Commentary

2008 Driver Profiles: No. 1-20

Updated: February 5, 2008, 12:34 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

About 20 drivers have a legitimate shot to win a race no matter where NASCAR goes; not coincidentally, this "elite" group is comprised totally of drivers from multi-car teams. Inside our top 20, you'll find four Hendrick Motorsports drivers, four from Roush-Fenway Racing, three from Joe Gibbs Racing, three from Richard Childress Racing, two from Penske Racing and one each from DEI, Evernham-Gillett Motorsports, Ganassi Racing and Petty Enterprises. These are the superstars of Sprint Cup, the only drivers who've got legitimate chances to make the Chase for the Championship, and the anchors of your fantasy team. Get at least two of 'em. Three, if possible.

1. Jeff Gordon, 24, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
Mr. Gordon hates the Chase. He has to. In the four seasons since the Chase has existed, Gordon hasn't won a title; but in those four seasons, had the points not re-set with 10 races left, the No. 24 would've won the Cup championship twice. Gordon is my controversial top selection among all drivers in fantasy drafts this year, precisely because he's been so snake-bitten at the end of the past several years. He's hungry and due. I've no doubt that other organizations have caught up to where Hendrick was in the Car of Tomorrow circa '07, just as I've no doubt that Hendrick has taken a step beyond that level. And take away the Chase format, and you can make the argument that Gordon had a slightly better season than the other contender for this top spot, his teammate Jimmie Johnson. Sure, Johnson won a series-high 10 races to Gordon's six, but Gordon topped J.J. in top-10 finishes (30-24), top-5 finishes (21-20) and DNFs (1-4). In 2008, Gordon loses his car chief, Jeff Meendering, who'll be Bobby Labonte's crew chief, but his replacement, Jason Burdett, is a respected mind, and crew chief Steve Letarte is back. I still can't promise Gordon will hoist his fifth Cup title come November, but I do believe he'll earn the most "traditional" points over all 36 events, if only by a smidgen.

2. Jimmie Johnson, 48, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
Of course, if you're picking second in your fantasy draft, and Jimmie Johnson is there, you'll gladly grab him and chuckle madly. The two-time defending points champion is the gold standard: The past two years, he's won 15 events, posted 33 top-5s, 48 top-10s, just five DNFs and has a ridiculous finishing average in all his races of 10.25. Johnson and Chad Knaus have the best driver/chief relationship in the sport and are known for making the savviest in-race adjustments in the business. He has the best equipment, the best teammates and the gee-whizziest post-race schpiel. Of course, every season is its own entity, and the fact that the Sprint Cup drivers will be using the Car of Tomorrow in every race, even at the big downforce tracks and super-speedways, throws historical track and driver data for a loop. But when push comes to shove, I don't want to be the one who passed on 2007's absolute dominant duo, Johnson and Gordon, while trying to out-clever myself. I rank J.J. just a soupcon behind El Gordo, maybe just because I'm trying to be a little contrarian and maybe because eventually all the golden-boy luck that's touched the No. 48 the past two seasons abates a bit. Still, Johnson sure is comforting to own.

3. Matt Kenseth, 17, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford
The third spot will be the pivot point in most drafts, and while there are several good candidates, I'm going with the most reliable. Kenseth has "only" seven wins the past three seasons, but he's got a rock-solid 40 top-5s in that span. If there's a knock on Milwaukee Matt, it's that he lacks a killer, race-closing instinct, but he's another guy who'll adjust his racecar and seem to pick up speed by day's end while everyone else is fading. First and foremost, Kenseth rates the third pick because his situation has the least instability among the possible No. 3s. Sure, his long-time crew chief, Robbie Reiser, got a big promotion and now is running the entire Roush-Fenway organization as general manager, which means engineer Chip Bolin takes over as crew chief. The thing is: Bolin's been with Kenseth through his entire Cup career and even helmed the No. 17 team during Reiser's four-race suspension at the beginning of '07. In those four events, Kenseth finished 27th (at the Daytona 500, where he almost won the race but wrecked on the last straightaway), first, fourth and third. By the way, that Fontana victory was Kenseth's only win of the year. I don't expect Kenseth's technical and in-race prowess to skip a beat. Compared to the changes and/or drama undergone by the sport's other big names, I'll gladly take the No. 17's tiny downside in my fantasy draft.

