Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Friday, February 27, 2009

Shelby 427 preview

The question on everyone's mind as the Sprint Cup Series comes to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for this weekend's Shelby 427 has nothing to do with the casinos or the cheap buffets or even the free shows.

No, what everyone wants to know entering Sin City is ... can Matt Kenseth make history?

No driver has ever won the first three races in the Sprint Cup season. Kenseth became just the fifth driver in history to win the first two races of the season after holding off Jeff Gordon to win at Auto Club Speedway last weekend. There's no way Kenseth and rookie crew chief Drew Blickensderfer can go 3-for-3, right?

To quote college football analyst Lee Corso, "Not so fast, my friend."

In nine career starts at LVMS, Kenseth has two wins (2003, 2004) and five top-10 finishes. He finished second in this race in 2006 and fourth in 2007. Kenseth's worst career finish at Las Vegas? That came last season, when he finished 20th.

It's also worth noting that his Roush Fenway Racing teammates, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, had good finishes in last year's race. Edwards won the race, while Biffle finished third. Roush cars have historically been strong at LVMS, winning six of the 11 Sprint Cup races held there. Mark Martin won the inaugural Cup race at the track in 1998, while Jeff Burton picked up a pair of Las Vegas checkered flags when he was still piloting the No. 99.

So logic dictates that even if Kenseth doesn't win on Sunday, one of his teammates will. Only three drivers not affiliated with Roush Fenway have ever won at Las Vegas -- Jimmie Johnson (three times), Sterling Marlin and Jeff Gordon.

Considering how Gordon ran in the Auto Club 500, leading laps and ultimately finishing second after giving Kenseth all he could handle in the closing laps, he has to be considered a contender this weekend. I realize LVMS is the site of Gordon's bad wreck last year -- I felt so bad for that poor radiator -- but he's got a much better handle on the new car this time around, and it wouldn't surprise me if he upends Kenseth.

And what of the race distance? Historically a 400-mile event, this year's race will be 427 miles as a nod to race sponsor Shelby. History has shown 400-mile races on relatively flat 1.5-mile ovals can turn into fuel mileage races (looking at you, Chicagoland and Kansas) -- will the extra 27 miles take fuel mileage out of the equation, or will there be an even greater emphasis on fuel conservation?

I think it all depends on how the cautions fall. If we see a lot of green-flag runs, it may again come down to fuel mileage. If we have a lot of cautions -- I'm thinking five or more -- it may not be an issue.

I think I'll go with Kenseth for the historic three-peat. No one is hotter than the No. 17 team right now -- not only is Kenseth fast on the track, his boys on pit road are getting the job done. Twice in Fontana, the No. 17 crew got Kenseth back on the track ahead of Gordon.

That clean air proved to be the difference in the race.

In addition, here are a few drivers a bit down in the points who need good runs on Sunday. It's still early, but if struggles continue, a lot of drivers' Chase hopes could go up in smoke. Those drivers are:

Jimmie Johnson (19th in points), Kasey Kahne (23rd), Mark Martin (27th), Jeff Burton (31st), Ryan Newman (33rd) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (35th).

I don't think any of them are in danger of falling out of the Top 35 in owner points by the time the series leaves Bristol in a few weeks, but if these teams aren't careful, Chase hopes could swirl down the drain. Especially if guys like Kurt Busch (3rd), Michael Waltrip (7th), Juan Pablo Montoya (10th) and David Reutimann (12th) keep their current pace.

But really, who expects Waltrip to stay in Chase contention. Certainly not me ....

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Kenseth goes back-to-back in SoCal

Matt Kenseth's victory in the season-opening Daytona 500 might've been a surprise to some, but his win Sunday evening in the Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana was anything but. After all, it was Kenseth's third win at that track, and the fifth straight spring race win for car owner Jack Roush.

Yes, Roush-Fenway Racing seems to have the 2-mile oval just east of Los Angeles figured out. And Kenseth, who went winless in 2008, became just the fifth driver to open the season with back-to-back wins -- and the first to do it since Jeff Gordon won Daytona and Rockingham to open the 1997 season.

