12. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.-
While many may assert that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was a disappointment in his first year driving for the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut, his season was not that bad when weighed against his teammates. Aside from Jimmie Johnson, it is difficult to say that his teammates outperformed him. Jeff Gordon enjoyed several solid races towards the end of the season, but overall, Earnhardt, Jr. won a race, and led more laps.
Hendrick Motorsports was not the same ascendant operation they were in 2007, so the season fell short of expectations in comparison.
In 2009, expect Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to improve upon the 2008 season and qualify for the Chase for the Championship for the second consecutive season. He will likely win a race or two.
11. Matt Kenseth-
The goose egg in the win column for Matt Kenseth in 2008 is rather baffling. Although Kenseth does not win races in bundles, he has won at least one race in every season from 2002 to 2007. Following a sluggish start to the season, Kenseth's performance picked up, but not at the level that he is accustomed. He scored 20 top ten finishes, more than all drivers with the exception of Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, and Kyle Busch, so consistency was not the issue. He simply did not put himself in position to win very often.
In 2009, Kenseth should return to victory lane. Furthermore, a driver with his consistency is unlikely to miss the Chase for the Championship.
10. Kyle Busch-
Kyle Busch had the field covered for the first 26 races of the 2008 campaign, as he amassed eight victories. However, once the Chase for the Championship started, his championship aspirations suddenly vanished. Mechanical woes and performance issues haunted Kyle Busch and the 18 team throughout the final ten races.
Overall, Busch had a superb season in NASCAR. In all three of NASCAR's premier series, no other driver won as frequently as Busch, as he recorded 21 total victories. Moreover, it was his first year piloting Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas.
Kyle Busch may not win eight races in 2009, but he is one of the favorites to capture the Sprint Cup championship, and rightfully so. Expect him to win three or four races, and contend for the championship.
9. Tony Stewart-
Tony Stewart was in the headlines quite frequently in 2008, but it was not for his on-track accomplishments. Stewart will endeavor to administer his own Sprint Cup operation in 2009 and beyond with Ryan Newman as his teammate. Ironically, Stewart's maddening season began when Newman passed him on the backstretch on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
Stewart's only victory occurred at Talladega, but it was in October, more than a year following his previous victory at Watkins Glen in August of 2007.
It is difficult to project how the 2009 season will transpire for Stewart and Stewart Haas Racing. Stewart will likely contend for wins on restrictor plate tracks and road course tracks, but other than that, we will have to take the 'wait and see' approach.
8. Denny Hamlin-
Following his remarkable rookie season in 2006, Denny Hamlin has shown modest improvement. He is one of the more consistent drivers in the series, and he has qualified for the Chase for the Championship in each of the last three seasons, but it is time for Hamlin and the 11 team to contend for championships. While his teammate Kyle Busch won eight races, Hamlin only recorded one victory. However, Hamlin enjoyed some strong performances at Atlanta, Phoenix, and Homestead towards the end of the season.
In 2009, look for Hamlin to post similar results as the last couple of years. Nevertheless, this could be one of the few teams in the top twelve that does not return to the ten-race showdown next fall.
7. Jeff Gordon-
For the first time since his rookie season in 1993, Jeff Gordon failed to reach victory lane. However, it was not a terrible year for Gordon and the 24 group by any means. Throughout the spring months, Gordon hit a minor skid on the intermediate tracks, but the program seemed to improve during the second half of the season. Gordon's season was similar to Matt Kenseth's in the fact that he was competitive, just not enough to challenge for many wins. Gordon posted thirteen top five finishes and nineteen top ten finishes.
In 2009, Gordon will win a race, if not two, three, or four. It is still too early to anoint him as the championship favorite, but do not be surprised to see the 24 car chasing the championship next fall.