4. Tony Stewart, 20, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
On paper, over the past three seasons Stewart has better numbers than Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and everyone else not named Jimmie Johnson. He's a hugely popular driver, a (shall we say) colorful interview and maybe the most relentlessly aggressive driver currently on the circuit. Thirteen wins, 43 top-5s and 67 top-10s the past three seasons make him the most purely talented guy around, a fellow who could jump in a garbage can on Soapbox Derby wheels and be the fastest guy in town. My only hesitation in recommending him (and it's not that much of a hesitation; I've got him fourth, for heaven's sake) is the monumental switch Gibbs has undergone, moving from Chevrolet to Toyota. Don't get me wrong, this change doesn't automatically mean Smoke will fall out of Chase contention and struggle to stay in the top halves of fields, the way all Toyota drivers did in 2007. Toyota has a year of Cup racing under its belt, and there's no way Gibbs would've made this leap without one heck of a massive investment, and a series of promises that aerodynamically and engine-wise, Toyota was ready to compete with the best. But promises are one thing and performance is another. The Toyota switch adds just enough risk to owning Stewart that I have to take him down half-a-peg, just enough to let Kenseth squeak by. There's every chance Smoke hits the ground running at Daytona and never looks back, contending for his third points championship. But there's also a chance he scuffles a bit.

5. Carl Edwards, 99, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford
Mr. Edwards probably wishes it were otherwise, but unfortunately every season preview about the No. 99 team has to begin with Edwards' altercation with Matt Kenseth at Martinsville. After the fall race there, Kenseth was doing an interview when Edwards approached him, said a few sneering words, then made a fist as though he'd deck Kenseth. Kenseth flinched, YouTube delighted, and suddenly there were myriad stories about how Edwards doesn't get along with his fellow Roushketeers. It's easy to dismiss Edwards' chances in 2008, and his future with Roush, because it makes a good sound bite (one, I'll admit, I've used a few times for a cheap laugh). The truth, of course, is that Edwards is a really talented racecar driver, and with a tied-for-third-best three wins last year, he and Bob Osbourne showed their sub-par 2006 was a blip. In his three seasons as a full-time Sprint Cup driver, Edwards has won seven times: four on downforce tracks, two at high-banked shorter tracks, and one at a big wide-open flat track. That's the great thing about owning Edwards: you can feel good about him just about everywhere, even at the super-speedways, where Roush cars haven't always excelled. He's a solid every-week fantasy starter who's entering a free-agent year.

6. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 88, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
Sure, the pressure is on Earnhardt Jr. now that he's moved to Hendrick. But when hasn't there been pressure in Junior's life? His dad was Dale Earnhardt. Insiders know that Little-E is that talented, that he hasn't simply skated by on his name and that with better, more reliable equipment, he'll be very strong. Junior takes over the No. 25 team that used to belong to Casey Mears and brings his once-and-future crew chief, cousin Tony Eury Jr., with him from DEI. (Darian Grubb, Mears' former chief, will participate in Hendrick upper management.) I can believe there'll be a small adjustment period and that might be felt no place more than Daytona, where Junior has been such a fixture using all the knowledge and wiliness that comes with racing for DEI. But Earnhardt Jr. tied for the series lead in DNFs this past season with a whopping nine, many of which came as a result of blown engines. Bad luck? Maybe, since teammate Martin Truex Jr. was able to make the Chase with the same stuff. But blown motors just don't happen with any kind of regularity at Hendrick and if you take away a few of those popped engines from '07, Dale Jr. probably makes last season's Chase easily. He'll be in the thick of it in '08.

