CUP: Seven Best Shots To Stem Blue Tide

Think the No. 48 team isn’t serious about making it six straight Sprint Cup championships?

Crew chief Chad Knaus already has the band back together. Last Monday and Tuesday, he had his team at some track somewhere to start prepping for next year. That’s right, testing for 2011 just three days after being honored as 2010 Sprint Cup champ at the Las Vegas banquet.

I mean, the guys on the 48 team didn’t even have time to get their rented tuxes returned before heading off into the future. Hope they have understanding families.

Knaus, asked about the immediate return to race tracks said there is always something to do, and, “It’s my makeup.”

Jimmie Johnson, apparently, was not quite as stoked about getting right back on it. Josh Wise reportedly did the driving during the two-day test.

Still, the papers have been served: Those who have thoughts about ending Johnson’s and Knaus’ and the Hendrick Motorsports’ gaudy reign of success will not be able to do so by simply outworking the 48 bunch.

So, who are the top contenders to challenge Jimmie’s gang next season? Here are seven who may have the horsepower, the talent and the intangibles to show the door to the 48 HMS team in 2011:

1. Carl Edwards. He and his Roush Fenway team did the old late-rally thing last month. Won a couple races and got big power out of the finally-fearsome FR9 Ford engines and the dark ages were over. Edwards, simply, was exuding the smell of a winner during October and November. He will positively reek of that next spring.

2. Kyle Busch. This kid is Vesuvius. In a good way. There is just this feeling around him that one of these years he is going to do in Cup what he did in Nationwide this year – win races at will and do it in spectacular fashion. That huge year is going to be next year.

3. Jeff Gordon. I think the Gordon-Steve Letarte pairing went too long. One victory together in the final three seasons. Though I admire the loyalty Gordon showed Letarte, and while I believe Letarte is a very good crew chief, their balloon had a slow leak. Alan Gustafson and Jeff Gordon together? Love it.

4. Jamie McMurray. Think the confidence isn’t back for the one-time wonder kid from Joplin? The major weakness of the Chase is that it can – and this year, did – leave out a driver who won the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400. Eliminate a couple of the DNFs he had, add a couple more top-fives and you got yourself a contender.

5. Juan Pablo Montoya. There are two ways to look at his last two Sprint Cup seasons – his 2009 Chase season was an aberration; his 2010 non-Chase season was an aberration. The answer is B. Montoya gets back into the Chase in 2011 and powers his way up from there. I’d hate to get in his way next season.

6. Clint Bowyer. I maintain that Bowyer is one of the five best wheelmen in the series. Maybe top three. The rough edges have been ground off him, his Richard Childress Racing team has the equipment and the people and Bowyer is about to move to the top tier. He will be the Kevin Harvick of 2011.

7. Mark Martin. This is not a sentimental pick. This is it for the driver who is the warrior with a sense of honor. He knows it, his team knows it. No matter where he lands in 2012, it will not be with a team who can give him the shot that he will have next season with Hendrick. Folks, enjoy this season and get ready for a big finish.

Conspicuous by their absence: Denny Hamlin will have the old fall-back season; Tony Stewart is missing one ingredient in his stew; Kurt Busch seems to snake bait; Kevin Harvick had his shot.

Of course Johnson will head into Speed Weeks as the big favorite. And next November, he will be the major story again. And everybody with plans to yank the reigns from his hands had better put an extra corn flake in their cereal bowls in the morning.

Because while he did not join in the Chad Knaus Early Workout Program last week, he is still Jimmie.

“I’ve always been a guy that when I focused on something and I commit to doing it, I’m going to give a hundred percent,” he said last week. “As long as I’m in that car, I’m going to apply myself and do everything I can for the team and, hopefully, be competitive enough to win races and compete for championships.”

Nuff said.

Jim Pedleyis a veteran, award-winning sports journalist who has worked at, among other places, the Boston Globe, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Kansas City Star. Pedley spent more than 10 years covering auto racing for the Kansas City Star. Pedley can be reached at