Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet
Never bet against Johnson, who is hungry to join Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the sport’s only seven-time champions. Johnson, 39, is the only driver to qualify for all 11 editions of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and he and crew chief extraordinaire Chad Knaus spent the offseason retooling for another championship run.
Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Chevrolet
Well, why not? Gordon, 43, was in position to reach the final race at Homestead as the man to beat before Brad Keselowski crashed him out of the Chase race at Texas, effectively ruining Gordon’s chances at a fifth title. The Hendrick Motorsports cars look fast. Gordon won the pole for Daytona, and retiring as a champion would make for a storybook ending to his career.
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Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Chevrolet
Harvick, 39, in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing, broke through with his long-awaited first championship last year after finishing third in three of the previous four seasons. Harvick had the fastest car all season, capped by closing wins at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami for the title.
Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Ford
Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, won a series-most and career-best six races last season and was the points leader heading into the final round of the Chase, only to come up short because of a parts failure at Martinsville. Keselowski, 31, makes enemies because of his aggressive driving, but he has an ally in Penske racing teammate Joey Logano, also a five-time winner last year.
Joey Logano, No. 22 Ford
Logano, 24, enjoyed his breakout season in 2014, winning five times, including the fall race at Kansas Speedway. The championship was Logano’s to lose heading into the finale at Homestead. And that’s exactly what happened when some poor racing moves and a bungled pit stop dropped him from the Chase lead to fourth in the standings, which was still his career best.