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1. Jimmie Johnson – The likelihood of Johnson winning a fifth straight Sprint Cup Series championship is very high. As long as team owner Rick Hendrick keeps Johnson teamed with ace crew chief Chad Knaus, you'll find no hotter team in the last 10 races of the season than the No. 48 Lowe's team.
2. Tony Stewart – The more we examine what Stewart and the No. 14 team did in their first season, the more we like the owner/driver. Smoke led the championship standings for a significant part of 2009, and won a handful of races. We think improvement is entirely possible, which would make him a serious championship contender in 2010.
3. Mark Martin – The veteran Hendrick Motorsports driver was Johnson's biggest threat for last season's championship. While the No. 5 team cooled in the last 10 races of last season, Martin still had an incredible year. He could easily lead the Sprint Cup Series in victories this season. Don't forget that on draft day.
4. Denny Hamlin – We had the Joe Gibbs Racing star ranked higher in our December rankings, so this is a bit of a down adjustment. The knee injury (torn ACL) in his clutch leg is a bit concerning entering the season. While all the doctors and JGR experts say this isn't a problem, we have to be a bit reserved in our rankings. Hamlin will still be great, we just don't see him as a big championship contender in 2010.
5. Kyle Busch – Busch can be the most dominant driver in the series as times. He possesses skills on short tracks, intermediate ovals, super speedway and road courses. That's the kind of stuff that championships are made of. If Busch can discover consistency in the upcoming season, look out.
6. Jeff Gordon – Somehow Gordon has become unspectacular in cracking the Top 5 in the points every season. Has high expectations killed his fantasy racing value? By no means. The No. 24 team is no longer a team that wins a bunch of races or really challenges for championships. Still, 25-30 Top 10's will get you far in fantasy racing circles.
7. Carl Edwards – We've given Edwards just a bit of a bump over the December rankings, and the primary reason why is that the Sprint Cup Series will return to a spoiler on the rear deck lid of the car in lieu of the sci-fi wing. While this may seem simple on the surface, we believe it will be just the thing to pull the No. 99 team out of their slump.
8. Kurt Busch – The Penske Racing veteran had a spectacular 2009 season. We think he could push the bar even higher in 2010. The crew chief change is something to take note of, but in the loss of one great crew chief he gains another great crew chief. Busch should challenge for some victories and be a shoe-in for the Chase.
9. Juan Pablo Montoya – Montoya could be a down-turn candidate in the upcoming season or he could be a nice surprise and post similar numbers to his breakout 2009 season. The No. 42 team was still finding it difficult to visit victory lane last season, but Montoya showed his great consistency. We expect the Earnhardt-Ganassi driver to going Chasing again this year and maybe steal a win or two on the road courses.
10. Clint Bowyer – Bowyer and the No. 33 team should return to the Chase after their absence from the post-season playoff in 2009. Bowyer was Richard Childress best driver last season and that should change in the upcoming campaign. He will still find it difficult to win races at this level of NASCAR, but that classic Childress consistency should return.
11. Greg Biffle – Biffle easily has the most upside of any driver in this area of the rankings. The No. 16 team is capable of winning races, and the final 10 tracks that make up the Chase almost always guarantees that he'll be hot at the end of the year. Much like his teammate Carl Edwards, we expect Biffle to receive the change to the rear spoiler well.
12. Jeff Burton – Burton's 2009 season was an enigma. The team never seemed to gain any traction or consistency. We're used to seeing the No. 31 team in the Chase for the Cup each year, so we expect Burton to return there in 2010. Considering how the veteran driver finished last season, a win or two along the way this season would come as no surprise.
13. Kevin Harvick – The RCR veteran is coming off one of his worst seasons in Sprint Cup racing. So there's no where to go but up from here. We expect Harvick and the No. 29 team to challenge to make the Chase this season. The upcoming season will likely see him post his usual 6-8 race strings of Top-10 finishes.
14. Matt Kenseth – We're a bit reserved on Kenseth completely turning things around in 2010. Simply put, the No. 17 team hasn't been the same since Kenseth's long-time crew chief Robbie Reiser left a couple seasons ago. Despite winning the first couple races of 2009, we're not sure that Kenseth can make it to victory lane this season.
15. Joey Logano – We expect Logano to make a quantum leap in the upcoming season. The rookie year held the surprises and disappointments we generally expected for the No. 20 team. This year, Logano and crew chief Greg Zipadelli will show why this team is a future championship contender.
16. Martin Truex Jr. – Truex didn't become a two-time Nationwide Series champion on just equipment alone. He has some real driving talent as well. The move to Michael Watlrip Racing and pairing with crew chief Pat Tryson should bear immediate fruits. In fact, this ranking could be a bit reserved if the performance we expect follows.
