1 IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT
EVEN BEFORE THE ENGINES FIRE FOR SPEEDWEEKS 2010 at Daytona, Jimmie Johnson must be considered the overwhelming favorite to hoist the Cup 40 weeks later at Homestead-Miami Speedway. For starters, it appears that all the key players on his crew will be returning. Most significant, Ron Malec, the longtime car chief of the number 48, will once again be with Johnson. Over the last two seasons several teams have dangled the carrot of a crew chief position to Malec, but Johnson's car chief—who briefly lived with Johnson in a small apartment in Wisconsin when the two were competing in the ASA series in 1998—has remained loyal to his friend.
2 THE ROUSH FENWAY REBOUND
NO TEAM WAS MORE DISAPPOINTING in 2009 than Roush Fenway Racing. A year after winning 11 races and placing two drivers (Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle) in the top three of the final standings, the Roush Fenway Fords reached Victory Lane only three times, and none of the team's drivers finished in the top five in points. What happened? "We simply fell behind in the off-season," says team owner Jack Roush. "We thought we did a great job in 2008, and so we kind of rested on our laurels and didn't work as hard as we should have in the off-season. That's my fault. But I won't let that happen again."
And if there's one thing that recent NASCAR history has shown us, it's that Roush Fenway doesn't stay down for long. The last time the team struggled like this was in 2001, when Roush won only two races. What happened the next year? Roush took a team-high 10 checkered flags; the following season Matt Kenseth won the organization's first Cup title.
The Roush driver to watch this time will likely be Edwards, who was runner-up to Johnson in 2008. The Chase schedule sets up well for Edwards. Eleven of his 16 career wins have been on tracks that measure 1.5 to two miles. Five of the Chase races take place at venues of that length. "We were down this year, but we'll be back next year," Edwards says. "Trust me."
3 CAN JUNIOR ACHIEVE?
THE 2009 SEASON was the worst of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Cup career. He went winless for only the second time and notched only two top five finishes, a career low. Earnhardt was often his own worst enemy, committing an array of on-track blunders, and midway through the season his crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., was replaced by Lance McGrew, the head of Hendrick's research and development team. "I've learned a lot and can't wait to start fresh next year," Earnhardt says. "We'll be working hard this off-season, I promise you."
4 EMPTY ROOKIE POOL
FOR THE FIRST time since 1956, there may be no Rookie of the Year, as no new drivers will run full time in the Cup series. This reflects both the dearth of young stars in the Nationwide Series and the dwindling number of fully sponsored cars due to the poor economy. Talented prospects such as Nationwide driver Justin Allgaier (age 23) and truck racer Colin Braun (21) will have to wait at least one more season for a shot at a Cup seat.