7. Kurt Busch, 2, Penske Racing, Dodge
In mid-June, Busch was mired in 17th place in points, and the second year of his move to Penske -- after missing the Chase in the first year -- was considered a flop. Then Mark Martin's longtime crew chief Pat Tryson (who'd just been fired after working with Greg Biffle at the start of '07) replaced Roy McCauley (who was dealing with a family illness), and Busch took off. Perhaps it was commiserating about getting fired by Jack Roush that gave them chemistry, but the No. 2 won two events and posted 14 finishes of 11th or better in the season's final 19 races, dramatically making the Chase. The elder Busch brother can be an irritating fellow (heck, so can the younger Busch brother), and last year it seemed no one was better at pulling defeat from the jaws of victory more frequently than Kurt. But he was victimized by buzzard's luck at Daytona, Texas, Kansas and Atlanta, and is also one of those elite drivers who's got the potential to be good on every track type, from roadies (he has three top-5s in the past six Watkins Glen events) to two-milers (he's won three events at Michigan and Fontana) to super-speedways (seven straight top-10s at Talladega) to short tracks (five Bristol wins). He's got a temper that sometimes limits his effectiveness, but he's still a great bet for his second straight Chase.

8. Kyle Busch, 18, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
Like Tony Stewart, the younger Busch changes over to Toyota from Chevrolet; unlike Stewart, this change comes at the same time as Busch is changing organizations, too. That's a double-whammy that might cow a less-talented driver, but Kyle is known as the most freakishly gifted racer this side of his new teammate in the No. 20. He made the Chase in his second and third seasons at the Sprint Cup level and I think he'll make it three in a row despite the challenges facing him. As is the case with Stewart, I just don't believe Gibbs would be handing its racing geniuses over to Toyota without assurances that money would be no object in making these cars fast. There will be doubters. J.J. Yeley showed precious few glimpses of stardom in the No. 18 last season and crew chief Steve Addington hasn't done a ton to distinguish himself. Also, Busch himself tends to drive too wildly when he gets riled, which has made him inconsistent at the sport's fastest tracks, in places like Atlanta, Charlotte and Texas. But he's an awesome flat-track driver, he's great at the two-milers and short tracks and there's no question that when they were with Chevy, Gibbs had the second-best Car of Tomorrow package, behind Hendrick (Kyle's old employer). I don't think Kyle contends for the points title, not yet. That's his penance for changing so much. But he's still going to be extremely fantasy-worthy.

9. Denny Hamlin, 11, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
What might have been. Hamlin has made the Chase in each of his first two Sprint Cup seasons and had an impressive 12 top-5 finishes in 2007, fourth most in the sport. But he also kicked away half-a-dozen events that he should've won, often resulting in terrible finishes. He sped in the pits while leading in Phoenix, ran out of gas at Talladega, busted a fuel pump while contending at Bristol, had his pit crew drop lug nuts in Darlington and had several other crew-related miscues sprinkled through the season. After finishing third in the '06 Chase, Hamlin imploded in '07 and finished 12th. Clearly, considering I've got all three Gibbs cars in my top nine, I'm not that worried about the move to Toyota. But horsepower has to at least be a little bit of a question mark to begin the year, as is chemistry on a pit crew that Hamlin spent a good deal of time blaming for his problems in 2007. Mike Ford returns as crew chief; a few of his workers do not. Hamlin's strength in '07 was on flat tracks in the Car of Tomorrow: His 6.6 finishing average in such races was fourth-best in the series. The kid can drive just about anywhere, including on roadies (second at the Glen), flatties (he's a New Hampshire killer) and shorties (it's only a matter of time before he wins at his home track in Richmond).

10. Jeff Burton, 31, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet
Childress and DEI have combined engine-building programs, much like Roush and Yates did a few years ago. There wasn't a ton of impact in 2007's races (especially considering Dale Earnhardt Jr. lost so many engines) and the co-owned fabrication facility won't open until June of this year, with the six Childress and DEI cars (including Burton) running common engines for the first time in the summer Daytona race. I understand why DEI needed to make such a move, considering it's been commonly agreed that its cars haven't been at the same level as the competition's. But what's Childress doing, exactly? Considering it placed three teams in the Chase in '07, I wonder what needed to change. It scares me a little. Now, I still think the world of Burton, who emerged with crew chief Scott Miller from a four-year fog in 2006 to once again become a legitimate title contender, and his smooth, respectful on-track style tends to give him a broad berth around the raceway. But even in these past two excellent campaigns, he's struggled to turn top-10s into top-5s; he's got 38 top-10s in that span, but just 16 top-5s and just two wins. In this latest incarnation, he's not a deal-closer. In a way, that can be a good thing for his fantasy owners; as a second driver, he won't take a ton of unnecessary chances and will just keep churning out top-half-of-the-field efforts at all track types.

