Wanted: Psychic. Must Be Able To Predict The Unpredictable. First Assignment Will Be To Determine The 2004 Nextel Cup Champion And Top 15 In Points. Pay Will Depend On Ability To Accurately Predict All 15 Positions.

No, I didn't call in the ghost of Jeane Dixon or consult a Ouija Board to make my predictions for the 2004 Nextel Cup points race. But I might wish I had done both when the end of the year rolls around.

There are simply more variables in NASCAR racing than in any major sport. In what other sport do you have 43 men hurling themselves around in metal boxes at 150-200 mph, just inches apart? Needless to say, there's a lot of room for unforeseen problems and scenarios. Merely a couple of bobbles at inopportune times last season and Matt Kenseth's run to the 2003 Winston Cup title could have been derailed.

With that in mind, I took a stab at predicting the finishing order of the top 15 in the chase for the inaugural Nextel Cup. At least a dozen teams are capable of claiming the title, but one stands out as a clear favorite.

In two seasons of competition in NASCAR's top division, Jimmie Johnson has demonstrated the mettle required to become a champion. Johnson's performance over the last half of the season was a model of consistency, as no driver on the circuit scored more points in the final six races. Glance over the final 10 races, and you'll see that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus demonstrated why they are one of the top combinations in the sport. The No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet recorded one win, three 2nds, three 3rds, a 7th, an 8th, and a 34th in the final 10 races. That performance allowed Johnson to move within 90 points of Kenseth at the end of the season.

Others who will factor heavily into the title chase are Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, and Ryan Newman. No driver in the sport gained more in the points race last season than Harvick, who moved 16 spots, from 21st to 5th, between the 2002 and 2003 campaigns. Gordon, like Johnson, had a strong finish to last season, getting two wins in the final five races and finishing fourth in points. Plus, he's won four titles already and will be a fixture in the title hunt for years to come. Newman, of course, won more races (8) than any driver last season, but he also had six DNFs, too many to seriously contend for the championship.

There are, of course, other drivers who could slip into contention during 2004. About the only thing predictable in recent seasons is that we won't see a repeat champion. No driver has successfully defended his title since Gordon won back-to-back Cups in 1997 and '98, and of the last five champions-Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Matt Kenseth-only Gordon had previously won a title. That's four first-time winners in five years.

Add it all up and Jimmie Johnson has the look of a Nextel Cup champion, and 2004 will be his year. Just ask my crystal ball.

What's New * Nextel became the new title sponsor of NASCAR's top division last year when R.J. Reynolds and its Winston brand ended a 32-year association with the sanctioning body. The Winston Cup now becomes the Nextel Cup. Look for lots of yellow and black and very little red and white on the circuit this season.

* Sunoco will replace Unocal and its Union 76 brand as the official fuel supplier of NASCAR, ending another long-term relationship. Is there a pattern here?

* NASCAR has decreed that teams must run a smaller rear spoiler this season, taking downforce from the cars. Goodyear will respond with a softer compound for its tires, allowing more grip and offsetting the loss of downforce.

* Ford gained approval last year for a new engine cylinder head to be used in 2004. The head has a larger intake port that will allow the Blue Oval engine builders to better compete with the General Motors SB2 head and the P7 of the Dodge. Ford's previous cylinder head design had been used in NASCAR since 1992.

* Ford will debut a new Taurus this season as well, complete with a new nose and tail section. Wood Brothers Racing built the prototype and Dale Jarrett tested it at Atlanta in August when the Woods' driver, Ricky Rudd, couldn't make the test date.