity during a post-race interview. Stewart is known for his volatile personality, having had issues in the past with both teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.
FANTASY TIP: This will be the first year that Stewart will be driving a Toyota, which could lead to a slow start after building a cozy relationship with General Motors. Also, the ability to get along with his teammates will be crucial. They will all need to work together and share information if they are to be successful. Despite the risk, Stewart is still one of the top three drivers in NASCAR.
4) Matt Kenseth | No. 17 DEWALT NANO Technology Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
PROS: Kenseth finished fourth in the final points standings after a solid performance in the 2007 Sprint (formerly Nextel) Cup Series. He had two wins, including one in the 36th and final race of the season, the Ford 400. Kenseth also had 13 top-five finishes and 22 top-10 finishes. He won the Cup Series title in 2003 and is the only driver on Roush Fenway Racing to win a championship. Kenseth has recorded at least one win and double-digit top-10 finishes in six of the eight seasons since he joined the Cup Series full time in 2000. The only year he failed to win a race or record double-digit top ten finishes was in 2001. He has never finished worse than 14th in the points standings and has won a race on every type of track except for road courses (16 races, zero wins).
CONS: In 2007 Kenseth had four DNFs, which is the third highest total in his career. Roush Fenway Racing and some of its team members were fined for unapproved aerodynamic modifications, car parts not conforming to NASCAR rules and actions detrimental to stock car racing. Crew Chief Robby Reiser was suspended four races and fined $50,000. Kenseth was penalized 50 driver points and car owner Jack Roush was penalized 50 owner points. While all of the other manufacturers have new engines, Ford does not.
FANTASY TIP: Kenseth is one of the bigger names in NASCAR due to his performance year in and year out, which makes him a midlevel No. 1 driver on your fantasy roster. Due to his consistency, look for Kenseth to qualify for the Chase and make a run at the Sprint Cup Series championship. He has little upside but also little downside.
5) Kurt Busch | No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge | Penske Racing South
PROS: Busch won the championship in the first year the Chase for the Cup was created. He signed with Penske Racing South to drive the No. 2 Dodge in 2006 and has been with Penske ever since. He has had at least one win in each season since 2002. In 2007, Busch finished seventh in the final points standings after two wins, six top-five finishes and 14 top-10 finishes. During the last 16 races of the season Busch amassed two wins and nine top ten finishes to finish out the 2007 season. He won a career-high six poles in 2006.
CONS: Busch has had three or more DNFs in each of his seasons since joining the Cup Series full time in 2001. He has had four consecutive years of three DNFs in a row. Busch would have finished fourth in the final points standings, but a pit-road incident with Joe Gibbs Racing driver Tony Stewart cost Busch 100 points and three spots. He has only three wins in two seasons after having three in each of the two previous seasons. Despite solid totals in top fives and top 10s, his numbers in those categories gave steadily declined in each of the past four years.
FANTASY TIP: Busch seems to average at least one win and double-digit top-10 finishes every season, which makes him a midlevel No. 1 driver on your fantasy roster. However, he comes with some minor risk. While Busch should provide solid fantasy points, his gradual fall-off should lead fantasy owners to question whether he has any upside this season.
6) Denny Hamlin | No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
PROS: Hamlin has qualified for the Chase in each of his first two full seasons, one of only seven drivers to do so. He dropped from third in the points in 2006 to 12th in 2007 but had 12 top-five finishes, four more than during his rookie campaign. He has finished in the top 10 in over half of his career races. He has the same crew chief, Mike Ford, sponsor and car owner, that he had when he joined the circuit. In short, everything around Hamlin is consistent and good. Hamlin's success is driven by his performance at flat tracks (Phoenix International Speedway, New Hampshire International Speedway, Pocono Raceway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway) where he has a career average finish of 9.2 and all three of his career wins. Hamlin's career average finish of 12.9 on all intermediate tracks is fifth best on the circuit behind Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards - elite company. He backs this success with a career average finish of 12.2 at short tracks and three top-10s in four road course races.
CONS: Only restrictor plate tracks seem to give Hamlin trouble, as demonstrated by his 23.2 career average finish, including only one in the top 10. You can live with that for four races, though. The main concern for Hamlin is Joe Gibbs Racing's (JGR) change of manufacturer from Chevrolet to Toyota, which brings significant uncertainty in the short term.