11. Casey Mears, 5, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
On the one hand, this is a boring pick. Another Hendrick car? Yippee. On the other hand, Mears has never finished better than 14th in points, so this is a step up in weight class. I've always thought Mears could be an unbelievable driver at downforce tracks like Texas, Kansas and Michigan, and he made strides at places like Talladega and Pocono in '07 (and also won his first career Cup event in a fuel-mileage affair at Charlotte). He's got talent. But what I really like is the crew he'll be joining. This is Kyle Busch's old group, helmed by chief Alan Gustafson; it's a group that helped push the younger Busch into the Chase in each of the past two seasons. Gustafson gets it, in the way Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte get it. He processes data incredibly well. He communicates terrifically, and even with the flammable Busch was usually fantastic at making chicken salad out of chicken … feathers. You know the No. 5 team was about done with Kyle's antics (leaving the track during the first Texas event, so that Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to drive the rebuilt No. 5 in the final, meaningless laps comes to mind), so the mellow Mears should be a welcome change. Yes, I've got four Hendrick and three Gibbs drivers in my predicted 12-man Chase, but what can I tell you? In a year when teams will use the Car of Tomorrow at every track, the two squads with the deepest pockets and the most R&D on the COT should shine.

12. Greg Biffle, 19, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford
Biffle's in a contract year. I won't go so far as to insist his performance is as likely to spike as, say, that lackadaisical right fielder who suddenly thinks he's Willie McCovey, or that loudmouthed cornerback who finally bears down and plays every down. But it doesn't hurt. It also doesn't hurt that after a muddled first several months paired with crew chief Pat Tryson, Biffle seemed to hit it off with Greg Erwin, who'd previously been Robby Gordon's main man. Though he never really threatened the Chase, the Biff registered nine of his 11 top-10 finishes once Erwin came aboard. But what really makes me think Biffle is due for a return to the Chase is the Car of Tomorrow. Drivers say the challenge with the COT is to get it to turn through the corner without having it get snap-loose on entry or exit. At the big, fast tracks, where the COT will make its debut in '08, Biffle has always been known for liking his cars to nearly slide coming out of the high-banked turns, which leads me to believe he'll have a much higher tolerance for making the necessary tradeoff: getting hard through the center of the turns in exchange for feeling a little out of control. Few drivers go faster with a loose racecar than Biffle.

13. Martin Truex Jr., 1, Dale Earnhardt Inc., Chevrolet
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and Truex wears the crown. With Dale Earnhardt Jr. gone from DEI, Truex is the lead dog now, and that'll be a lot of pressure. Don't get me wrong, I think Truex has a ton of talent and can probably be counted on to win a race or two (the way he dominated the first Dover event, think Monster Mile). But I worry DEI isn't over the engine problems that dogged Junior this past season (though Truex only had four DNFs himself), and that the engine partnership with Richard Childress Racing isn't far enough along to stave off concerns. Kevin Manion was a fine crew chief in '07 and returns, and having Mark Martin as a teammate for two-thirds of the season can't be considered a bad thing. Truex had tremendous cars at the first Pocono, Michigan and New Hampshire races, and the second Atlanta event, and he clearly could've had more than one win. He's been a little shakier on the shortest tracks -- Richmond and Bristol come to mind -- but he came a huge distance in his sophomore campaign. It's pretty clear that almost no matter what happens, he'll give you the most fantasy points of any DEI driver.

