Pre Season Picks

Handicapping the Chase for the Nextel Cup, Part Deux is all the rage these days. Pick your top 10 now and see how right—or wrong—you were in eight months. It’s an interesting mental exercise, but if you’re like most of us, mental exercise is trying to figure out how you can get to the TV remote without having to haul your butt off the couch.

Nevertheless, here we go on the inaugural Flat Out Preseason Pick ‘Em Tour (next year we hope to take care of the unfortunate lack of sponsorship). The following drivers, we think, will be in the Chase in 2005 (in no particular order):

1. Jamie McMurray. The hottest thing since the liner in Robby Gordon’s helmet at New Hampshire at the end of the season, McMurray missed the inaugural Chase by 15 points. That won’t happen this year.

2. Kurt Busch. Defending champion has to be included in the following year’s preseason poll, and Busch should make it easily if he keeps the mental skids greased and doesn’t fall victim to the champion’s curse (see Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, et al).\

3. Ryan Newman: He’s fast, he’s smart and he’s tired of hearing how he can win poles but not races, or races and poles but not championships. He and Matt Borland have it figured out, and they’ll be better this year than they were last year.

4. Jimmie Johnson: 98 points. That’s the number that stands in the way of Johnson being a two-time series champion after finishing second the past two years. When he’s on, Johnson is as hard to handle as mentor Jeff Gordon was a few years back, as evidenced by the eight victories last year (four in the 10-race chase).

5. Jeff Gordon: When you’ve won all there is to win and done it as easily as Gordon seemed to, it can be a hard thing to stay motivated. No such problems for Gordon this year, as his drive for five in ’05 is fueled by the memory of the 10 Hendrick teammates killed in last year’s plane crash.

6. Mark Martin: This is his last rodeo, at least in Cup, and having come so close, so many times, this could be his year. What a story. A driver on a farewell tour wins the title in his final race. Sounds a little too Hollywood, but it could happen.

7. Matt Kenseth: After a near-perfect 2003 season, the chickens came home to roost for Kenseth last season, and the resulting egg-laying left him in the Chase but out of the hunt. This year, he’ll be back to his consistent ways and challenge at the end.

8. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Swapping crews with Michael Waltrip, Junior shook things up at the end of last season. It will be interesting to see how the new-look Bud team performs in the Race to the Chase. It’s a good bet that the Las Vegas fiasco—where Earnhardt had to park it after 196 laps because he was so out to lunch on the setup—won’t be repeated.

9. Kasey Kahne: Last year’s rookie is this year’s dark horse. If he ever figures out how to make a car last to the end every time out, he’ll win the title by 200 points.

10. Tony Stewart: On the basis of sheer desire, Stewart will make the top 10 again. The new aero rules favor a driver who can drive a loose race car, and Stewart can. He’s scored more points than any other driver in NASCAR over the past five years on superspeedways, and last year’s performance is bound to rankle him. He’ll be back.

There you have it, your top 10 for 2005. Let’s just see how right—or wrong—these picks are when the Chase finally begins. Of course, there’re still eight months left to change my mind…

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NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2005

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