Gordon went on to win his second then-Winston Cup championship that season.

Gordon finished second and was strong throughout the race -- certainly stronger than he had been at any point on the intermediate tracks last season. Gordon, a four-time champion and owner of 81 checkered flags in his Winston/Nextel/Sprint Cup career, has gone 43 races without a win, but he's getting closer.

In fact, he might've won Sunday had his car not gone tight on him as he pursued Kenseth in the closing laps.

"It they keep giving me cars like that, we're going to win some races this year," Gordon said. "I'm so excited on one side because we ran so well and we started out the season so great, but I'm still mad on the other side because I felt like we had what it took to win tonight."

Kyle Busch finished third, falling just short in his bid for the historic triple. Busch dominated both the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series races on Saturday, leading 238 of the combined 250 laps.

He became the first driver ever to win two NASCAR national touring series races on the same day -- though that record is a little misleading; NASCAR rarely runs two national touring series at the same track on the same day. NASCAR ran the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races on the same day at Richmond last September, but that was because weather forced the postponement of both races.

Still, to win two races and finish third in the other? An impressive weekend for a driver with all the talent in the world. And considering what he said after the race -- actually sounding pleased with a third-place finish, complementary of his team and speaking highly of the battle Kenseth and Gordon waged for the victory -- it sounds like Busch's attitude might be catching up.


No driver has ever won the first three races of the season, but Kenseth has a good chance to do just that as the series moves to Las Vegas this weekend for the Shelby 427. Roush-Fenway has been strong at the 1.5-mile oval, and Kenseth won the race in 2003 -- the only race he won on the way to his then-Nextel Cup title.

Carl Edwards won last year's race, while Greg Biffle finished third.

Can Kenseth keep the momentum and give rookie crew chief Drew Blickensderfer his third win in as many races? Possibly; I'll give my pick on Thursday or Friday.

One more thing before I give the results from Sunday's race ... why does NASCAR insist on starting these races so late, especially with inclement weather in the area? NASCAR started the Daytona 500 at 3:30 p.m. EST, even with rain threatening -- if NASCAR had pushed the start time up even an hour, maybe they get the whole race in.

Sunday saw five caution flags -- four of them for persistent rain showers. The rain never amounted to much, and NASCAR got the full distance in, but if NASCAR knows weather might be a factor, why not move up the start time to adjust? The sport's governing body should do everything in its power to make sure the full race is run, and that includes moving up the start time if weather appears to be a possibility.

Then again, what do I know? I'm just a fan.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 500
1. Matt Kenseth**
2. Jeff Gordon*
3. Kyle Busch
4. Greg Biffle*
5. Kurt Busch*
6. Denny Hamlin
7. Carl Edwards*
8. Tony Stewart*
9. Jimmie Johnson*
10. Brian Vickers
11. Juan Pablo Montoya*
12. Kasey Kahne
13. David Stremme*
14. David Reutimann
15. Michael Waltrip
16. Jamie McMurray
17. David Ragan
18. Travis Kvapil
19. Clint Bowyer
20. Bobby Labonte
21. Reed Sorenson
22. Marcos Ambrose
23. Sam Hornish Jr.
24. Casey Mears
25. Elliott Sadler
26. Joey Logano
27. Martin Truex Jr.
28. Ryan Newman
29. A.J. Allmendinger
30. Robby Gordon
31. John Andretti*
32. Jeff Burton
33. David Gilliland
34. Jeremy Mayfield
35. Aric Almirola
36. Scott Riggs
37. Paul Menard
38. Kevin Harvick
39. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
40. Mark Martin*
41. Scott Speed
42. Dave Blaney
43. Joe Nemechek

* led a lap (5 bonus points)
** led most laps (5 more bonus points)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pressure getting to Junior?

To say Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't have the best of Daytona 500s on Sunday would probably be the understatement of the young 2009 NASCAR season.

NASCAR's most popular driver, in his second year for arguably the Sprint Cup Series' most powerful team in Hendrick Motorsports, is under immense pressure -- because of his name and popularity -- to deliver that elusive first series championship, particularly after 2008 started off with such promise, only to thud to a halt once the Chase started.

