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Martin’s new ride could make him Cup contender

Next Saturday night begins the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup season with the running of the Budweiser Shootout. And the Daytona 500 follows the next weekend on Feb. 15.

We will see the typical new teams, new sponsors (though not as many as in past years), new drivers with new teams, and new storylines beginning next week. My prognostication ability is known far and wide—as being sorely lacking. Despite that, here is my best prediction at the final rankings, in descending order, of the 2009 season.

12. David Ragan: Just missed becoming eligible for the Chase last year. Another year of experience and veteran Jimmy Fening on the pit box makes this Ragan’s year to hit the big time. I think he enters the Chase in the top five, but fades late.

11. Kevin Harvick: Despite a winless 2008 season, Happy finished fourth in the final standings last year. Richard Childress’ teams are as solid as they come, but Harvick will be the only RCR driver to make the Chase in 2009.

10. Matt Kenseth: Like Harvick, Kenseth failed to earn a trip to Victory Lane last year but made the Chase and finished 11th. Mr. Consistency gets to don his tuxedo as he goes to the Awards Banquet with a 10th-place finish.

9. Tony Stewart: Smoke will go through trials and tribulations during his maiden voyage as a team owner and boss to hundreds of employees. But at the end of the day, driving talent and Hendrick equipment go a long way. Stewart will make the Chase solidly, winning a couple of races along the way.

8. Denny Hamlin: Did you see Hamlin’s house on the Cribs show on CMT? Wow, Denny better win a few races and make the Chase to pay for that joint. Toyota continues to improve and the FedEx team has another solid year.

7. Jimmie Johnson: OK, his luck has to run out sometime. Never before has a driver won four consecutive cups, and that will not change this season. Johnson will sit in the top three after the first 26 races but will blow three engines in the final 10 races to finish mid-pack.

6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: I am convinced that no matter what Junior does and how many races he wins, it will never be enough to satisfy his huge fan base. Junior will triple his win total of last season with three checkered flags in 2009 but will continue to be hurt be his unyielding dedication to his crew chief and cousin, Tony Eury Jr. We very well might see Mr. Hendrick step in and make a tough decision in regard to Eury.

5. Greg Biffle: 2009 will be the last season that Biffle will have four teammates as Roush Fenway will have to shed a team to meet the four-team maximum in 2010. Rest assured that Biffle doesn’t have to worry about his spot on the team. Bye bye, Jamie McMurray.

4. Jeff Gordon: A streak of 14 consecutive seasons with at least one win ended last season for Gordon. You can bet much work and planning happened this offseason to make sure a winless streak didn’t start. Gordon wins some big races as his career is winding down.

3. Kyle Busch: The Shrub builds of his great 2008 season and makes waves again in 2009. Here’s hoping, though, that his maturity level has increased and Coach Gibbs has taught him to behave with class and dignity. Oh well, he will have another great season.

2. Mark Martin: What? How can I pick this old guy that high in the standings, you ask. By far, the best driver to never have won a championship is Mark Martin. I was somewhat critical of Martin’s retire, come back, retire, drive a few races act of the last couple of years. However, it will be fun to watch what he does in Hendrick’s cars.

1. Carl Edwards: The Cat in the Hat, Jack Roush, wins his second championship as a car owner, and Cousin Carl is solid all season.