NASCAR preview: Johnson still the guy to beat

Here's a look at what to expect this NASCAR season:

5 questions

Can anyone stop Jimmie Johnson? The short answer is no. It's not exactly like Johnson backed into his record fourth consecutive title last year. Other drivers have to hope that Johnson and the rest of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet crew forget how to win Chase races. Or better yet, can he catch the disease known as Junioritis?

How will the economy affect NASCAR? Also a question last year and, unfortunately, it is still relevant. Tracks, including Texas Motor Speedway, have done all they can to lure fans back with ticket deals. Teams are still cutting back. Every race last year had a full field. Will that continue?

How will Danica Patrick hold up? We won't see her on Sundays, but the 11 or 12 tracks at which she'll race in the Nationwide Series are certainly glad she's showing up. Attendance will be up for those races, and it will be interesting to see how Patrick reacts to having the spotlight squarely on her. The media attention she drew in the IndyCar Series is nothing like what she'll face in NASCAR.

Can Roush Fenway Racing rebound? Last year got off to a banner start for the team, with Matt Kenseth winning the first two races. But only Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle ended up making the Chase, and they weren't title threats. The team ended up with just three race wins, and will have four drivers this year instead of five.

What about Richard Childress Racing? This group was downright awful in 2009. Mr. Reliable Jeff Burton was not in the Chase. Neither was Clint Bowyer or Kevin Harvick. They combined for zero victories. The good news is they showed signs of life late.

Tweaking the rules

Give NASCAR credit for paying attention. Attendance and a drop in TV ratings have prompted the series to make changes for 2010. Here are a few:

Uniform start times: Most Sunday races start at noon Central. One exception: the 2 p.m. starts at Texas Motor Speedway.

Bump-drafting is back: Banned last year at Talladega, it is OK again to get behind another car and give it a little nudge. You could see bump-drafting next Sunday at Daytona.

Getting spoiled: NASCAR tested spoilers at TMS last month, and they could be back on the cars in time for the Samsung Mobile 500 in April. If they return, they replace the wings on the Car of Tomorrow.

Decrease in purses: NASCAR has decreased purses by an average of 10 percent in the three top series. The hope is that the tracks can pass the savings on to fans.

Hey, didn't you used to drive with . . .

Jamie McMurray: The personable McMurray, who won a Chase race last year, is no longer with Roush Fenway. He's now driving the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops ride which was vacated by . . .

Martin Truex Jr.: Truex bolted Earnhardt Ganassi Racing for Michael Waltrip Racing, where he now pilots the No. 56 NAPA Toyota. Waltrip will run a limited schedule.

Brad Keselowski: After winning at Talladega last year in a part-time ride, the exciting Keselowski has a full-time job with Penske Racing, where he'll drive the No. 12 Verizon Dodge.

A different Chase

Four-time champ Jimmie Johnson has vanquished every foe that has come his way the last four years. So who would Johnson like to face in his dream Chase? "It would be cool to rewind things and see what it was like," Johnson said. Here's who Johnson said he would like to face in an all-time Chase if he had the chance:

Dale Earnhardt Sr.: The Intimidator died before the Chase format started.

Parnelli Jones: The 1963 Indy 500 champ won four NASCAR races.

Cale Yarborough: He was a hero of Johnson's growing up.

Bobby Allison: NASCAR great was the 1983 series champ.

Mario Andretti: His versatility - winning in Indy cars, NASCAR and Formula One - is something Johnson admires.

Crystal ball: The final 12

1. Jimmie Johnson: The only way he doesn't make it five straight is if he's not in the Chase.

2. Tony Stewart: Having Hendrick Motorsports engines helps. So does having Stewart behind the wheel.

3. Jeff Gordon: It looks as if Johnson will get to title No. 5 before Gordon.

4. Kyle Busch: He didn't make the Chase last year, but he has a new contract and unmatched talent.

5. Kurt Busch: He seemed to settle into a groove driving the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge. His consistency (21 top 10s last year) makes him a threat.

6. Mark Martin: Nearly everything went right and he still didn't win last year. A dropoff could be expected.

7. Carl Edwards: If the Roush Fenway guys find their groove, he could move up. But he was winless last year.

8. Denny Hamlin: His year has already gotten off to a rough start with a torn ACL.

9. Brian Vickers: Last year was about making the Chase. This year it's about making an impact.

10. Greg Biffle: His consistency should be enough to get a second Roush Fenway car in the Chase.

11. Juan Pablo Montoya: It will be interesting to see how the Colombian follows up last year's breakthrough performance.

12. Jeff Burton: Someone has to step up for RCR this year, and the veteran seems like the best bet.

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