20 Cup drivers to watch in 2009

Casey Mears

CAR: No. 07 Chevrolet.

TEAM: Richard Childress Racing.

BORN: March 12, 1978.

HOMETOWN: Bakersfield, Calif.

CREW CHIEF: Gil Martin.

NOTES: Moving from Hendrick Motorsports to become RCR's fourth Cup driver, Mears takes over the car driven into the Chase last year by Clint Bowyer, who moves to RCR's new No. 33. In six full seasons in Cup, Mears has 12 top-fives, including a victory at Lowe's Motor Speedway in the 2007 Coca-Cola 600.

Martin Truex Jr.

CAR: No. 1 Chevrolet.

TEAM: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.

BORN: June 29, 1980.

HOMETOWN: Mayetta, N.J.

CREW CHIEF: Kevin " Bono" Manion.

NOTES: Part of newly merged team that brought together Dale Earnhardt Inc., for whom he has driven since starting his first Nationwide Series race in 2001, and Chip Ganassi Racing. Had disappointing season in 2008 after getting first Cup victory and making the field for the Chase the previous year. He starts on the pole today.

Kurt Busch

CAR: No. 2 Dodge.

TEAM: Penske Racing.

BORN: Aug. 4, 1978.

HOMETOWN: Las Vegas.

CREW CHIEF: Pat Tryson.

NOTES: 2004 Cup champion ran his string of seasons with at least one victory to seven with a rain-shortened win at New Hampshire. Otherwise, season was disappointing as Busch failed to make the Chase for only the second time since the postseason competition was initiated the year he won the title.

Mark Martin

CAR: No. 5 Chevrolet.

TEAM: Hendrick Motorsports.

BORN: Jan. 9, 1959.

HOMETOWN: Batesville, Ark.

CREW CHIEF: Alan Gustafson.

NOTES: At 50 years old, Martin joins old friend Rick Hendrick. Martin plans to run the full season and attempt to win his first Cup championship after two years of a part-time schedule for Bobby Ginn and Dale Earnhardt Inc. The longtime NASCAR star has finished second in the points four times, the last in 2002 driving for Roush Racing, where he spent most of his career. He will not only be the oldest regular in Cup, but also among the fittest.

David Ragan

CAR: No. 6 Ford.

TEAM: Roush Fenway Racing.

BORN: Dec. 24, 1985.

HOMETOWN: Unadilla, Ga.

CREW CHIEF: Jimmy Fennig.

NOTES: Made great strides last year after a quiet rookie season. Flirted with making the Chase before finished 13th in the points. In 2008, Ragan improved to six top-fives and 14 top-10s from two top-fives and six top-10s in 2007

Kasey Kahne

CAR: No. 9 Dodge.

TEAM: Richard Petty Motorsports.

BORN: April 10, 1980.

HOMETOWN: Enumclaw, Wash.

CREW CHIEF: Kenny Francis.

NOTES: Driving for new Richard Petty Motorsports team, the merged version of Gillett Evernham Motorsports and Petty Enterprises. Bounced back after a winless 2007 to win points races at Charlotte and Pocono, along with the NASCAR All-Star event in a four-week stretch last season. But Kahne missed the Chase for the second straight year.

Denny Hamlin

CAR: No. 11 Toyota.

TEAM: Joe Gibbs Racing.

BORN: Nov. 18, 1980.

HOMETOWN: Chesterfield.

CREW CHIEF: Mike Ford.

NOTES: Team made seamless switch from Chevrolet to Toyota and Hamlin made the Chase for the third straight year, winding up eighth. Matched his 2007 season totals of one win, one pole, 12 top-fives and 18 top-10s. With former teammate Tony Stewart gone from JGR, the 28-year-old Hamlin now is the leader of the youngest team in Cup.

Tony Stewart

CAR: No. 14 Chevrolet.

OWNER: Stewart-Haas Racing.

BORN: May 20, 1971.

HOMETOWN: Columbus, Ind.

CREW CHIEF: Darian Grubb.

NOTES: Two-time series champion has left Joe Gibbs Racing after a successful 10-year Cup career to run his own team, taking over what was the Haas CNC team. Hired engineer Darian Grubb away from Hendrick Motorsports to be his crew chief and brought in Ryan Newman as his teammate. Stewart is coming off a somewhat disappointing season, with just one win. He made the Chase for the fourth time in five years, finishing ninth in the standings.

Greg Biffle

CAR: No. 16 Ford.

TEAM: Roush Fenway Racing.

BORN: Dec. 23, 1969.


Vancouver, Wash.


Greg Erwin.

NOTES: Coming off a strong season in which he won two poles, two races and finished third in the points after missing the Chase the previous two years. Signed a three-year contract extension with Roush Fenway.

Matt Kenseth

CAR: No. 17 Ford.

TEAM: Roush Fenway Racing.

BORN: March 10, 1972

HOMETOWN: Cambridge, Wis.

CREW CHIEF: Drew Blickensderfer.

NOTES: Failed to win a Cup race for the first time since 2001, but kept alive his streak of making the Chase field every year since the new format began in 2004. The 2003 series champion wound up 11th last season. Gets a new crew chief for second straight year, with Chip Bolin returning to engineering side at Roush Fenway.