14. Kevin Harvick, 29, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet
Here comes the part where I diss RCR a little bit. Listen, Harvick is actually one of my favorite drivers. I think he's pretty hilarious, especially when he's mad, and like everyone else I expected big things out of him when he won 2007's Daytona 500. But big things never came. In fact, Harvick managed zero more wins and only three more top-5s the entire rest of '07. Now, he did have a very solid year. His 15 top-10s tied him for ninth on the circuit, he completed more laps than any other driver in Sprint Cup and Todd Berrier is a much-respected crew chief. But because he won the world's most famous race in February, his name continues to be on the lips of even ancillary racing fans and I'm not sure it's entirely deserved. Harvick has been a monster at the flatter tracks the past two years; he's won twice at Phoenix, as well as at Richmond, New Hampshire and Watkins Glen, and rarely winds up outside the top 10 when the banking gets shallow. But Happy isn't strong enough at the downforce tracks, and for me that's his undoing. He hasn't been better than 14th at Atlanta, Charlotte or Fontana in two years, and hasn't threatened at a place like Dover, either. Don't get me wrong, Harvick has fantasy consequence. I just think he'll be overvalued in most leagues and games.

15. Clint Bowyer, 07, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet
Some of my self-esteem is tied to Bowyer. In this space last season, he was my biggest "stick-your-neck-out" pick to make the Chase for the Championship, and make it he did, staying with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon for a good long while before finishing third. So why don't I have him in my top 12 for 2008? Perhaps I'm eternally the contrarian, but Bowyer's run of luck in '07 was unparalleled. He had zero DNFs. That's right: zero. Never lost an engine. Never got wrecked so bad he couldn't continue. Now, this kid is a smooth driver and RCR gives him good equipment. But everyone pops an engine. It's just part of the sport. My concern for Bowyer and his returning crew chief, Gil Martin, is that the sunbeam might move a few feet to the left and the dark clouds could roll in. He's due for trouble. If that sounds a little like voodoo and not exactly sound analysis, let's try this: Bowyer had just five top-5 finishes in 2007, second-fewest of any Chase participant (teammate Kevin Harvick had four), and his 17 top-10s, while excellent, were still eighth among Chase drivers. That means a lot of Bowyer's points success could be traced to days when he wasn't great, but didn't lose it and finished in the teens. If just a few of those "bad" days turn horrific, the fall could be steep. I can see Bowyer winning a race, but I don't see a repeat of 2007's Cinderella story.

16. Ryan Newman, 12, Penske Racing, Dodge
A year after 2006's disaster, Flyin' Ryan improved. He went back to winning poles (five), so if your fantasy league rewards extra points for that, Newman gets an edge. He also finished second three times, at Pocono, Dover and Martinsville. (The first Pocono event, in particular, was maddening for the No. 12; Jeff Gordon successfully gambled big that if he stayed out with his mediocre car, rain would come and wash away the event while he led.) NASCAR's loop data gives Newman credit for nearly a third more quality passes in '07, and his seventh-best finishing average on flat tracks (11.9) bodes well both for his 2008 performance at joints like New Hampshire, Phoenix and Martinsville, and for his overall Car of Tomorrow program. The very technical Mike Nelson served as Newman's chief for just a single season, and did help turn around the No. 12's slide, but he'll bump upstairs in the Penske organization, as Kurt Busch's chief from the first couple months of '07, Roy McCauley, has returned and will helm Newman's Dodge. Newman's bugaboo has always been, and will continue to be, that he qualifies better than he races. It's common for him to take a pole at a place like Atlanta or Charlotte, then go directly backward once the green comes out. He'll be good this year, just not great.

17. Kasey Kahne, 9, Gillett Evernham Motorsports, Dodge
Now things get interesting. Kahne has a massive following (he's probably the sport's fourth-most-popular driver, after Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart) and started his career with an incredible 2004 that saw him register 13 top-5s as a rookie. But 2005 was a disaster, as Kahne posted more DNFs (nine) than top-10s (eight). In 2006, Kahne rebounded to post a series-high six wins and make his first Chase. The on-again, off-again pattern continued with a truly terrible '07; Kahne finished 19th in points, posting zero wins and one top-5. Rumor had it that an offseason engineering error put Evernham Motorsports behind the eight ball with all their cars and nobody, not Kahne, not Elliott Sadler and certainly not Scott Riggs, could ever get comfortable with the way the Dodges handled in traffic. Kahne did pick it up a little in August and late September, running well at Bristol and Fontana in particular, and heaven knows he's capable of literally being the most dominant fantasy driver out there. But how long can we wait for the explosion? Kahne will take over one of the game's most emblematic sponsors, Budweiser, which has been with Dale Jr. for the better part of a decade. This is a good thing, because Kahne's fantasy owners will need a drink more than once this season.