FANTASY TIP: Hamlin slots right behind the Big 5 in most draft formats. He delivers top results week in and week out. He is good enough to absorb the preliminary impact of the change to Toyota and make the Chase. If, some time before the Chase, Toyota reaches the dominant status that many predict, Hamlin could battle Johnson, Gordon and teammate Stewart, toe-to-toe, for the championship.
7) Dale Earnhardt Jr. | No. 88 Mountain Dew AMP/National Guard Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
PROS: "Little E" moves to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 from Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. (DEI). Earnhardt would have easily made the Chase in 2007, had it not been for six engine-related DNFs (did not finish). Engine failure shouldn't be a problem at Hendrick, whose four teams had zero engine-related DNFs last season. Junior is one of only three drivers to finish in the top five in points three of the past five years. Junior has 17 career wins, fifth most among full-time drivers. Earnhardt excels at restrictor plate tracks, where he has seven career wins. He is also exceptional at short tracks with a 12.6 career average finish, four wins and 20 top fives in 49 career races.
CONS: Earnhardt's 17.3 career average finish at intermediate tracks is ordinary. His cousin, Tony Eury Jr., moves with Earnhardt to Hendrick to become his crew chief once again. Their relationship can be volatile at times, leading to uneven results. Earnhardt enters the 2008 season with high expectations, and the excuses of driving for a secondary team no longer available. His toughest task might be living up to his name, after his father made a similar transition at the same point in his career.
FANTASY TIP: The pressure of high expectations is not foreign to Earnhardt. There is little reason to believe that the negatives of any new stress will outweigh the positives of a move to a team with the best equipment NASCAR has to offer. The move should help him most at intermediate tracks, thus giving Earnhardt a legitimate chance to win each week. Earnhardt is slotted as low first-round pick in most formats. That is great value if you can get him there. We feel Earnhardt will be an elite performer. He should go no lower than seventh and a reasonable case can be made for drafting him as high as third overall.
8) Kyle Busch | No. 18 M&M's Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
PROS: Busch enters 2008 with a new team and sponsor. He had a respectable season with one win – the first Car of Tomorrow race - 11 top fives and 20 top 10s. Busch should benefit from the move to Joe Gibbs Racings, as he will now be part of the main team shop along with teammates Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin. Gibbs was also a leader with the COT in 2007, and Toyota has looked strong in preseason testing. Crew chief Steve Addington has been with the No. 18 team since the 2005 season. Busch has been fast on all types of tracks, with only three DNFs last season. Preseason testing was a success for Busch, as he was consistently one of the fastest cars at Daytona.
CONS: Busch also enters 2008 with a new car and crew. Busch may struggle to settle in with a new team and manufacturer. He has only driven Chevrolets and for Hendrick Motorsports in the Sprint Cup series. The entire Gibbs team will be learning the new engine. Busch and new teammate Stewart have been openly critical of one another in the past, which could strain cooperation.
FANTASY TIP: Busch is joining a successful team and should receive the support he needs to challenge for a championship. If you have a late first pick, grab Busch. There is some risk, and it's hard to imagine him performing better than he did last season. He should be able to make the Chase for the Championship and has a good chance of giving Toyota their first win, along with a few more.
9) Carl Edwards | No. 99 Office Depot Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
PROS: Fresh off a ninth-place finish in the season standings, Edwards bring another year of momentum into 2008. Edwards consistently finishes in the top 12 each season; he usually picks up wins along with his impressive career tally of top fives (35) and top 10s (58) in 121 races. Edwards has the results to prove that he can run well and win on almost any type of track. He has a strong crew, led by Bob Osborne, backing him up. With the 2007 Nationwide Series championship in his pocket, Edwards is now looking to add a Sprint Cup championship to his trophy room.
CONS: Edwards showed some signs of weakness last season, as a publicized incident with teammate Matt Kenseth caused many to question Edwards' nice-guy persona. Fighting within the team would be counterproductive. Ford is the only manufacturer without a new engine in 2008, which means they could be behind the technological curve. Edwards also finished the season with four DNFs.
FANTSAY TIP: Edwards is a top driver on a top team, and Roush has a history of putting drivers in the Chase. While Kenseth and Edwards have never been best friends, the relationship was definitely strained at the end of last season. Edwards will have to work to maintain a professional relationship and keep information flowing between the cars. With a late first pick, you could consider grabbing Edwards, although he has minimal upside. He should be in Victory Lane at some point and has to be considered a driver with an outside shot to win the championship.
C.J. Radune, Fraser Lovat, Jeffrey Price, Richard Garcia, Tim Piotrowski contributed to this report.
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