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Nextel Cup fans get with the program Drivers on the move, rookies alter lineups

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- As the saying goes, you can't tell the players without a program. As the Nextel Cup season fires its engine this week, it may take a few races for fans to get familiar with which drivers are in which cars, and which owner and sponsor are paying the bills.

While last year's silly season had team-jumping drivers causing a domino effect of changes, there are also several retooled rides and rookies all over the road. Of last year's 15 race winners, 13 have changed teams, crew chiefs or added a new teammate.

Here are some of the more notable changes, number-by-number, on the series as it hits the high-banked tri-oval of Daytona International Speedway in today's qualifying races for Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500:

(Car No. 1) Martin Truex Jr.: He's one of eight rookies jumping into regular rides, but he has the highest profile and perhaps the best chances. That's because he's won two straight Busch series titles and has seen action in several Cup races as he's been groomed by Dale Earnhardt Inc.

(2) Kurt Busch: Yup, that's the skinny 2004 champ slithering into Penske Racing's Miller Lite car made famous by Rusty Wallace, who has moved up to the broadcast booth. Busch, who left Roush Racing last year, has the talent to live up to his new ride's history. But first he has some image repairing to do after his much-publicized altercation with police after a traffic stop in Phoenix late last season.

(6) Mark Martin: Farewell tour, take two. Jack Roush talked him back for another run, but sportscasters will have a harder time coming up with jokes for his new sponsor (AAA) than they did with his old one (Viagra).

(07) Clint Bowyer: The rookie who was runner-up to Truex in the Busch series last year takes over Richard Childress' ride for veteran Dave Blaney, who moves to Bill Davis' No. 22.

(8) and (24) -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon: The Nextel Cup world is wondering how its two most popular drivers will bounce back after missing out on last year's championship Chase. Both have changed their crew chiefs, with Earnhardt reuniting with cousin Tony Eury Jr. after a year apart and Gordon starting his first full season with Steve Letarte.

(10) Scott Riggs: Same sponsor (Valvoline) and car number, but this year he's driving for Evernham Motorsports, so a better finish than last year's (34th) is expected. He started great last year at Daytona (fourth).

(11) Denny Hamlin: One of two rookies joining Tony Stewart at Joe Gibbs Racing, he finished fifth in last year's Busch points standings. He also had a pole and three top 10s in seven Cup races last year, and a lot more people learned his name Sunday when he became the first rookie to win the Bud Shootout.

(14) Sterling Marlin: Sponsor-wise, the veteran has gone from the bar (Coors Light) to the dumpster (Waste Management). At MB2 Motorsports, the 48-year-old Marlin teams with still-effective 42-year-old Joe Nemecheck.

(18) J.J. Yeley: This one will take some getting used to. That's not Bobby Labonte driving the green Interstate Batteries car for Gibbs, it's a rookie who, like Stewart, is a former U.S. Auto Club short track champion.

(21) Ken Schrader: The well-liked veteran could find more success driving for the Wood Brothers after replacing the retired Ricky Rudd, even if his hood is painted with the non-Intimidator: Little Debbie. Schrader moved from the No. 49 Schwan's car of Beth Ann Morgenthau, which is going with a very green rookie in 2004 ARCA series runner-up Brent Sherman.

(26) Jamie McMurray: Along with Busch, his signing with a team for 2007 precipitated all sorts of team-jumping angst last year. After a promising start to his career, things got contentious at times with Chip Ganassi, so he's poised (and motivated) for a big season after joining Nextel Cup's most successful team in Roush Racing. He inherits Busch's old sponsors in Sharpie and Irwin Tools.

(40), (41) and (42) of Chip Ganassi Racing: Two rookies, 2003 Busch Series Rookie of the Year David Stremme, 28, and the youngest newcomer, 20-year-old Reed Sorenson (fourth in Busch points last year), join Casey Mears, 27, who ascends to team veteran after the departures of Marlin and McMurray. Mears jumps into the No. 42 Texaco ride vacated by McMurray, Sorenson jumps into Mears' former No. 41 and Stremme is in Marlin's old No. 40.

(43) Bobby Labonte: The 2000 series champion is part of a major upgrade for NASCAR's most famous number (Richard Petty), including crew chief Todd Parrot (who won a Cup title with Dale Jarrett) and team manager Robbie Loomis (who won a Cup title as Jeff Gordon's crew chief).

(55) Michael Waltrip: Same sponsor (NAPA) followed him to a brand new number and a different team (Bill Davis Racing) as he prepares to become one of Toyota's first Cup drivers in 2007. He won't have any more DEI drama, but likely not as much success -- his four wins in 642 starts all came with DEI on restrictor-plate tracks.

(92) Chad Chaffin: The trucks veteran is the oldest rookie (37) with the toughest road, driving for small single-car team Front Row Motorsports.

(96) Terry Labonte and Tony Raines: Labonte starts the first five races for Hall of Fame Racing, owned by Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman.

(99) Carl Edwards: The big difference for the No. 99 car is the expectations. A relative unknown last season, he drove to four wins (and performed post-race backflips) and a spot in the championship Chase with a too-good-to-be-true attitude. He's aw-shucked his way to become everyone's favorite this year, he's this week's ESPN the Magazine cover boy and you can't open your Sunday newspaper without him smiling at you from a flyer for his sponsor Office Depot.

>Who can win the Cup

*Home Improvement Drivers: Two of the teams you've heard least about heading into the season are the ones employing Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson. That's because the Home Depot and Lowe's teams haven't had much to fix. In the age of the 10-race championship Chase and the blur of a two-month break between seasons, repeating as champion is a tough drive. If anyone can go back-to-back, it's the just-give-me-the-keys Stewart. Johnson is fidgeting for a title after finishes of fifth, second, second and fifth his first four seasons. It will be interesting to see how he and his team handle the ejection from Daytona of crew chief Chad Knaus, regarded as one of the best in the garage but also one of the sneakiest (he's been fined four times and suspended twice prior to this for rules violations). If Johnson and his team can use it as fuel to improve, look out: They're not too far from the top as it is.

*Hello, Newman: Make that "Hello, again." Ryan Newman was sixth his first two seasons but leveled off with seventh- and sixth-place drives the last two years. He's gone on the record several times about how awful the relationship with teammate Rusty Wallace was in recent years, and that kind of team disharmony is fatal in today's NASCAR. Newman's new garage mate at Penske is Busch, who should know from his Roush days how important it is to share.

>Who won't win the Cup

*Dale Earnhardt Jr.: He's recharged by being reunited with Eury Jr., but the emotional relationship was a big part of the reason they were split up before last season. There have also been questions about DEI's engines and equipment, so it could be another soap-opera season of rambling news conferences for Junior. He's already caused a distraction by saying he expects to drive his father's No. 3 for Richard Childress at some point.

*Kurt Busch: A great driver with a great new team, but this year there's too much baggage in his car. His might be the furthest fall from grace in modern Cup history, going from 2004 champion, to criticized for signing a deal to jump from Roush to Penske a year and a half early, to his troubles in Phoenix.


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