- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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A year ago, it was Greg Biffle who couldn't wait for the new Nextel Cup Series season to begin. And who could blame him?
Riding a wave of strong finishes to close out 2004, he'd have gladly kept on racing right through the holidays. His Roush Racing Ford was dialed in and Biffle knew good things were in his future.
Five wins in the first 15 races of 2005 proved his point in spectacular fashion. Biffle's momentum faded somewhat -- he wouldn't win again until the season finale at Homestead -- but he still ended the year with a series-leading six victories to go along with his runner-up finish to Tony Stewart for the championship.
Obviously, Biffle won't be a sleeper pick heading into 2006. The question is, who is the next Greg Biffle?
Among the candidates, you have to include Kyle Busch -- if he can be a sleeper after winning two of the year's final 11 races, that is. But a 20th-place finish in points, even as a rookie, won't make him an overwhelming favorite to qualify for the Chase for the Nextel Cup next season.
Another candidate would be Casey Mears, who posted five top-10 finishes in the year's last nine races and nearly won at Homestead. Mears has shown the potential and now that Chip Ganassi Racing's remaining a three-car team next year, Mears will be the veteran driver of the operation and could be poised for a breakout year.
Then again, if Roush Racing picks up where it left off in '05, Jamie McMurray -- Mears' former teammate -- could be the driver everyone's talking about. McMurray won in just his second Cup start, but hasn't been to victory lane since, which is one of the main reasons he was anxious to sign on with Roush Racing.
McMurray didn't finish the year with lots of momentum, but just the excitement of changing teams -- and joining an operation that placed all five of its cars in the Chase this year -- could be all he needs to come out of the gate strong.
Then there's Kasey Kahne, who was supposed to be a breakout star this year after a solid rookie season in 2004. Kahne did notch his first win this past season, but the results weren't there on a consistent basis. A revamped crew, however, could get him to the next level.
Or maybe it will be Brian Vickers, the driver Kahne beat in the rookie battle that season. Vickers was strong on occasion, but consistency was lacking. If his third season proves to be the charm, he could join his three Hendrick Motorsports teammates in victory lane.
These drivers shouldn't be confused with the likes of Kevin Harvick and Elliott Sadler, who have already broken through years ago with top-10 finishes in the championship standings. Each of those drivers could return to the front of the pack next year if their respective race teams make gains during the offseason.
But no one would be shocked to see them battling at the front of the field, while Biffle's constant presence near the front of the pack surprised those who didn't give enough credence to his championships in the Busch and Craftsman Truck series.
"I'm looking forward to next season," Busch says. "I think we've got a lot ahead of us, as well as just being able to [grow] with the team and put [this past] season back into perspective for what we can go after next year.
"It's all about starting the year. Starting off at Daytona and having a bad race, [and] California and having a bad race, we went to Vegas and had a good race and we were still 24th in points. I have to start out the first three or four races within the top 10 so you can have a good footprint to go off of instead of having to try to climb your way back up the ladder.
"You might as well start out high. That was definitely something that I learned this year."
Busch says he's going to set his goals for a top-five finish in the Chase to go along with 15 top-fives and 25 top-10s. He says that would constitute "a pretty stout year."
To put that in perspective, champion Tony Stewart had 17 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes. In other words, Busch truly is shooting for the moon from the outset considering he had nine top-five and 13 top-10 efforts this past year.
Working with crew chief Alan Gustafson for the second consecutive year excites Busch, as both were rookies in their respective roles in 2005. Gustafson showed he can make the pit calls that get a driver to victory lane, but like any rookie was constantly learning.
"He learned a lot as an engineer [at Hendrick Motorsports], but never was under the pressure as far as being a crew chief," Busch says. "I think he learned a lot this year. Especially at the end, we both learned a lot about what it came down to, how to get to victory lane [and] what things kind of screwed us up through the year that didn't get us to victory lane. So we're going to try to close out the deal [next year]."
If so, Busch stands a chance of becoming NASCAR's next big thing, a role his brother filled a few years back.
But if it's not Busch, rest assured some driver who's come close, or even won before (if not consistently), will undoubtedly be shaking things up at the front of the pack in 2006.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com
Busch, Mears, McMurray and others are primed for breakout seasons in '06. But will they materialize? Mark Ashenfelter has some insight.