18. Juan Pablo Montoya, 42, Chip Ganassi Racing, Dodge
Montoya is the granddaddy of the current generation of open-wheel racers currently seeking their fortune in NASCAR; Dario Franchitti, Jacques Villeneuve, Sam Hornish Jr. and Patrick Carpentier all saw Montoya grab 2007's Rookie of the Year honors, and thought it seemed like a good gig. What might not be fresh in folks' minds, however, is that Montoya was a wild man. Often, he was completely out of control and made countless mistakes which either wrecked himself (he had just four DNFs but finished only 15 of 36 races on the lead lap) or someone else (Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart, among others, had run-ins with Montoya). Indeed, JPM seemed hell-bent on proving he wouldn't take any guff, often pushing the envelope unnecessarily early in races. Heck, in the Nextel Open at 2007's All-Star event, Montoya got overzealous in the first turn, burst past Dave Blaney and wrecked. The fact is, though, that in NASCAR's complicated "driver ratings" statistic, Montoya was a respectable 19th, a good indication of how quickly he adapted to stock-car racing. Plus, when you use him in fantasy, you're getting one of the best road-course drivers on the planet. He won at Sears Point in '07 for his first Cup victory and will be a favorite at Watkins Glen, too. If he calms down a little, double-digit top-10 finishes could be within reach.

19. Jamie McMurray, 26, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford
McMurray is like Geoff Downes. Maybe you don't remember Downes, the keyboard player for '80s prog-rock band Asia. Steve Howe and John Wetton got all the ladies, but Downes can always say he was in a super-group, too. So it is with McMurray, who isn't young enough to get a free pass like David Ragan, but hasn't ever made a Chase like his more successful teammates, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle. Two years into his Roush-Fenway career and Jamie Mac has just 16 top-10s and 12 DNFs overall. Compare that with the 23 top-10s he registered in 2004 alone driving for Ganassi and you've got a struggling dude. Crew chief Larry Carter joined the fold to shake things up last year, but nothing worked except for one night in July, when McMurray won his second career Cup race at Daytona in a thriller (in which he came from a lap down). Without that win, the rumors might be flying fast and furious; as it is, McMurray is signed through 2009 and Carter is back for a second go-round. I keep assuming that the technological and aerodynamic coattails of guys like Kenseth and Edwards have to carry Jamie Mac, too, but it hasn't happened yet. He might be Roush's best plate-track driver, and last year at Sears Point he proved he's a very good road-course racer, too. There's upside there. Only Time Will Tell. It was the Heat Of The Moment. Don't Cry.

20. Bobby Labonte, 43, Petty Enterprises, Dodge
This is a crucial year for Petty. It's been two years since Robbie Loomis left Jeff Gordon to come back to Petty Enterprises and run the racing show, with few results. Labonte is reportedly in the final deal of his contract and while he's making a pretty penny, you have to believe he's tired of running in mediocre equipment. Plus Kyle Petty has had absolutely no success in the No. 45. Without Labonte, Petty Enterprises would take a major step backward, so they need to be better now. Jeff Meendering, who was the car chief for Jeff Gordon, moves over to be Labonte's crew chief, replacing Doug Randolph. In 2007, Labonte managed just three top-10s and zero top-5s, but completed an impressive 95.2 percent of Sprint Cup laps. That consistency allowed him to finish 18th in points (a fairly incredible feat given how few very good runs he managed), the best for a Petty Dodge since 1999. That consistency is also why Labonte makes for a decent if unspectacular fantasy option. When you use him, pair him with higher-upside alternatives on your fantasy team because at least the Petty guys seem to have ironed out the problems that led to eight DNFs in 2006, Labonte's first season driving the storied No. 43.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.

ALSO SEE