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So it's going to be Carl vs Jimmie vs Kyle for NASCAR's 2009 title? Well.........

Carl Edwards, well bundled up against the chill, signing autographs for NASCAR's FanFest (Photo Credit: Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Mulhern

   The line on 2009 seems pretty clear: Carl Edwards versus Jimmie Johnson, with Kyle Busch hoping for a rebound.
   Of course that's so obvious that the upcoming season will probably present something quite different.
   Nevertheless, some in the sport are giving the nod to Edwards as the pre-season favorite….which doesn't set well with Johnson: "Frankly I don't see how Carl can be ranked as the 'top-seed.' I mean that in a kind of joking way…but he finished second and we won."
   An amazing third-straight title.
   "But Carl is going to be tough," Johnson quickly adds. "Those guys are not only fast on the 1-1/2-mile tracks and two-mile tracks but they're able to get the fuel mileage too.
   "What makes Carl even more of a threat is he's done a good job of understanding Martinsville and Phoenix, tracks that have been tough for him.
   "Carl will be tough….and Kyle will be tough as well. But our team should be ranked number one.
   "We've shown, over the last three years, that we can win on all types of tracks. We can be out-to-lunch, like we were the first part of last year, and still come back to win the championship. That really showed the strength of our team."
   Still, the odds of becoming the first man in NASCAR history to win four straight championships have to be tough for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.

Jimmie Johnson, sporting a beard, going for another NASCAR championship (Photo: Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
    At the end of the season Edwards got as far away from the tour as he could – a trip to London and Thailand. And he got married: "London to Bangkok, back to the United States, and then getting married and having a little bit of relax at home, it's been a great off season for me."
  So the obvious question is how marriage might change Edwards.
  "It's a different feeling than I expected," Edwards says. "It's just a neat feeling. Just having someone like Kate there, and really be my partner…it's going to be something that grounds me and gives me a constant in my life -- and makes me a better driver."
    If that is the way it goes, that could be scary for his rivals, as tough as Edwards was in 2008.
   Busch, though, was king of the hill most of the season…until the championship chase started in mid-September, when trouble at Loudon, Dover and Kansas doomed his title bid.
   "Pretty much as soon as it was over, it was over.  I was glad it was over," Busch says. 
   "We even put the exclamation point on the season at Homestead -- trying to finish the last run without stopping and let it run out of gas.  That just finished it off for us. 
    "So I went into the off-season forgetting about everything…and looking forward to what we can restart, and rebound this year and try to get some luck back on our side."
   It was, ah, a learning experience.
   "I learned that the good times are easy," Busch said. "When you're running well, and you have luck on your side, and things are going great…..
   "Some times during the first 26 races it was just easy to win a race. It's never 'easy' in the Cup series to win races, but some of them just fell for us. It was like 'Man, that shouldn't have been that easy.'
   "Yet in the chase we couldn't find our tail with both hands.
   "When you lose luck, it just changes everything.
    "When it's all on your side and you're going great, it just makes it feel so easy -- like you're invincible. 
    "So the biggest thing we learned was for me to work on the 'bad days.'  I'm terrible at them.
     "I just can't accept running bad. I can't accept stuff falling apart."

Kyle Busch would like to forget that terrible September (Photo Credit: Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Busch's problems in the final weeks of the season were all the more shocking because of how dominant he was early-on. Only Edwards could handle him much of the year, until Johnson charged back into contention to take his third straight title.
   "The first two-thirds went really well," Busch said. "We were actually a lot better than probably anyone would have thought. And a lot of people pretty much wrote us as the champions…
   "But things just fell apart.
    "All we had to do was carry on what we did all year -- and we just couldn't do that. 
    "We looked back at Loudon (where a sway bar broke) and say we shouldn't have made the changes Sunday morning that we did: the change in the length of the sway bar arm and the length that the angle of the dangle didn't fit together, and it ended up pulling apart.
   "Then you look at Dover…you can't really change much about Dover: It was the same engine package we pretty much ran all year long, and yet we had a failure.
   "Then we went to Kansas, and saw the first carburetor-related problem we had all year.  We never really found the exact problem. 
    "From there, the season was back to normal. We've had a little good luck, a little bad luck.
   "Now Martinsville, Loudon, Phoenix, Poconos -- we've got to work on those flat tracks. We're a little behind on braking. We just did a little testing here at New Smyrna to try to fix that, and we have a test planned at Rockingham to try to learn more."

    Edwards, on the other hand, apparently doesn't have anything to fix, as hot as he closed out the year.
   "I hope we're going to pick up right where we left off," Edwards says.
   "But Jeff Burton just reminded me that nobody really knows where they stack up right now, because we haven't been to an organized test. 
   "So it's a little nerve-wracking, wondering how we're going to unload at California."
   Without major testing at real tracks Edwards is skittish: "I don't know that even after the first eight or 10 races you can say how it's going to do.
    "We saw that with Jimmie last year. 
    "The season is long enough, and the teams are good enough, and the margins between the guys winning and the guys struggling is so small now that a lot can change. 
    "Jimmie is going to be great, I'm sure. Jeff Gordon, I'll guarantee you, is going to be fast; I can tell -- they're hungry. And the guys that are doing it (teammate Johnson and crew) are right there next to them.
    "And Kyle -- the only reason he didn't win 12 or 14 races was just because of bad luck. So they're going to be tough.
   "Hopefully we're right there with them.
   "But it's hard right now to predict 10 months from now who is going to be in it, because this thing is just unpredictable.
    "Jeff Burton was leading the points for I don't know how long in the season, and he could be the guy to beat in the chase. 
   "But our team finished really strong, and we made some changes in the off-season that are going to be positive, some additions that are going to be great."
   One interesting addition is Pierre "PK" Kuettel as Edwards' new car chief.
   "We had so much success with PK in 2005, having him come back and do this job is going to be a huge addition," Edwards says. 
   Kuettel is taking the role that Jason Myers held; but Myers will remain with the team.

So will Carl Edwards be the 2009 NASCAR champion? (Photo Credit: Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)




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