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Five drivers to watch in 2009

2/6/2009 - NASCAR

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carl Edwards and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle ranked high on many preseason lists to win the 2006 Sprint Cup championship. They were coming off career seasons in which they combined for 10 wins and finished tied for second in the Chase, 35 points behind Tony Stewart.

Oops.

Edwards failed to win a race and finished 12th in the final standings, failing to make the Chase that then consisted of 10 drivers. Biffle won two races but had seven fewer top-5s and finished 13th.

In 2007, Kasey Kahne was supposed to be the hot ticket. He was coming off a career year in which he had a series-high six wins and six poles en route to eighth in the standings.

Oops.

Kahne went winless with only one top-5 and eight top-10s. And double-oops, he finished 19th in points.

A lot of eyes were on Juan Pablo Montoya heading into last season. Not that people were picking him to win the title, but after a victory and six top-10s in his rookie debut, expectations were for a giant leap from 20th in points.

Oops.

Montoya had no wins, only three top-10s and dropped to 25th in points.

The point of all this? You just don't know. Last year's rising star may be this year's flop.

No matter, we'll still give you five drivers to watch in 2009. They may not all contend for the title, but they should provide excitement in what is certain to be an interesting season with no testing and the consolidation of teams due to tough economic conditions.

Johnson

Johnson

Jimmie Johnson

Expecting somebody different to top the list? C'mon. You can't look at this season without first taking notice of the three-time defending champion. Well, some did, picking Carl Edwards to win the title, which irked Johnson just a little.

You can't blame him. Besides the three straight titles, which only Cale Yarborough 30 years ago had accomplished, he has two runner-up finishes and hasn't been outside the top five in the final standings during his seven seasons.

Nobody has won four consecutive, so that alone is reason to watch. It's history, like watching a baseball player try to hit .400 or a golfer win the Grand Slam.

If you ask Johnson he'll tell you he's got at least another seven to 10 good seasons left in him. The only flaw in his armor is that he's injury-prone. He broke a bone in his arm during last year's offseason trying to surf on top of a golf cart. He cut the tendons on a finger on his left hand two weeks ago trying to cut a hole in his uniform.

Clumsiness aside, Johnson owns NASCAR right now. He particularly owns the Chase, in which he has 14 wins in 50 events since the playoff was implemented in 2004.

To put that into perspective, Edwards has only 16 wins in 157 races total since then.

"I never thought I'd make it this far," Johnson said. "Who's to say I can't do it another year? With what we have at Hendrick Motorsports and the core group building this team together like it has, we have a very good chance of it."

Edwards

Edwards

Carl Edwards

There was some early confusion over the location of Edwards' offseason marriage. Apparently a typo in the invitations, which fortunately was caught, had guests going to a destination better suited for exchanging household items than vows.

Edwards doesn't need invitations to Victory Lane. He knows how to get there, leading the series with a career-high nine wins last season. Three of those came in the last four races, keeping Johnson from turning the Chase into a snorefest.

Edwards helped add much-needed spice to the series beyond that, though. He and Kyle Busch provided arguably the best racing of the season, highlighted by consecutive 1-2 finishes at Michigan and Bristol in August.

He and Kevin Harvick hands down had the best off-the-track altercation. The two got into a heated shoving match in the Nationwide Series garage at Lowe's Motor Speedway the weekend after Edwards caused a major pileup in the October Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

We won't go into details here other than to say Harvick called Edwards a pansy, among other things, and later wound up on the hood of his Nationwide car with Edwards' hands around his throat.

Then there was the late-season charge that left Edwards 69 points shy of Johnson. So you can see why all eyes have to be on the 29-year-old from Columbia, Mo.

Even Johnson's team owner, Rick Hendrick, is keeping close tabs.

"I expect him to be a fierce competitor," Hendrick said. "I shook his hand at [the season finale at] Homestead and he said, 'I can't wait 'til next year.'"

Stewart

Stewart

Tony Stewart

Gone is the long hair and stubbled face that Stewart donned at the beginning of last season. The two-time Cup champion looks like he just stepped out of a corporate meeting these days.

