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Looking AHEAD
COMPILED BY LARS ANDERSON
December 08, 2004
Who'll lead the pack next year? Turn the page for an eyeful of SI's picks for NASCAR's top 10, plus the Nextel, Busch and truck series schedules
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December 08, 2004

Looking Ahead

Who'll lead the pack next year? Turn the page for an eyeful of SI's picks for NASCAR's top 10, plus the Nextel, Busch and truck series schedules

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RUNS WELL AT: Pocono. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus swept both races here in '04 and may do so again.

TROUBLE SPOTS: JJ is not a fan of Michigan, where he's finished 40th and 27th in the last two years.

PROJECTION: After leading the '04 series in victories, with eight, and making a stunning run at the Cup, Johnson is now a certifiable star. He'll win multiple titles in his career.

FAST FACT

Johnson has been in the top 10 in the standings for all but six weeks of the last three seasons, including 69 weeks in a row.

3 Dale EARNHARDT JR.

2004 SEASON 6,368 POINTS; 5TH PLACE

RELAXING between practices at Talladega Superspeedway on Oct. 1, Dale Earnhardt Jr. stretched out on a couch in his team's hauler. A television was on, and team members flitted in and out of the room, but Junior didn't notice any of the activity; his mind was on the past.

Ten weeks had gone by since Little E had barely escaped a horrific fire after crashing during a warmup lap for an American Le Mans Series race in Sonoma, Calif. The accident, which in some ways was the defining event of Earnhardt's 2004 season, was still fresh in his mind. "It was hot as hell," said Junior. "I know I'm lucky."

Before suffering second-degree burns on his legs and neck, Earnhardt consistently ran at the front of the pack in 2004, grabbing three wins and nine top fives in the first 18 races. But in his first seven starts after the fiery crash, Junior skidded to five finishes of 20th or worse. As his burns healed, though, his performance improved, which gives hope to his legion of fans for '05. At age 30 Earnhardt has matured into a complete racer. Always strong on superspeedways, he's now become NASCAR's best shorttrack racer; he scored more points on the short tracks in '04 than any other driver.

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