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Nextel Cup Team Scouting Reports

On Sunday at Daytona the nine-month, 36-race charge for the Nextel Cup begins anew. Here's a rundown of the top teams' drivers and others with a shot at the checkered flag.

HENDRICKMOTORSPORTS

MINUTES AFTER themorning test session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Jan. 29, the four Hendrickdrivers huddled in a circle to compare notes from their runs. The confab lastedonly 10 minutes, but the scene revealed the biggest strength of the Hendrickorganization: No other team in NASCAR does a better job of sharing informationand resources. This season it won't be a surprise if all four of RickHendrick's drivers (defending champ Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon andCasey Mears) make the Chase.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]


ENEMY LINES: AN INSIDER ON AN OPPOSING TEAM SIZES UP THE HENDRICK DRIVERS

Every time youarrive at the track you know you're going to have to beat Jimmie Johnson'steam. Even if he's slow for the first 100 laps, he'll be there at the end. Thisteam can find speed like no one else.... Casey Mears is in the car that hastypically not had success at Hendrick, but he's a great talent.... Jeff Gordonis capable of winning another title, but there's only so long you can competeat a high level in this sport, and Jeff's focus probably isn't as [sharp] asit's been in the past.... Kyle Busch is just flat out fast, but he's got toquit making his own problems.

3 Drivers whohave won Cup titles for Hendrick Motorsports-- Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte andJimmie Johnson--the most for any owner.

ROUSH RACING

THESE AREuncertain times for Roush Racing, which just two years ago put all five of itsdrivers in the Chase. Hoping to revitalize his teams after just two made thepostseason in '06, Roush has been playing musical chairs with crewchiefs--always a risky move. Last year's Chase runner-up, Matt Kenseth, is theonly driver who's been with the same pit boss (Robbie Reiser) for longer thansix months. For Roush to remain at the top, he needs Greg Biffle (13th in '06points) and Carl Edwards (12th) to rebound. Their combined wins dropped from 10in '05 to two last year, but both have the talent to be title contenders.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

ENEMY LINES: ANINSIDER ON AN OPPOSING TEAM SIZES UP THE ROUSH DRIVERS

Matt Kenseth is alot like Jimmie Johnson: You know he's going to be near the lead at the end ofthe race.... When Greg Biffle's team hits its setup, they're tough to beat....Carl Edwards ran better in '05 than in '06, and no one knows why. Sometimes youwonder if his head will crack open and a robot will come out.

2,125 Total lapsled in 2006 by Matt Kenseth (1,132) and Greg Biffle (993), who ranked secondand third last year.

JOE GIBBSRACING

JOE GIBBS RACINGhas won three of the last eight Cups, and this season the team's big dog, TonyStewart, looks like a good bet to grab another, having closed 2006 with threewins in eight races. In addition, he'll be teamed with crew chief GregZipadelli for an eighth consecutive season--the longest active Cup partnership.Most important, the Gibbs outfit may be the most complete in NASCAR, with solidprograms for intermediate tracks, superspeedways, short tracks and road coursesalike. No driver in '07 should have a mechanical edge over Stewart and histeammates Denny Hamlin and J.J. Yeley.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

ENEMY LINES: ANINSIDER ON AN OPPOSING TEAM SIZES UP THE GIBBS DRIVERS

Tony Stewart(left) has a lot to prove this year after missing the Chase. But he's a hugetalent, one of the best pure drivers in NASCAR.... This is a do-or-die year forJ.J. Yeley. The organization is giving him a lot of support, and he needs torespond and have a number of top five finishes to keep his job.... Denny Hamlinis very consistent and rarely makes a mistake on the track. He's a greatcomplement to Stewart.

8 Consecutiveseasons Tony Stewart has won multiple races, the longest such streak at thestart of a driver's career in NASCAR history.

EVERNHAMMOTORSPORTS

IN AN EFFORT toimprove the chemistry on his team, owner Ray Evernham fired Jeremy Mayfieldlast August, replacing him in the number 19 car with Elliott Sadler. Much ofthe owner's unhappiness with the driver was that Mayfield, who has five careerCup wins, didn't work and play well with others--specifically with Evernham'sstar, Kasey Kahne, who led all drivers with six wins last season. Evernham ishoping that the affable Sadler will prove more willing to share setupinformation with Kahne and the team's third driver, Scott Riggs. "Elliottwants to work with everybody, and that's the key for us," says Kahne."Things are different around here." Improved teamwork could make the26-year-old Kahne more consistent in 2007.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]


ENEMY LINES: AN INSIDER ON AN OPPOSING TEAM SIZES UP THE EVERNHAM DRIVERS

Kasey Kahne(right) can win on every type of track. I'm not sure if an Evernham car iscapable of winning the title, but there's no doubt that Kasey is talentedenough to do it.... Elliott Sadler has been a huge disappointment. He's at apoint in his career where he needs to decide if he wants to be a racer or atelevision personality.... Scott Riggs has shown flashes of brilliance, andthis could be a breakout season for him.