One thing hasn't changed, though. He's still one of the top drivers in the garage and definitely worth keeping an eye on as he embarks on his first season as the driver/owner of Stewart-Haas Racing.

Stewart won't have the comfort of being in Joe Gibbs Racing equipment with longtime crew chief Greg Zipadelli at his side for the first time in 10 years. That along with his talent made him almost a sure bet to contend for titles in the past.

But he doesn't enter the season with a half-loaded gun. He has Hendrick Motorsports engines that are second to none and he's assembled an unbelievably talented group of people around him.

"We've got a very big brain trust here, probably as large of a brain trust in experience as any I've been involved with in one group," said Bobby Hutchens, the director of competition at the organization formerly known as CNC Haas Racing.

How the oft-temperamental Stewart handles adversity when things don't go well at the track is the biggest question.

"Can he get out of that [owner] box and get into the driving box?" Hutchens said.

Stewart says that'll be no problem. So do those around him.

He certainly appears relaxed and ready for the challenge.

"You know, we don't expect it to be perfect right off the bat," Stewart said. "You start with what you think is the best way to do things, and as you go you make adjustments as you need to. To date right now, I feel like we've got a really good direction of how we do things."

Martin

Martin

Mark Martin

Jeff Gordon almost made this spot. He went winless in 2008, but former crew chief Ray Evernham says he's walking and talking with the same swagger he had when they teamed for titles in 1995, '97 and '98.

Kyle Busch almost made it, too. He was the dominant driver before last season's Chase began with eight wins and 17 top-10s in 26 races.

But Martin got the spot because perhaps no story is more compelling than his. The 50-year-old is returning to a full-time schedule for the first time since 2006 to drive the No. 5 car at Hendrick Motorsports. If you didn't know better, listening to others gush about him, you'd swear he was the favorite to win the title.

Most agree he'll be a threat to make the Chase and challenge for the title at an age when most drivers are off fishing. His part-time record over the past two seasons in lesser equipment says he still hasn't lost the ability to contend for wins. He had 22 top-10s and easily could have won four races with a break or two.

"This race team certainly has the capability of contending for a championship," Martin said. "But what we have to do first of all is get on the track and start getting the results they're capable of."

Hendrick calls Martin a "phenomenal talent," one of the best chassis guys he's ever seen. Edwards believes his former teammate will be tough to beat if he makes the Chase. Gordon says he's "still one of the most talented guys out there."

The fire it takes to win definitely hasn't dimmed after five decades.

"I want it as bad as I ever have in my life," Martin said. "And I'm willing to do whatever it takes."

That's worth watching.

Logano

Logano

Joey Logano

Expecting Kyle Busch here? We all know what he can do. Twenty-one wins between the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series last season proved he's one of the best drivers in the garage despite his collapse during the Chase.

But Logano is the one many eyes will be on, at least at the start. The 18-year-old phenom already has drawn a lot of offseason attention for taking out leader Peyton Sellers on the last lap of the Toyota All-Star Showdown.

NASCAR officials took the win away from Logano, disqualifying him for rough driving. Many fans responded by calling him a punk, among other things.

That aside, Logano enters the series with more fanfare than any rookie over the past 10 to 15 years. He has top-notch equipment, taking over the No. 20 Home Depot that Stewart made famous.

He has one of the best crew chiefs in Zipadelli. And he has the raw talent that had Martin saying he was destined to be a Cup superstar -- at 12.

Martin still believes that even though Logano had a horrible introduction to Cup. He failed to make his first two races late last season because rain washed out qualifying and finished 32nd or worse in the other three.

There were some extenuating circumstances, though. Two of those races were in cars prepared by Hall of Fame Racing, which at the time got its engines and chassis from JGR, which didn't share technology and other things necessary to make that car competitive.

Perhaps a better place to judge Logano is the Nationwide Series, where in 19 starts he had 14 top-10s, five top-5s, a win and three poles for JGR.

"I feel he's sold short for 2009 because of his rough start," Martin said. "I'd say thank goodness. It's a good thing you guys have sold him short because now he can go out and overachieve. It was awful what they went through, but I don't think that's an indication of where he'll be once he climbs into the 20."

You'll have to keep an eye on him to find out.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.