1 Ryan Newman
As a rookie the 25-year-old Indiana native started on the front
row nine times, winning once and finishing in the top five 14
times. Was the circuit's best driver from June on.
2 Tony Stewart
Indiana bad boy showed last year he could thrive amid
distractions, but only two first-time Cup winners have
repeated--the last was Darrell Waltrip (1982).
3 Jeff Gordon
Still the most well rounded driver, Gordon showed signs of
slipping late last season, when he suffered a stretch of four
finishes of 35th or worse in the final 11 races.
4 Kurt Busch
Nobody enters '03 hotter than the brash, rail-thin Las Vegas
native, who went from 11th place to third over the final seven
races of '02, his sophomore season.
5 Matt Kenseth
Knows his way to Victory Lane (he won a series-high five races in
2002), but he finished 30th or worse in 11 races, which kept him
out of contention for the title.
6 Jimmie Johnson
The sport's best young driver--crew chief combo is 27-year-old
Johnson and 31-year-old Chad Knaus, who clicked like an old
married couple and finished a surprising fifth last year.
7 Sterling Marlin
Was a pain in the neck to his opponents (25 weeks as the
front-runner in '02) until a pain in his neck (a broken vertebra)
ended his championship quest in September.
8 Jeff Burton
The only Jack Roush driver not to win a race in 2002. However,
with new crew chief Paul Andrews, this talented Virginian could
be the year's biggest comeback story.
9 Mark Martin
The 2002 runner-up made a serious run for his first Cup, but it's
not likely the 44-year-old driver of the Viagra-mobile will be up
for another strong run at it.
10 Rusty Wallace
Despite his first winless season since '85, Wallace spent plenty
of time near the front of the pack last year. A top 10 finish
(his 17th) is likely, but a second Cup is out of the question.
11 Dale Jarrett
Took two checkered flags last season, but too often it looked as
if the 1999 Winston Cup champion was driving one of his sponsor's
big brown UPS trucks out there.
12 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Always a favorite at Daytona and Talladega, but until he becomes
more consistent on intermediate tracks (average finish in '02:
19th), Junior won't be a threat to win it all.
13 Bobby Labonte
The 2000 champ continued his descent into mediocrity in '02,
finishing 16th, but some drivers think he's a top five dark horse
if he and new crew chief Fatback McSwain mesh.
14 Ricky Craven
The defection of Joe Gibbs to Chevrolet means that Pontiac will
devote more resources to this Maine native, who had a career-best
nine top 10 finishes in '02.
15 Johnny Benson
Cracked ribs cost him five races last year. Once completely
healthy, he had three top fives in his final 10 starts. Cracking
the top 10 this year is an outside possibility.
16 Kevin Harvick
Rookie phenom in 2001 had a rough first half in '02, but a
midseason crew shake-up got him back on track, if not back into
the top 20 of the points race.
17 Ward Burton
Defending Daytona 500 champion has gotten off to strong starts in
each of the last two seasons but has closed poorly, especially in
'02, when he had nine DNFs.
18 Bill Elliott
Victories at Pocono and the Brickyard last summer were flukes: An
average finish of 22nd from that point on dropped him from sixth
place to 13th in the points standings.
19 Michael Waltrip
Excels on the superspeedways (victories at Daytona in each of the
last two seasons) but Darrell's bro is no factor on the short
tracks (just two top fives in 124 career events).
20 Joe Nemechek
"Front Row" Joe ran much better after crew chief Peter Sospenzo
came on board in September, finishing as the runner-up in two of
the final four races of the season.
COLOR PHOTO: WALTER ARCE/ASP INC. [T of C]
TWO COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOE ZEFF
EIGHTEEN COLOR PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES
COLOR PHOTO: PAUL KIZZLE/AP (WARD BURTON)
COLOR PHOTO: RUSS LABOUNTY/THE CRESCENT-NEWS (NEMECHEK)