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Original Issue

Scouting Report

Four former champions are in the Sprint Cup hunt, but a pair of hot young guns leads the field into the postseason


1. Kyle Busch
2. Carl Edwards
3. Jimmie Johnson
4. Greg Biffle
5. Tony Stewart
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
7. Jeff Gordon
8. Jeff Burton
9. Matt Kenseth
10. Denny Hamlin
11. Kevin Harvick
12. Clint Bowyer

Regular SeasonFinish 1ST | WINS 8 | TOP 5s 15 | TOP 10s 17 | BEST at Dover | WORST atHomestead

After waiting all year for the kid to crack, Cup rivals now recognize that thechampionship is Busch's to lose. In putting together a breakthrough season hehas become the circuit's most complete driver, winning on road courses,superspeedways and short tracks, as well as—most significantly—on theintermediate ovals that make up five of the Chase's 10 races.

Regular SeasonFinish 2ND | WINS 6 | TOP 5s 11 | TOP 10s 19 | BEST at Atlanta | WORST atMartinsville

Nobody is hotter right now: Edwards's average finish in the last seven races ofthe regular season was 4.71. He has always had a nose for the checkered flag,but this year he has shown the focus to stay in contention even when thingsaren't going his way (see California on Aug. 31). If Busch falters, the number99 team will be there to scoop up its first Cup.

Regular SeasonFinish 3RD | WINS 4 | TOP 5s 9 | TOP 10s 14 | BEST at Charlotte | WORST atKansas

After winning at California on Aug. 31, when he led 228 of 250 laps, Johnsonwas quick to say that the gap between his car and those of the two favoritesremains significant. Still, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus just got anotherwin on Sunday at Richmond and they're the best on the circuit at closing out aseason. Look for JJ to give Busch and Edwards a run for the title.

Regular SeasonFinish 8TH | WINS 0 | TOP 5s 8 | TOP 10s 11 | BEST at Homestead | WORST atTalladega

Call him the comeback driver of the year: The Biff returns to the Chase after atwo-year absence. In his first full season with crew chief Greg Erwin, he hashad one of the most quietly successful seasons on the circuit. Quiet, ofcourse, means that Biffle has yet to take a checkered flag, and that makes hima likely also-ran in the hunt for the Cup.

Regular SeasonFinish 6TH | WINS 0 | TOP 5s 9 | TOP 10s 13 | BEST at New Hampshire | WORST atTalladega

It has been more than a year since this two-time champ has won a race. The goodthing for Stewart is that he has been warming up recently, with four top fivesplus a top 10 in his last eight starts. He has gotten hot during the Chasebefore—he won three of the 10 races in 2006—and if that happens again, he's theone dark horse capable of challenging the top three.

Regular SeasonFinish 4TH | WINS 1 | TOP 5s 8 | TOP 10s 13 | BEST at Talladega | WORST atHomestead

It's an understatement to say that Junior has slumped after his victory atMichigan. In the 11 races since June 15 he has just two top 10s and hasappeared out of sync at times with crew chief Tony Eury Jr.—over the final 10races, when winning counts more than ever and there's so little room for error,that hit-or-miss approach won't cut it.

Regular SeasonFinish 10TH | WINS 0 | TOP 5s 9 | TOP 10s 12 | BEST at Martinsville | WORST atHomestead

Along with crew chief Steve Letarte, the four-time champ has yet to figure outthe setup for his number 24 Chevy. Gordon has been fast at times, but he's alsobeen surprisingly slow—look no further than his no-excuses 29th on the roadcourse at Watkins Glen, a track on which he has routinely excelled. Only oncein the last 14 years has his average finish been worse than his 14.9 thisseason.

Regular SeasonFinish 5TH | WINS 1 | TOP 5s 4 | TOP 10s 12 | BEST at New Hampshire | WORST atKansas

There's little doubt that he has the talent to win a Cup title. What Burtonlacks, however, is a car that's fast enough to enable him to do it. Anotoriously poor qualifier, he has still made a habit of running up front thisseason. But he's led only 74 laps in 26 races, 924 fewer than Johnson, and some1,500 fewer than Busch.

Regular SeasonFinish 11TH | WINS 0 | TOP 5s 6 | TOP 10s 15 | BEST at Texas | WORST atKansas

After beginning the year slowly he has been a top 10 machine since May, with 11in the last 16 races. The cars of Roush Fenway Racing have been some of thefastest this season and are capable of winning races. But is Kenseth? He hasn'thad a victory in 2008, and he won only once in '03, when he ground his way tothe Cup title. That won't get the job done in the Chase era.

Regular SeasonFinish 9TH | WINS 1 | TOP 5s 9 | TOP 10s 14 | BEST at Martinsville | WORST atKansas

With four top fives in the last seven races, Hamlin is coming on at the righttime. He's driving a highly competitive car—his 700 laps led are the most ofany driver outside of the top four. Unfortunately, the number 11 team hasoccasionally been beset by mistakes and poor strategy, making a run at a Cupchampionship unlikely.

Regular SeasonFinish 7TH | WINS 0 | TOP 5s 6 | TOP 10s 12 | BEST at Phoenix | WORST atMartinsville

For the second straight year he has been a perfectly good driver on a perfectlygood team. Unfortunately, that's all he's been. The most noteworthy thing abouthis solid but winless season is that his streak of races without a DNF hasclimbed to 70. Among the 12 Chasers, only Bowyer and Burton, Harvick'steammates at Richard Childress Racing, have led fewer laps than Harvick's168.

Regular SeasonFinish 12TH | WINS 1 | TOP 5s 4 | TOP 10s 12 | BEST at Kansas | WORST atHomestead

Last year's breakout star, Bowyer has been steady, finishing every race for thesecond straight season, but except for a win at Richmond in May—where he wasthe beneficiary of a late-race accident that took out the leaders—he has rarelybeen a threat to reach Victory Lane. It would be a surprise if he were able toduplicate last year's third-place finish.


Photograph by Fred Vuich

UP FRONT With 14 wins between them Busch (18) and Edwards (99) have the jump on the Chase pack.