TROUBLE SPOTS: There aren't any tracks at which Gordon can't win, but last year he blew an engine at both California and its sister track, Michigan.
PROJECTION: With four titles already under his belt, Gordon appears to be reaching the prime of his career, which is a downright scary thought for the rest of the Nextel Cup field.
With 69 wins in his 12-year career, Gordon has 14 more victories than any other active NASCAR driver.
2 Jimmie JOHNSON
2004 SEASON 6,498 POINTS; 2ND PLACE
IT BEGAN IN the chill of early spring at Atlanta and ended at Pocono in the heat of late summer. Over a stretch of 17 races, Jimmie Johnson seemed to leave a trail of fire in the wake of his Lowe's Chevrolet as he blew away the Nextel Cup field. In those 17 races he had 14 top 10 finishes, 13 top fives and four victories. So dominant was he that at one point he had a 232point lead in the standings, and had NASCAR not adopted its new Chase for the Championship format, Johnson might have run away with the points title in even more overwhelming fashion than Matt Kenseth did in 2003.
"There was a time when we could do nothing wrong," says Johnson, a seasonlong critic of the Chase format. "But then the wheels came off."
After winning the Pennsylvania 500 on Aug. 1, Johnson, 29, suddenly slumped. Over the next six weeks he finished 36th or worse four times, eroding both his points lead and the morale of his team as they entered the Chase. But the Lowe's team rediscovered its magic touch in the final six races of the Chase, taking three straight checkered flags and four overall. His second-place finish at Homestead left him just eight points shy of his first title. "I never lost confidence," he says. "Because when we're on, this team is unbeatable."
That was certainly true in '04.