Yesterday I gave my Chase predictions, but I thought today we'd look back on my preseason top 15, for better or for worse.
It's rare that a season plays out exactly as one thought it would. You try to make judgments based on late season momentum from the previous season and driver history, but rarely is it that easy. More often than not, the prediction biz is a lesson in futility. But year after year, I take a good look into the crystal ball.
Without further adieu, here's how I ranked them and what I wrote back in February:
1 Carl Edwards: "Winning nine races and having a great year and all that is fine," Edwards said, "but I’d take a championship with no wins rather than another nine-win season because I really want to accomplish that goal.”
2 Jimmie Johnson: "I do feel that we have a very good chance of winning a fourth championship," Johnson said. "We have the tools. If we can be organized and composed come September like we’ve done the last three years, I think we really have a chance."
3 Kevin Harvick: His 19 top 10s ranked fifth in the series last season, but his seven top fives ranked only 10th. If he can turn those top 10s into more top fives and perhaps two or three wins, this year's Bud Shootout champion could give Edwards and Johnson a run for their money.
4 Jeff Gordon: If he and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are both winless leaving Texas in April (the seventh race of the season), I could see a crew chief swap between the two Hendrick Motorsports teams. I was actually surprised it didn't happen during the offseason.
5 Mark Martin: He did quite well for himself running part-time in the Ginn and DEI equipment. I think he gets at least one win this season running full-time for Hendrick Motorsports.
6 Greg Biffle: You know he has the talent as he has come close to a title a couple of times during his career. Consider him my sleeper pick for the 2009 championship.
7 Kyle Busch: I'm expecting a downturn for Joe Gibbs Racing this season, with Busch the only one of its three drivers making the Chase.
8 Dale Earnhardt Jr.: I don't know what to make of this team. He started out so well in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports, and then it all fell apart. I think Earnhardt Jr. is a terrific driver. And Tony Eury Jr. is a well-respected crew chief. But I'm not sure the cousins will be able to win a title as long as they're together.
9 Tony Stewart: He finished outside the top 10 in the final standings just once (11th in 2006) in his 10 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing. One of the great mysteries of 2009 is how well Stewart will fare in his first season as owner/driver. I think he'll do just fine.
10 Jeff Burton: I expect the 31 team will rack up a fair share of of top 10s, but I'm not sure it has the goods to challenge for wins and top fives consistently.
11 Matt Kenseth: He won't have free agency hanging over his head after signing an extension in November, but he will have a new crew chief as Drew Blickensderfer replaces Chip Bolin after a winless 2008.
12 Jamie McMurray: He was as hot as anybody the final month of last season, and I think the free-agent-to-be will carry the momentum into 2009, finally living up to expectations that everybody had saddled him with when he signed with Roush Racing.
13 Denny Hamlin: When the 11 team is on, it's really on, but it must do a better job of making adjustments and getting the most of its bad days. Last season Hamlin ranked fifth in top five finishes, but 12th in top 20s.
14 Ryan Newman: Last year's Daytona 500 victory notwithstanding, he has been wallowing in mediocrity the past few seasons in the Penske Dodges. I think the move to the Chevrolets of Stewart-Haas will prove rejuvenating and I wouldn't be surprised at all if he managed to sneak into the Chase.
15 Juan Pablo Montoya: Entering his third season, it's time he shows everybody what the fuss is all about. Like Newman, he's out of a Dodge and into a Chevrolet and I think that's going to do wonders.Where I went wrong:
1. I don't know that anybody foresaw the complete collapse of RCR this season. Making matters worse, I left Clint Bowyer out of the preseason top 15 figuring he be the one to falter, and he's actually having the best season of the bunch.
2. Jamie McMurray. Maybe if the season only ran from October through November he'd be a title contender. Februrary to September, forget about it.
3. No Brian Vickers. There are probably about 10 to 15 other drivers -- maybe more -- that I would have pegged to make the Chase ahead of Vickers.Right and wrong:
1. I expected a down year for Joe Gibbs, I just picked the wrong driver to experience the struggles. One of the key differences for Hamlin this year -- and I mentioned it in my preseason comment -- is the team's ability to make the most of its bad day. He had only 22 top 15 finishes last year, he already has 20 this season. Those points add up.
2. I had Earnhardt eighth in my preseason rankings which was very, very wrong. But I did say I didn't think he and Eury would be able to win a title as long as they're together. Hendrick finally split them up.
3. Well I had Edwards winning it all, which doesn't appear likely, though it's still quite possible. But if he does, he may do it just like he said he'd do it -- without winning a race.Where I went right:
1. I was one of the few in the media who thought Stewart would be capable of making the Chase this season -- so I consider this pick a success. Now I didn't think he'd dominate the regular-season points like he did, but I had a lot more faith in him than the ninth-place preseason ranking might show I had in him. I think all the doubters entered my head and caused me to lower my expectations a little. Should have stuck with my gut.
2. Newman and Montoya. Yeah, yeah, I know I didn't have them in the top 12, but at least I had them in the mix. Few thought Stewart would be a Chase contender, so you can imagine what they thought of Newman's chances. I said I wouldn't be surprised if he made it into the Chase, and I'm not. As for Montoya, I said the switch to Chevrolet would do wonders, and indeed it did.
3. Johnson, Gordon and Martin. At least those three lived up to expectations.