Two pit road mishaps and triggering the big 10-car pileup on lap 124 were Junior's claim to fame (or infamy) on Sunday, leaving Brian Vickers, Kyle Busch and even Jeff Burton weighing in and criticizing Earnhardt.

Leading up to this year's Daytona 500, Earnhardt talked a lot about pressure, saying he realized this was the year he had to put up or shut up. He seemed to have a chip on his shoulder, showing a fire and temper I don't recall ever seeing from him. He blasted Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage for insinuating drivers had to do a better job of marketing races, then made no bones about how he had to perform.

Then Sunday happened.

Junior took the lead on lap 53, and though he only led one lap, he was as strong as he typically is at Daytona. Then he came onto pit road under caution ... only to miss his stall entirely, forcing him to run all the way around the track again before pitting and losing all of his track position.

Junior admitted he wasn't thinking in relation to that error, saying, "I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to get up in there and try to lead a lap and all that and I just wasn't thinking good."

But he was still on the lead lap, eventually making his way back up into the top 5 as the race crept toward the halfway mark and rain became a real threat. It was the second pit road mistake, and the ensuing one-lap penalty, that officially ruined his day.

NASCAR rules only permit the right rear tire to be outside the pit box while being serviced; Junior’s right front was on the line as the crew changed his tires. Because the No. 88 team didn’t push the car all the way into the box before starting service, Earnhardt was assessed a one-lap penalty.

Argue the harshness of the penalty if you want – and Junior did – but that’s the way NASCAR does things. You break a rule, you pay the price.

A lap down and fighting Vickers to get the free pass should the caution have come out, Junior went low on the backstretch to pass. Vickers went low to block, sending Junior behind the out-of-bounds yellow line. Trying to merge back into the line of traffic, Junior clipped the left rear of Vickers’ car, sending him spinning back into the field and taking out another nine cars – including Busch, who had led 88 laps at that point.

Intent can be argued – I happen to think Junior didn’t intentionally dump Vickers, because that’s just not his style – but Earnhardt does deserve some blame. Vickers does too, but NASCAR’s most popular driver isn’t immune from it, even if he was adamant and borderline angry when talking to reporters after the race.

"I got ran into and sent below the line. What the hell? I don't want to go down there, I didn't aim to go down there, and I got sent down there. What the hell am I supposed to do?" he quipped. "Then what am I supposed to do? Stay down there? No. I got to get back up on the race track.

"If he wasn't so damn reckless, we would have never had that problem, that would never happen. As far as I am concerned, it is all his responsibility."

The wreck wouldn’t have been as a big a deal had Vickers not collected anyone else when he spun. If Busch, the dominant car of the day, hadn’t been collected, everyone might’ve shrugged it off as a racing incident. But because of those two factors, and the fact that Dale Earnhardt Jr. arguably started the wreck, this became the talk of the Daytona 500, more so than Matt Kenseth actually winning the race.

But back to the original point: is Earnhardt starting to feel the pressure? I think so; you can see him pressing on the race track, doing things with his car he doesn’t normally do. In racing back to the front after the first pit road mistake, Junior bobbed and weaved his car erratically, taking chances before the halfway point most guys not named Kyle Busch wouldn’t even consider.

He needed to get back up to the front. He needed to lead laps. He needed to win the race.

New teammate Mark Martin said before the season that Earnhardt had some of the strongest and broadest shoulders he’d ever seen, because of all the hype and expectations he has to handle on a weekly basis. But Earnhardt is only human, and the things he’s done and said so far this season tell me the pressure’s starting to eat at him.

He knows he has to perform, and he knows he has to do it now. Is the pressure unfair? Some of it; people expect Dale Earnhardt Jr. to be just like Dale Earnhardt, even when anyone with half a brain knows that’s not the case. I always felt for Kyle Petty in that regard, having to live up to his legendary father, and now Junior’s starting to feel some of that.

