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Time to break out the crystal ball

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Friday, Jan. 01, 2010

It's time to shut down 2009 by getting an early start on the 2010 NASCAR season and pick who will be the best and worst as well as what I will get wrong:

2010 SPRINT CUP SERIES CHAMPION: Jimmie Johnson. Yes, I went way out on a limb, but the past two seasons I predicted Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, respectively. While both drivers did well during those years, Johnson kicked tail on his way to his third and fourth consecutive championships.

The bottom line : Nothing has markedly changed since Johnson won his fourth title. In the end, I just don't see any reason he can't win a fifth. Somebody will have to dethrone him before I pick against him again.

2010 NATIONWIDE CHAMPION: Carl Edwards is a natural pick for another series championship, but I'm going to go with Brad Keselowski, who will run full time in Cup and Nationwide for Penske Racing.

During the past two seasons with JR Motorsports, Keselowski became a serious title contender. I don't think there is any reason to believe he can't maintain that kind of performance with Penske.

2010 TRUCK CHAMPION: Ron Hornaday (again). Difficult to see anyone knocking off Hornaday and Kevin Harvick Inc., yet Hornaday getting a new crew chief might throw in a wrinkle. Keep an eye on Kyle Busch Motorsports and driver Tayler Malsam - they will be stout.

BIGGEST SURPRISE TO MISS THE 2010 CHASE: Not sure this qualifies as a huge surprise since he didn't make it in 2009, but I don't see Dale Earnhardt Jr. making the Chase.

Basically it's the same theory as I used picking Johnson for the title but in reverse. Nothing of note has changed since the end of 2009, so it would take an improvement of dramatic proportions for Earnhardt Jr. to return to one of the top 12 teams.

BIGGEST SURPRISE TO MAKE 2010 CHASE: I'm hedging a little here, but I will say at least one driver from Michael Waltrip Racing or affiliated with it makes the Chase. That includes Martin Truex Jr., David Reutimann or Marcos Ambrose.

Reutimann and Ambrose made tremendous improvement during 2009. Truex is getting a fresh start after leaving Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. If any of the three were to make it, it would be a giant achievement for an organization that started from scratch during 2007.

MOST FOLLOWED STORY OF 2010: Danica! Danica! Danica! So far, we've only seen a small taste of what's to come, with Danica Patrick's official announcement joining JR Motorsports for a limited Nationwide schedule the next two seasons and her appearance at the Automobile Racing Club of America test in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Just wait until Speedweeks, when her ARCA race will steal the thunder from NASCAR, which will host qualifying for the Daytona 500 and the Budweiser Shootout on that same day. The NASCAR attention deficit will be enormous.

FANS WILL LOVE: I'm going with the addition of more double-file restarts (in the Truck series) and the earlier and more consistent start times being utilized by the Cup series.

FANS WILL HATE: Another season of Hendrick Motorsports dominance and dominance by teams associated with it. The organization's performance has been adding chapters to the NASCAR record books, but fans seem very ready for somebody new to step into the spotlight.

DAYTONA 500 WINNER: Juan Pablo Montoya. Now that would be something new and interesting and not involving Patrick (in part because she won't be entered). Montoya has shown to be very deft in restrictor-plate racing.

DANICA PATRICK WILL WIN HER FIRST NATIONWIDE RACE: Assuming she improves with the more experience she gets, I still don't see her coming anywhere close to a win during 2010.

MOST LIKELY PREDICTION I GET WRONG: I totally underestimated how good Tony Stewart and Stewart-Hass Racing would be during 2009 and missed my most-likely-to-miss-the-Chase prediction. Given that track record, I'm going with getting my Earnhardt Jr. prediction wrong.

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