17. Ryan Newman – Can Newman repeat or even hold onto the gains he showed in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2010? That's the 64-dollar question for the veteran driver. While we generally believe in Newman's racing talent, we find it hard to believe he will be quite as sharp as last season. Expect some streaks of good performance intermingled with enough bad runs to hamper consistency.
18. Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Before we raise our hopes too high we have to take stock of what Earnhardt has accomplished since leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. The NASCAR icon has struggled from day one with his team at Hendrick Motorsports. The paring with crew chief Lance McGrew will eventually bear fruits, it will just take a little time.
19. Kasey Kahne – With Richard Petty Motorsports merging with Yates Racing in the upcoming season it's hard to be optimistic about the star driver enduring yet another team merger. The switch to Ford from Dodge is another variable at work here. Too many changes too soon force our pessimism on Kahne.
20. Brian Vickers – Was 2009's Chase appearance the high water mark for Red Bull Racing and Vickers? We think so. As his rough 10-race performance in the Chase showed, the No. 83 team is still not "big time" yet. While we generally like the veteran driver and this team, we're a bit reserved about his consistency in the upcoming season.
21. David Reutimann – Reutimann was very impressive in 2009. His 16th-place finish in the final points and 10 Top 10's were very surprising. We expect similar results for this team in 2010. For the time being, this could be the ceiling for the No. 00 MWR team.
22. David Ragan – We would love to move Ragan further up these standings, but he's going to have to prove himself in 2010. In our opinion the Roush Fenway rising star has what it takes to be a Chase driver. Still, he is the fourth driver in a four-team lineup at Roush. Lot's of upside, but select cautiously on draft day.
23. Brad Keselowski – We've given a bit of a nudge to Keselowski over our December rankings. The young driver is clearly talented, and despite this being his first full season in Sprint Cup Racing, that may not be barely detectable by mid-summer. Penske will make a concerted effort for Keselowski to succeed right out of the box.
24. Jamie McMurray – The return to owner Chip Ganassi should pay dividends for the journeyman driver, just how much remains to be seen. McMurray scored an astounding 23 Top-10 finishes with Ganassi in 2004. While we don't expect a return to this form, we could see McMurray move back into the middle teens in the driver standings.
25. Marcos Ambrose – Ambrose may have hit his potential ceiling with JTG/Daugherty Racing in 2009, or there still may be more left in the tank. He did cool off in the latter third of the season, so there's reason to be pessimistic. We believe it's better to err towards caution and not draft Ambrose too early this season.
26. Scott Speed – The Red Bull Racing No. 82 team promises break-out potential in 2010. Speed is finally getting a hold on the Sprint Cup car. Like many of the other drivers in the series, this young driver too will welcome the shift from the wing to the spoiler on the rear deck lid. We could be under-rating at the 26 spot.
27. A. J. Allmendinger – Allmendinger is locked in for another season at RPM. This year he will race the familiar No. 43 of team owner Richard Petty. The young driver is very talented, and is only limited by the equipment and resources of this team. Allmendinger brings a lot of upside if you can grab him later in your fantasy drafts.
28. Bobby Labonte – The move from Hall of Fame racing to TRG Motorsports is actually an upgrade for the former Sprint Cup champion. Labonte suffered through one of his worst seasons in Cup racing in 2009. At TRG we should see him return to a modest three or four Top 10's and a driver ranking in the mid 20's.
29. Sam Hornish Jr. – We're expecting Hornish and the No. 77 team to cool off a bit this season. After posting seven Top-10 finishes and a 28th-place finish in the 2009 driver standings, we think he could be poised for a lull. If nothing else the addition of Brad Keselowski at Penske will draw some resources and attention away from the No. 77 team.
30. Regan Smith – Smith and the Furniture Row Racing team are making the moves to make this small, single-car team competitive. The No. 78 team has taken the championship points from the now defunct No. 07 team of RCR. This will assure that Smith has provisional starts for the first five races. Things look very good for this team with this talented young driver.
31. Aric Almirola – The plan is for Almirola to race the entire season with the No. 09 James Finch/Phoenix Racing team. This small single-car team won at Talladega last year with Brad Keselowski, so they're capable of big things. Almirola has enough Sprint Cup experience to make this team competitive. However, possible sponsorship problems loom as we head into Daytona.
32. Elliott Sadler – Sadler suffered through a very unproductive season with RPM in 2009. The only bright spot for the veteran driver was the super speedways. Sadler was four-for-four in Top 10's on those extra large tracks. We suspect 2010 will look much the same for this driver and team.
33. Paul Menard – The hiring of crew chief Slugger Labbe could go a long way towards improving Menard's performance this season. Still, this is the limited resources of Yates Racing combined with Richard Petty Motorsports. Menard could scratch for a pair of Top 10's in the upcoming season, but don't expect much more.
