DAYTONA BEACH - NASCAR roars back to life next weekend with Daytona 500 preliminaries, and Carl Edwards is the trendy pick for the 2009 Sprint Cup championship. Carl Edwards. Actually, there's sound logic behind predicting an Edwards title. Jimmie Johnson simply isn't buying it. "Frankly, I don't see how he can be ranked as the top seed," the three-time defending champion said. "I mean that in a joking way, but he finished second and we won."Johnson has a point. He and crew chief Chad Knaus have been unstoppable. And while the law of averages argues against a record fourth championship, the No. 48 team shows no vulnerability. Even Matt Kenseth, Edwards' Roush Fenway Racing teammate and a title hopeful himself, won't pick against Johnson. "I've got to see somebody beat Jimmie before I can say Edwards is the driver to beat," Kenseth said. "Even though they've won three straight, they could have won five straight with luck." Nevertheless, Edwards comes off a season in which he led the series in wins (nine), top fives (19) and top 10s (27) and was the most consistent driver from start to finish. He enters his fifth full season. Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart won titles in their fourth years, and Johnson got his first in his fifth year. "Carl is going to be tough," Johnson acknowledged. "I think on the 11/2-mile and 2-mile stuff, those guys are not only fast, but they're also able to get the fuel mileage, which we saw last year. "What makes Carl even more of a threat this year is he's done a good job of understanding Martinsville, Phoenix, tracks that have been tough for him." Team owner Jack Roush upgraded an already strong No. 99 team by bringing back former car chief Pierre Kuettel, the crew chief on Edwards' Nationwide Series championship team in 2007. Kuettel takes his old spot and will work with last year's car chief Jason Myers - effectively improving two key positions. "I think having Kuettel come back and do this job is going to be a huge addition," Edwards said. "At the same time, we didn't lose Jason Myers. I'm excited about it." Edwards should be good. But good enough to overtake Johnson? Early last season, Johnson didn't look like he would become the first three-peat champion since Cale Yarborough in 1976-78. He managed one top-five finish in the first five races and didn't get the second of his seven victories until nearly August at Indianapolis. During the final 17 races, though, he won five times and, from race No. 25 at California through the finale at Homestead, he finished outside the top nine only twice. And when the races counted most, Johnson and Knaus proved yet again they're the NASCAR ultimate tournament team, blowing to a big lead in the Chase and sucking almost all of the drama out of the finale at Homestead. "How can you bet against that team?" Johnson's teammate and car owner Jeff Gordon said. "The way they stepped up when it came time for the Chase was something that's scary for every other competitor out there." While Johnson and Edwards are at the center of every discussion about the 2009 championship, there's always a reference to Kyle Busch as well. The temperamental and ultra-talented Busch practically owned the 26-race regular season in his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing, winning eight times. Mechanical failures, other bad luck and general loss in confidence doomed him in the Chase, and he wound up 10th. That he won a staggering 21 times in NASCAR's three national divisions didn't ease the sting of fading in the Chase. "We even put the exclamation point on the season at Homestead trying to finish the last fuel run without stopping, and we let it run out of gas," Busch said. "That just sort of finished it off for us. "We went into the offseason forgetting about anything and looking forward to restarting and hopefully getting some luck back." Gordon, Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and even 50-year-old Mark Martin could factor into the championship. None, however, has shown the consistency or speed the last few years needed to win a title. Stewart and Ryan Newman also are championship-caliber drivers, but they'll be in a building year with Stewart-Haas Racing. Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch are saddled with Dodges. Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. and David Ragan rate dark-horse mention. Johnson believes Edwards, Kyle Busch, Kenseth and teammates Gordon, Earnhardt and Martin will be the toughest to beat. But he thinks there's only one favorite. "I think that 48 car should be ranked No. 1," he said.
Reporter Tony Fabrizio can be reached at (813) 259-7994.