Junior’s a good driver – 18 career Cup wins, the 2004 Daytona 500, two Nationwide Series championships – but his name ensures those numbers, which I’m guessing guys like Paul Menard and Travis Kvapil would kill for, will never be good enough.

One Cup title wouldn’t even be enough – everyone would simply ask, “Okay, when are you gonna win the next one?”

Rick Hendrick talked of Martin being a mentor of sorts for Junior when the 50-year-old signed on to drive the No. 5 car. I think that mentoring needs to start now, in earnest, because the more Junior presses, the more we’re going to see performances like Sunday’s.

Which will make the scrutiny and pressure even worse. Dale Earnhardt Jr. might be NASCAR’s poster boy, but he’s his own man, and he’s only human.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Kenseth wins rain-shortened 500

Mother Nature must be a Matt Kenseth fan.

Kenseth took the lead from Elliott Sadler on lap 146 in the 51st Daytona 500 on Sunday, getting a push from Kevin Harvick. After Kasey Kahne spun Aric Almirola to bring out the eighth caution of the race, the rain started. NASCAR, deciding it would take too long for the rain to pass and the track to dry, called the event with 48 laps remaining.

Kenseth, the 2003 Sprint Cup Series champion, won his first Daytona 500. It was also the first Daytona 500 victory for car owner Jack Roush.

Kyle Busch had the dominant car of the afternoon, leading 88 laps, but found himself in the middle of The Big One when Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brian Vickers got together on the backstretch. A total of 10 cars were involved, including Busch, defending series champion Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray, who at that point had a strong car.

Vickers called the move intentional, while Earnhardt said he was just trying to get back in line after being forced below the yellow line. Wherever the blame belongs, the incident was a by-product of the impending weather; approaching and even after the halfway mark, drivers took a lot more chances and became more aggressive, since they weren't sure when the race would in fact end.

There is a chance Kenseth, who went winless last season, could use Sunday's win to launch himself toward a successful season, thanks to crew chief Drew Blickensderfer and the support and resoucres at his disposal at Roush-Fenway Racing will likely see to that.

Don't look for a repeat of last year, when Ryan Newman won the race and faded into obscurity thanks to his underperforming Penske Racing team.

In fact, Kenseth could make it two in row to open the season; the series travels to Auto Ceb Speedway in Fontana next weekend, a track Kenseth's won at twice in the Sprint Cup Series. Carl Edwards, Kenseth's teammate, won this race last year, and Roush's cars have always been strong in Fontana.

Then there's Las Vegas, another Roush safe haven. 2009 is shaping up to be quite the year for Kenseth.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 (Called after 152 laps because of rain)
1. Matt Kenseth*
2. Kevin Harvick
3. A.J. Allmendinger
4. Clint Bowyer
5. Elliott Sadler*
6. David Ragan
7. Michael Waltrip
8. Tony Stewart*
9. Reed Sorenson
10. Kurt Busch
11. Martin Truex Jr.*
12. David Reutimann
13. Jeff Gordon*
14. Juan Pablo Montoya
15. Casey Mears
16. Mark Martin*
17. Marcos Ambrose
18. Carl Edwards
19. John Andretti
20. Greg Biffle
21. Regan Smith
22. Bobby Labonte*
23. Bill Elliott
24. Terry Labonte
25. Scott Riggs
26. Denny Hamlin
27. Dale Earnhardt Jr.*
28. Jeff Burton
29. Kasey Kahne
30. Aric Almirola
31. Jimmie Johnson
32. Sam Hornish Jr.*
33. David Stremme
34. Robby Gordon
35. Scott Speed
36. Ryan Newman
37. Jamie McMurray
38. Paul Menard
39. Brian Vickers
40. Jeremy Mayfield
41. Kyle Busch**
42. Travis Kvapil
43. Joey Logano

*led a lap (5 bonus points)
**led the most laps (5 more bonus points)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Daytona 500 Preview

Even though it doesn't *officially* count, Jeff Gordon already has one more win in 2009 than he did in all of 2008, thanks to his win on Thursday in the first Gatorade Duel at Daytona.