Kyle Busch

CAR: No. 18 Toyota.

TEAM: Joe Gibbs Racing.

BORN: May 2, 1985.

HOMETOWN: Las Vegas.

CREW CHIEF: Steve Addington.

NOTES: One of the biggest stories of 2008, his first season with JGR and driving a Toyota. Had 21 victories, eight in Cup, 10 in Nationwide and three in trucks. But the youngster's season turned sour in the Chase when he stumbled at the start of the 10-race playoff and wound up 10th in the points.

Joey Logano

CAR: No. 20 Toyota.

TEAM: Joe Gibbs Racing.

BORN: May 24, 1990.

HOMETOWN: Middletown, Conn.

CREW CHIEF: Greg Zipadelli.

NOTES: Wunderkind has big shoes to fill in his first full season in Cup, replacing two-time champion Tony Stewart. Logano made his NASCAR debut in the Nationwide Series in May after turning 18 and got his first win in his third start. Finished 20th in Nationwide points despite running only 19 of 35 races. Had a tougher time in Cup, running three races with a top finish of 32nd. Will be the youngest driver in a Daytona 500.

Jeff Gordon

CAR: No. 24 Chevrolet.

OWNER: Hendrick Motorsports.

BORN: August 4, 1971.

HOMETOWN: Pittsboro, Ind.

CREW CHIEF: Steve Letarte.

NOTES: Coming off first winless year since rookie season in 1993, four-time Cup champion has plenty of questions to answer. Gordon finished seventh in the points with four poles, 13 top-fives and 19 top-10s. Crew chief Letarte was the subject of criticism by some, but his driver remained supportive and insists the team can contend for a title in 2009 as it stands.

Kevin Harvick

CAR: No. 29 Chevrolet.

TEAM: Richard Childress Racing.

BORN: Dec. 8, 1975.

HOMETOWN: Bakersfield, Calif.


Todd Berrier.

NOTES: Coming off first winless season since 2004 and only second in eight full years in Cup. Still, 2009 was a good season for Harvick as he came up with seven top-fives, 19 top-10s and matched his career-best points finish of fourth. Made the Chase for the third straight year and goes into the new season considered a championship contender.

Jeff Burton

CAR: No. 31 Chevrolet.

TEAM: Richard Childress Racing.

BORN: June 29, 1967.

HOMETOWN: South Boston.


Scott Miller.

NOTES: Longtime Cup star had solid season in 2008 with two victories, seven top-fives and 18 top-10s as he finished sixth, his best showing since finishing third in 2000. It was the third straight year Burton has reached the Chase and goes is a title contender.

Jimmie Johnson

CAR: No. 48 Chevrolet.

TEAM: Hendrick Motorsports.

BORN: September 17, 1975.

HOMETOWN: El Cajon, Calif.

CREW CHIEF: Chad Knaus.

NOTES: Captain Cool will try and make history this season by becoming the first driver to win four straight championships. The way Johnson easily handled the pressure to match Cale Yarborough's mark of three consecutive titles — driving almost flawlessly in the Chase despite a late charge by Carl Edwards — it'd be foolish to bet against him.

Scott Speed

CAR: No. 82 Toyota.

TEAM: Red Bull Racing.

BORN: January 4, 1983.

HOMETOWN: Manteca, Calif.

CREW CHIEF: Jimmy Elledge.

NOTES: The former Formula One regular has been a darling of Red Bull Racing for years, and the team let A.J. Allmendinger go to open up a spot for the brash Speed. Now it's time to see if his open-wheel skills can translate into NASCAR. The 26-year-old says he wants to avoid the drama, but given his temperament — he put an opponent into the wall on purpose during an ARCA race last year — who knows how long that will last.

Brian Vickers

CAR: No. 83 Toyota.

TEAM: Red Bull Racing.

BORN: October 24, 1983.

HOMETOWN: Thomasville, N.C.


Ryan Pemberton.

NOTES: Made major strides in his second season with Red Bull, leaping from 38th to 19th in the standings thanks to second-year team's significant improvement. Has 172 starts and one Cup victory and is still only 25. Gets a new crew chief in Pemberton, who comes over from Michael Waltrip Racing.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

CAR: No. 88 Chevrolet.

TEAM: Hendrick Motorsports.

BORN: October 10, 1974.

HOMETOWN: Kannapolis, N.C.


Tony Eury Jr.

NOTES: NASCAR's most popular driver didn't really make the impact he wanted during his first year on the circuit's most powerful team. Earnhardt won just one race. Has won only three times in the last four years and will need to develop better chemistry with crew chief Tony Eury Jr. to have any hope of catching up to his teammates.

Carl Edwards

CAR: No. 99 Ford.

TEAM: Roush Fenway Racing.

BORN: August 15, 1979.

HOMETOWN: Columbia, Mo.


Bob Osborne.

NOTES: Will this be the year Edwards finally breaks through? He put together a dazzling stretch run during the Chase last fall to put some pressure on Jimmie Johnson by winning three of the last four races. Should be right there again in 2009.