Originally created 12/16/04

Looking ahead to Daytona



ATLANTA - All Joe Nemechek wants for Christmas are some more races this year.

While Nextel Cup Series champion Kurt Busch was making plans to travel to a tropical island in the Pacific Ocean, Nemechek was sorry to see it all end in November at Homestead, Fla.

Nemechek closed the season with a victory and six top-10 finishes in the final 10 races.

The Chase for the Championship not only made Busch into a champion, it helped define the teams that should be strong in the first couple of months of the 2005 campaign. And because the television cameras rarely turned away from the Chase, many teams that finished with a flurry went unnoticed.

Until now.

Although Nemechek finished 19th in the final standings, his effort in the stretch drive was worthy of note. So were Jamie McMurray's and Ricky Rudd's.

McMurray had 13 top-10 finishes in the final 16 races, and Rudd moved the famed Wood Brothers Racing team closer to the fast lane with nine consecutive top-20 finishes.

Don't be surprised if there are some new names in racing's playoffs.

Like Nemechek, McMurray and Rudd.

Here's a quick look at the final standings and what to expect next year.

The Champion: Under the current Chase system, Busch already would have won three of the past four championships. He's learned the secret to being a champion:consistency.

The Contenders: Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman will all be back in the Chase.

The Chasers: Elliott Sadler, Jeremy Mayfield, Mark Martin, McMurray, Nemechek, Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle all are capable of making the cut for next year's Chase. Martin and Biffle could be contender material if they get off to a fast start in 2005.

The Followers: Rusty Wallace, Bobby Labonte, Kevin Harvick, Michael Waltrip, Dale Jarrett and Rudd have the ability to make the Chase, but all of them still lack a major ingredient to move to the next level. For Wallace, Labonte, Harvick and Jarrett, it's the ability to make necessary adjustments during the race. For Waltrip and Rudd, it's avoiding problems.

The Pretenders: Jeff Burton, Sterling Marlin, Dave Blaney, Casey Mears and Brian Vickers have shown flashes of speed, but none has been able to sustain it. Burton and Blaney have the best chance to break from this group and move into the ranks of the followers since they're going to spend the entire season at Richard Childress Racing.

The Outsiders: Kyle Petty, Scott Riggs, Ken Schrader, John Andretti, Scott Wimmer, Bobby Hamilton Jr. and Jeff Green have a lot of work to do to get up to speed.

The Newcomers: Kyle Busch and Travis Kvapil will learn quickly the Nextel Cup Series isn't as easy as the Busch and Craftsman Truck series.