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NASCAR notebook: Gordon installed as title favorite

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jeff Gordon will win the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, and the composition of the Chase will closely resemble that of 2007, according to the results of a media poll released Thursday.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jeff Gordon will win the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, and the composition of the Chase will closely resemble that of 2007, according to the results of a media poll released Thursday.

Gordon edged two-time defending Cup champion and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for the top spot in preseason balloting on NASCARmedia.com. Tony Stewart, in his first season in a Toyota, was a close third, as all three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers were picked to make the Chase.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will race for Hendrick Motorsports for the first time this year, was fourth in the voting, giving Hendrick three of the top four spots.

Kyle Busch (sixth) and Denny Hamlin (10th) fill out the Gibbs roster. According to the voting, Richard Childress Racing will place all three of its drivers in the Chase for the second straight year, with Kevin Harvick ninth, Clint Bowyer 11th and Jeff Burton 12th.

Reporters say Roush Fenway's Matt Kenseth (fifth) and Carl Edwards (seventh) will be the only Ford drivers in the Chase this year, and Penske Racing's Kurt Busch (eighth) will be the lone Dodge driver in the playoffs for the second straight season.

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Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s Martin Truex Jr. was the only 2007 Chase qualifier omitted from the preseason list. He was replaced by Earnhardt, his former teammate, who failed to make the Chase last year.

The Raybestos rookie of the year title will go to Chip Ganassi Racing for the second straight year, according to the media consensus. Voters picked Dario Franchitti to follow teammate Juan Pablo Montoya as Sprint Cup's top rookie, edging DEI's Regan Smith and Penske's Sam Hornish Jr.

Junior who?

Cup champion Jimmie Johnson had a busy week, with a trip to the Super Bowl followed by a visit to the White House.

Johnson found President George W. Bush engaging and conversational, but the 10-minute meeting didn't involve a subject Johnson has been addressing ad nauseam for months.

"Did the president ask you about Dale Earnhardt Jr.?" Johnson was asked.

"No," was the one-word reply.

Johnson was more impressed with the Oval Office itself, and the riddle it posed.

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"One of the things that really surprises me is, when you're in the hallway waiting to go into the Oval Office, the door that leads you in there doesn't have a handle on the outside," he said. "You can see where there's a door, and then you're waiting and waiting, and you're not sure which door is the right door or what's going on. And then the door flies open and there's the president. So, it's weird."

Waltrip: Beat the scrubs

You'd think a two-time Daytona 500 winner would understand the qualifying process for the race, but Michael Waltrip confesses he's still confused by a unique system that begins with pole day a week before the race and concludes with the Gatorade Duel 150s the following Thursday.

Because Waltrip finished 2007 outside the top 35 in owner points, he's not locked into the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17. But the path to a starting spot is simple -- just beat all the other go or go-home cars in your respective qualifying race.

"People try to make racing more complicated than it is," Waltrip said. "If you're passing cars, that's good. If cars are passing you, that's bad. If you're at home on Sunday when you're supposed to be at the racetrack, that's really bad."

The key, Waltrip says, is simply to finish ahead of every other driver who is trying to race his way into the field on Thursday.

"If you beat all the scrubs, you're in the Daytona 500," he said.

52 cars entered

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NASCAR released its preliminary entry list for the Daytona 500, and as of Thursday, 52 cars will attempt to make the race during Sunday's qualifying session. That's down from 61 cars that attempted qualifying in 2007.

The 43-car field for the 500 will include 35 cars locked into the race on the basis of 2007 owner points; the top two finishers not otherwise qualified from each of Thursday's two Gatorade Duel 150s; and thereafter, the fastest four cars not already in the field based on Sunday's qualifying speeds.

If any driver has to exercise a past champion's provisional and start in 43rd position (Kurt Busch, Dale Jarrett and Bill Elliott are the eligible drivers, in order), positions 40-42 will be determined by qualifying speed, instead of the final four spots.

In the unlikely event that two drivers outside the top 35 qualify on the front row on pole day, only positions 42 and 43 will be available for qualifiers on speed (and only position 42 if a champion's provisional is exercised).

The new qualifying order adopted by NASCAR this year, where cars not locked into the field will take time trials at the end of the session, won't go into effect for the Sprint Cup Series until the second race of the season, the Auto Club 500 on Feb. 24 at California Speedway.

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