9 Poles won lastseason by Kasey Kahne (6), Scott Riggs (2) and Elliott Sadler (1), the most byany current teammates.

RICHARD CHILDRESSRACING

NO OTHERoperation appears more ready to establish itself among NASCAR's elite than RCR,with its formidable lineup of Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton (both earned spots inthe 2006 Chase) and Clint Bowyer. After having missed out on the first twoseasons of the Chase, Richard Childress and his team find themselves with afull tank of momentum heading into the Daytona 500. "We didn't stink in thepast; we were just mediocre," says Harvick, who won five times last year."Everybody got a taste of success, and everybody wants to keep elevatingthat to the next level." RCR's fortunes may ride on how quickly its driversand crews adjust to the new Chevy cylinder blocks in their custom-builtengines.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

ENEMY LINES: ANINSIDER ON AN OPPOSING TEAM SIZES UP THE RCR DRIVERS

I never like itwhen a driver owns his own race team because it tends to take away from hisfocus, and Kevin Harvick has his own Busch team. I think something is about toblow up with him and Richard Childress, and I don't see Harvick being assuccessful as he was last season.... Jeff Burton is a really smart guy on thetrack. He's probably the best teammate anyone could have.... This is going tobe a real breakout year for Clint Bowyer. I expect him to win some races.

93.5 Percent oftheir combined '06 starts that Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyerfinished. Harvick and three others tied for best rate (97.2%), finishing 35 oftheir 36 races.

DALE EARNHARDTINC.

IN DECEMBER alongstanding private feud between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his stepmother,Teresa, the owner of DEI, went public when she told The Wall Street Journalthat Junior needed "to decide on whether he wants to be a NASCAR driver or... a public personality." Earnhardt, whose DEI contract expires at the endof the season, has said he won't re-sign unless he's given majority ownershipof the company--something his stepmother is reluctant to do. Stay tuned. On thetrack DEI should run well on superspeedways and short tracks but is likely tobe off the pace in the Car of Tomorrow races. "We're nowhere close to wherewe need to be right now with the COT," says Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt's crewchief. "We could be in for a tough time."

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]


ENEMY LINES: AN INSIDER ON AN OPPOSING TEAM SIZES UP THE DEI DRIVERS

There's a lot ofanxiety around Dale Earnhardt Jr. because of his unresolved contract status fornext year. He's a great talent, but he's also the Elvis Presley of NASCAR,which is always distracting. Earnhardt can win races this season, and frankly,there's a feeling in the garage that it's time for him to elevate his game andchallenge for the championship.... Martin Truex Jr.'s team is coming togetheras he goes into his second year with crew chief Kevin Manion. He'll be a threatto be in the Chase this season.... Paul Menard might not qualify for the races,but week in and week out he shows that he can be special.

6 Cupchampionships (of his seven) won by Dale Earnhardt after age 33, the age thatDale Jr. turns in October.

PENSKE RACINGSOUTH

THE ARRIVAL of2004 points champion Kurt Busch, who switched teams after the '05 season,replacing the retired Rusty Wallace, was supposed to vault Penske into theupper echelon of the Nextel Cup last year. Instead Busch and teammate RyanNewman were the circuit's biggest busts, with just one win between them. As aresult, owner Roger Penske made some changes for '07, including a new crewchief (Mike Nelson) for Newman, as well as a new nose (reconfigured for betterhandling in traffic) for the team's Dodge Chargers. Also, look for Busch toimprove in his second season with Roy McCauley atop the box, building onBusch's solid performance at the end of '06 (four top 10s in the final nineraces).

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NIGEL KINRADE (GORDON CAR)

Gordon

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NIGEL KINRADE (BIFFLE CAR)

Biffle

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GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES (STEWART CAR)

Stewart

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NIGEL KINRADE (STEWART)

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SAM SHARPE (KAHNE CAR)

Kahne

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NIGEL KINRADE (KAHNE)

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SAM SHARPE (HARVICK CAR)

Harvick

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GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES (EARNHARDT CAR)

Earnhardt

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SAM SHARPE (BUSCH CAR)

Busch

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MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE (BUSCH)

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NIGEL KINRADE (STREMME CAR)

Stremme

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JOHN RAOUX/AP (MONTOYA)

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JASON D. SMITH/US PRESSWIRE (GILLILAND CAR)

Gilliland

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