Can he put one in the win column for good on Sunday in the 51st Daytona 500? Why not?

I never once bought the theory last year that Gordon lost it -- whether it was the drive or the talent. One doesn't become a four-time series champion and win 81 races and suddenly forget how to drive a stock car. With Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards winning a combined 24 of the 36 races last year, there weren't many others to go around.

Just ask Matt Kenseth, another series champion who saw a goose egg in his win column last year.

I think Gordon will win this race, even though there are several drivers capable of the feat. Harvick, who won the Budweiser Shootout, is always a threat, as is 2004 Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. Both Junior and Mark Martin were strong during Speedweeks, and Kyle Busch, who won the second Duel race on Thursday, is literally a threat everywhere on the Sprint Cup circuit.

Jamie McMurray has been the class of the Roush-Fenway stable, and the Stewart-Haas cars (Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman) have been surprisingly strong, despite Saturday's wreck in practice.

As I've mentioned before, plate racing is a crapshoot; there's a good chance this year's Daytona 500 could see a first-time winner. Joey Logano, the 18-year-old, finished an impressive fourth in the Duel on Thursday, and the Earnhardt-Ganassi cars have apparently discovered some muscle.

Still, I'm going with Gordon. The three-time Daytona 500 winner will have something to prove this season, and what bigger message to send than to take the biggest race of the season, just months removed from your first winless season in 15 years?

Make it four for Gordon on Sunday.

Here's the lineup for Sunday's race. Coverage starts at 2 p.m. EST on FOX, with the green flag dropping around 3:30.

1. Martin Truex Jr. (No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet)
2. Mark Martin (No. 5 Kellogg's/CarQuest Chevrolet)
3. Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet)
4. Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M's Toyota)
5. Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet)*
6. Brian Vickers (No. 83 Red Bull Toyota)
7. Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet)
8. Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 42 Target Chevrolet)
9. Joey Logano (No. 20 The Home Depot Toyota)
10. Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota)
11. Aric Almirola (No. 8 Guitar Hero: World Tour Chevrolet)
12. Bobby Labonte (No. 96 Ford)
13. Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge)
14. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet)
15. Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Dodge)
16. Carl Edwards (No. 99 Aflac Ford)
17. Scott Riggs (No. 36 Tommy Baldwin Racing Toyota)
18. Jeremy Mayfield (No. 41 All Sport Toyota)
19. Paul Menard (No. 98 Quaker State/Menards Ford)
20. A.J. Allmendinger (No. 44 Valvoline Dodge)
21. Jamie McMurray (No. 26 Crown Royal Ford)
22. Clint Bowyer (No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet)
23. Marcos Ambrose (No. 59 Little Debbie/Kingsford/Clorox Toyota)
24. David Sremme (No. 12 Penske Racing Dodge)
25. Casey Mears (No. 07 Jack Daniel's Chevrolet)
26. Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet)
27. Michael Waltrip (No. 55 NAPA Toyota)
28. David Reutimann (No. 00 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota)
29. Sam Hornish Jr. (No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge)
30. Elliott Sadler (No. 19 Stanley Tools Dodge)
31. Robby Gordon (No. 7 Jim Beam Toyota)*
32. Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet)*
33. David Ragan (No. 6 UPS Ford)
34. Reed Sorenson (No. 43 McDonald's Dodge)
35. Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M Ford)
36. Ryan Newman (No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet)*
37. John Andretti (No. 34 Window World Chevrolet)*
38. Scott Speed (No. 82 Red Bull Toyota)*
39. Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Dewalt Ford)
40. Bill Elliott (No. 21 Motorcraft Ford)*
41. Travis Kvapil (No. 28 Golden Corral Ford)
42. Regan Smith (No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet)
43. Terry Labonte (No. 66 Window World Toyota)

*Has to move to back of the field.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Harvick wins Shootout; Truex takes pole

What was that I said about racing at Daytona being a crapshoot?

Kevin Harvick used yet another last-lap pass at Daytona to take the Budweiser Shootout Saturday night, taking the checkered flag as the field bunched up behind him in Turn 3. Harvick hadn't been the class of the field, hitting the wall and losing the draft twice.