34. David Gilliland – Gilliland signed with Front Row Motorsports and their up-and-coming three-car race team. He will pilot the No. 38 Ford for most of the upcoming season, with only a handful of starts in the team's other cars. Gilliland will begin the season with provisional starts, so that puts him a leg up on many in this area of the rankings.
35. Travis Kvapil – The other big name for Front Row Motorsports this season is Kvapil. He takes command of the No. 34 Ford for every race this season with the exception of the Daytona 500. This FRM team is also in the Top 35 in owner points and will enjoy the benefit of provisional starts to begin the season. That will allow Kvapil to get a foothold on 2010 with this team.
36. Robby Gordon – Gordon's race team has reached a crossroads. Sponsorship has become a problem and Gordon seems distracted with his successful off-road racing exploits. Gordon's No. 7 team will for sure miss a few events in 2010, so fantasy racing potential is limited at best.
37. Kevin Conway – Conway brings limited NASCAR experience to the table with Front Row Motorsports in 2010 to make a bid for Rookie of the Year. Between the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series he has only 26 starts to his credit. FRM is working on a deal to get owner points to lock Conway into the Top 35. That will be key to his success in the upcoming season.
38. Mike Bliss – The Tommy Baldwin Racing team hired journeyman driver Bliss to pilot the team's No. 36 Chevrolet this season. Sponsorship seems fairly settled, so TBR should enjoy more success in 2010 than their first season in 2009. Bliss boasts close to 100 career Sprint Cup starts, so the team shouldn't hurt in experience with Bliss paired with crew chief Kevin Buskirk.
39. Casey Mears – Mears landed a ride with newly-formed Key Motorsports. The upstart team doesn't have much in the way of sponsorship, but they're good in the talent department. Veteran Mears has been paired with long-time crew Doug Richert. The No. 90 team has the ingredients to succeed, so watch their funding situation closely.
40. Boris Said – The road racing veteran has inked a deal with Latitude 43 Motorsports. The new team bought all the equipment and owner points of the now defunct No. 26 Roush Fenway Racing team. Said will definitely start the first five races of 2010, but would like to run the full schedule. The equipment and experience is present to lure sponsors, so watch this situation closely.
41. Terry Cook – The No. 46 Dodge team of Whitney Motorsports has signed long-time truck series driver Cook to pilot the team's entry in Sprint Cup Racing. The team is currently under-funded and under-sponsored, but has the components to be more than a start-and-park entry. The new team bought old surplus Dodge chassis from Richard Petty Motorsports, and they plan to run the full schedule, funding permitting.
42. Dave Blaney – Blaney returns to the Prism Motorsports No. 66 team. This was a start-and-park team in 2009, but the team appears to have more funding than they did last season. Blaney hopes to do more racing and less parking in 2010.
43. Michael McDowell – Prism Motorsports is starting a second team in the upcoming season and they have signed McDowell to drive their new No. 55 entry. The team has formed a technical alliance with Michael Waltrip Racing, so McDowell will hope to have a better performance than his last Sprint Cup Series campaign.
44. Bill Elliott – Veteran driver Elliott will race a 14-event in the upcoming season. Wood Brothers Racing puts good equipment under Elliott, so he's good for the occasional Top 20. The good runs tend to come on the intermediate and two-mile ovals, so he's worthy of fantasy consideration in those weekly lineup leagues.
45. Max Papis – Papis will return with Germain Racing and tackle a 20-race schedule with the No. 13 Toyota team. While we would hope that his oval track racing would improve in the upcoming season, we have to be a bit reserved. Papis' strong point is definitely his solid road course racing skills.
46. Reed Sorenson – Sorenson is another of our handful of part-time drivers to make the rankings. Braun Racing will make their first foray into Sprint Cup racing with a five-event schedule for the journeyman driver this season. Sorenson has talent, but the limited schedule severely impacts any fantasy racing value he would have this season.
47. Michael Waltrip – Waltrip will only race a part-time schedule in 2010 as he is about to enter retirement. With the owner/driver only racing a part-time schedule he will have limited fantasy racing value. However, those starts will be at all the restrictor-plate race tracks, so in weekly lineup leagues Waltrip is worth the occasional look.
48. Joe Nemechek – The owner/driver of the No. 87 car had lots of struggles in 2009. He was what has been commonly referred to as a "start and park" in recent seasons. Nemechek made 30 of the 36 events, but he also posted a staggering 27 DNF's. With a whopping average finish of 39.5 last season, you can easily see why fantasy racing players overlooked this small team and driver.
49. Derrike Cope – The owner/driver of the No. 75 Dodge has decent sponsorship and a willingness to run as many races as he can enter his team. Equipment deficiencies and a lack of owner points could cripple him to start the season. If Cope races, he'll likely be one of the handful of start-and-parks.