Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Friday, January 30, 2009

NASCAR 09: Nationwide Series Preview

Defending Series Champion: Clint Bowyer

2008 In Review: Carl Edwards gave it everything he had to pick up his second straight Nationwide Series crown – even winning the season finale at Homestead – but Clint Bowyer’s consistency carried him to the series title. Bowyer only won one race in 2008, compared to seven wins and 19 top-5s for Edwards. Even winning three of the last four races couldn’t vault Edwards over Bowyer, because the driver of the Richard Childress Racing No. 2 was just too consistent.

Finishes of 25th at Watkins Glen and 37th at Bristol over the summer all but doomed Edwards’ title hopes, despite his late-season run. Brad Keselowski was the series’ top driver who wasn’t a Sprint Cup regular, winning two races and finishing third in the point standings (a full 338 points behind Bowyer – Edwards finished 21 points back).

Keselowski established himself as a title threat as the season progressed, thanks to 11 top-5s and 20 top-10s. His first career win came at Nashville, and Keselowski followed that with a win over Bowyer at Bristol in August. Keselowski finished 17th or worse in four of the season’s last nine races, and even when he ran well, it wasn’t enough to keep up with Edwards and Bowyer.

Still, Keselowski learned a lot in 2008 – lessons he could use in a title run this season.

Joe Gibbs Racing ran away with the owner’s title, thanks to the strength of the No. 20 car. Four drivers won races in that car last season – Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano – and the No. 18 was strong as well. So strong were the JGR rides that NASCAR made horsepower rule changes in the middle of the season … changes that seemed to have no effect.

Season Preview: Clint Bowyer won’t repeat, since he won’t be running a full-time schedule. Joey Logano will only run 24 races in the No. 20 GameStop Toyota, focusing instead on his Sprint Cup ride; otherwise, he might be a preseason favorite as well. Same goes for the likes of Kevin Harvick, David Ragan, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton.

The safe bet, though, is probably Carl Edwards. The 2007 series champion finished second last year, but more important is the fact that Edwards is affiliated with a full-time Sprint Cup program. The last three Nationwide Series champions – Bowyer, Edwards and 2006 champion Kevin Harvick – have all been full-time Cup drivers, and expect that trend to continue in 2009 – even with such stars as Logano and Brad Keselowski challenging every week.

Martin Truex Jr., in 2004 and 2005, is the last driver to win the series title without pulling double-duty in the Cup Series, but even then, he was affiliated with a Dale Earnhardt, Inc. team in the middle of its heyday.

Joe Gibbs Racing will be strong again this season, especially since Kyle Busch is planning to run the full schedule in the No. 18 car. Busch finished sixth in the standings last year, despite only starting 30 of the 35 races. Then again, winning 10 of those 30 starts will give anyone a boost in the points. If the boy can keep his head on straight, he could just challenge Edwards for the crown.

As much as I would love to give Keselowski a chance, or even someone like a Mike Bliss or a Jason Keller (or even youngster Justin Allgaier, who’ll run Penske’s No. 12 Dodge), this is pretty much going to be a two-horse race between Edwards and Busch.

Still, Keselowski is the best hope for the Nationwide-only drivers, since he’ll be running the full schedule and his JR Motorsports-owned No. 88 Chevy is affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports. Keselowski will win a few races this season and finish in the top five in the points, but once again, look for a Cup guy to hoist the trophy at Homestead.

And look no further than Cousin Carl.

Team to Watch: The No. 18 Toyota of Kyle Busch. 2008 was The Kyle Busch Show in all three national touring series – well, until the Chase started, anyway – and now that Busch is running the full schedule, he has to automatically be considered a championship contender. Pencil Busch for at least five wins this season, and if the consistency follows suit, fans should be prepared to swallow their pride and add the word “champion” to Busch’s name.

Predicted 2009 Champion: Carl Edwards

Predicted 2009 Rookie of the Year: Scott Lagasse Jr.

2009 Schedule:
Feb. 14 - Daytona International Speedway
Feb. 21 - Auto Club Speedway
Feb. 28 - Las Vegas Motor Speedway
March 21 - Bristol Motor Speedway
April 4 - Texas Motor Speedway
April 11 - Nashville Superspeedway
April 17 - Prhoenix International Raceway
April 25 - Talladega Superspeedway
May 1 - Richmond International Raceway
May 8 - Darlington Raceway
May 23 - Lowe's Motor Speedway
May 30 - Dover International Speedway
June 6 - Nashville Superspeedway
June 13 - Kentucky Speedway
June 20 - The Milwaukee Mile
June 27 - New Hampshire Motor Speedway
July 3 - Daytona International Speedway
July 10 - Chicagoland Speedway
July 18 - Gateway International Raceway
July 25 - O'Reilly Raceway Park
Aug. 1 - Iowa Speedway
Aug. 8 - Watkins Glen International
Aug. 15 - Michigan International Speedway
Aug. 21 - Bristol Motor Speedway
Aug. 30 - Circuit Gilles Villeneuve
Sept. 5 - Atlanta Motor Speedway
Sept. 11 - Richmond International Raceway
Sept. 26 - Dover International Speedway
Oct. 3 - Kansas Speedway
Oct. 10 - Auto Club Speedway
Oct. 16 - Lowe's Motor Speedway
Oct. 24 - Memphis Motorsports Park
Nov. 7 - Texas Motor Speedway
Nov. 14 - Phoenix International Raceway
Nov. 21 - Homestead-Miami Speedway

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