But thanks to a bevy of cautions, Harvick was in the right place at the right time, using a push from Denny Hamlin on the last lap to squeeze by leader Jamie McMurray on the high side. McMurray appeared to be the class of the field, along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards each showed signs of strenth left over from last season, while Hamlin and Kyle Busch made some noise up front.

Even Matt Kenseth, not known for being strong on plate tracks, flexed some muscle.

So where did Harvick come from? Ryan Newman and his 2008 Daytona 500 trophy don't even know.

The plethora of wrecks in Saturday night's race, I think, is partially due to the lack of testing. Everyone was loose -- especially in traffic -- leading to a lot of contact and several potential Big Ones. The new car is more durable -- just ask Harvick -- but all those wrecks are not an accident. Still, even without the wrecks, the racing action was competitive and exciting enough that, at first glance, the testing ban could be good for teams as well as fans.

The 28 teams that competed in the Shootout should have an advantage over the others once the green flag drops on the Gatorade Duel races on Thursday. With 57 cars trying to make the field (and 39 of the 43 spots taken after Sunday's qualifying), Thursday promises to be quite the show.

Looks like the Shootout was just the beginning.

Truex, Martin on front row for 500

Martin Truex Jr. put his No. 1 Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing Chevrolet on the pole Sunday for the 51st Daytona 500, turning a fast lap of 47.872 (188.001 MPH). His first career pole at Daytona shined some light on a team that had a tumultuous offseason -- teammates Juan Pablo Montoya and Aric Almirola came in fourth and seventh, respectively.

Mark Martin, making his debut for Hendrick Motorsports, also made the front row. The 50-year-old veteran qualified second at 47.919 (187.817).

Qualifying results from Sunday can be found here.

Only the front row is set for Sunday's race; the rest of the field will be set on Thursday in the Gatorade Duel at Daytona. Drivers who qualified on the inside row (odd numbers) will race in the first 150-miler at 2 p.m., while outside row qualifiers (even numbers) will run in the second event around 3:30.

The top two "go-or-go-home" drivers in each race will make the Daytona 500. The top three drivers outside the Top 25 on Sunday automatically made the race, regardless of Thursday's results: Bill Elliott with the Wood Brothers, Travis Kvapil for Yates Racing and Tony Stewart with his new Stewart-Haas Racing team.

Terry Labonte will also run in the Daytona 500, thanks (at least) to the previous champion's provisional.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Getting Started: Budweiser Shootout Preview

The Budweiser Shootout at Daytona is the same adrenaline-packed kick-start to the NASCAR Sprint Cup season that it’s always been since its inception – only this year, not so much.

Don’t mistake: the 2009 season will still kick off Saturday night with the annual exhibition race (8 p.m. on FOX), but with a change in format, the race is no longer about recognizing the Sprint Cup Series’ pole winners from a year ago – and it’s no coincidence this change coincided with Coors Light becoming the official beer of NASCAR (whatever that means), as well as the sponsor of the series’ pole award last season.

Could you really see Anheuser-Busch recognizing drivers who won an award with Coors Light’s logo plastered on it?

The new format will take the top six teams, plus one wild card, from each manufacturer in the previous season’s owner points. That means, despite not running a full schedule last season, Joey Logano will run in this year’s Shootout. Meanwhile, Ryan Newman – Mr. Pole himself – will not race, since his No. 39 did not finish high enough in the points last season.

The merits of the format changes can be debated until the series reaches Homestead in November; this is not the forum for such pointless fodder (because let’s face it, when was the last time fan complaints actually prevented NASCAR from doing something?). Rather, let us examine Saturday night’s race on its own.

Defending Race Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Race History: The Budweiser Shootout started in 1979, then known as the Busch Clash, with Buddy Baker winning the inaugural event. The late Dale Earnhardt leads all drivers with six Shootout victories, while his son has won the race twice (2003, 2008). Only three drivers have ever won back-to-back Shootouts: Neil Bonnett (1983-84), Ken Schrader (1989-90) and Tony Stewart (2001-02).

Stewart also won the race in 2007. His former teammate, Denny Hamlin, became the first rookie to win the Budweiser Shootout, taking the checkered flag in 2006.

This Year’s Race: The 2009 Budweiser Shootout at Daytona will be 75 laps, up from 70 laps last season. Green- and yellow-flag laps will count. There will be a 10-minute intermission after 25 laps, at which times teams will be able to add to fuel, change tires and make regular adjustments to their cars – only work crews would perform on a normal pit stops will be permitted (this means no changing springs or rear ends).

Starting positions were determined by a blind draw on Thursday.

If the final 50-lap segment seems a bit long, then it probably is; both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin have questioned the format, citing the length of time it takes to run that many laps at a 2.5-mile superspeedway, and Hamlin talked of how quickly tires wear at Daytona.

"Only racing 10 laps at the end would be way better," Hamlin told in August. "The tires go away pretty fast at Daytona, but they still would have a lot of grip for just 10 or 15 laps. We could really go all out and the racing would be a lot closer."

If NASCAR asked me (which they never will), I’d suggest taking those 75 laps and breaking them up into three segments – the first 25-lap segment I’d keep the same, followed by a 10-minute break for pit stops. Then, I’d run the next 40 laps. Another break, this time just five minutes, for crews to replace tires and fill the fuel tanks.

Then run the last 10 laps. All-out, green-flag laps only. If this is going to be the Budweiser Shootout, how about we actually have a shootout, you know?

Now that I’m off that little soapbox, who’s going to win the race? At the risk of sounding like a wuss, I have no idea. Restrictor-plate racing is always a bit of a crapshoot – remember how Regan Smith almost won at Talladega back in October? – though there are a few teams and drivers to look out for.

Naturally, anyone from Hendrick Motorsports is worth keeping an eye on. Both Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have had their share of success at Daytona, to the tune of a combined four Daytona 500 trophies, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still considered a plate-racing king – not to mention, he won this race last year in his first trip in the No. 88.

The Gibbs cars will always be strong – Tony Stewart finished second in the Shootout last season and nearly won the 500 – though I’m not sure if Joey Logano will do much. He’s got a prime ride, but being a rookie, there’s no telling who will, or won’t, work with him in the draft. Though Roush Fenway cars haven’t traditionally been strong on plate tracks, Carl Edwards nearly won the July Daytona race last year and was running strong at Talladega before an ill-timed bump draft blew up half the field.

Honestly, though, I wouldn’t count anyone out of this race. Plate racing is a great equalizer in the sense that under-funded teams can often compete in the tight packs created by the draft and those restrictor plates. That means don’t count out someone like Bobby Labonte (No. 96) or Robby Gordon.

Long and short, any one of the 28 drivers running in this race (entry list) can win it. It’s tempting to go for Junior in the repeat, but I’m going to pick Jeff Gordon to kick off 2009 with a trip back to Victory Lane.

Sure, it’s just a hunch. But when you’re at Daytona, a hunch is as good as anything.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

NASCAR 09: Sprint Cup Series Preview

Defending Series Champion: Jimmie Johnson

2008 In Review: It looked like 2008 would be Kyle Busch’s year, the way he hit the ground running with his new Joe Gibbs Racing team and lit up the Sprint Cup Series for eight wins in the “regular season.” But all those wins – and the bonus points that came with them – disappeared once the Chase started, as a series of bad luck and mechanical problems made Busch nothing more than a footnote as Jimmie Johnson chased history and Carl Edwards … chased Jimmie Johnson.

Edwards wound up winning a series-high nine races, including Texas and Homestead, but Johnson’s consistency and good fortune were too much. Johnson made history, becoming the only driver other than Cale Yarborough (1976-78) to win three consecutive Cup championships.

Johnson won seven races and compiled 22 Top-10 finishes, most of which came in the latter half of the season. His win in the controversial Allstate 400 at the Brickyard catapulted the No. 48 into elite status once more, and Johnson showed again the Chase is his time of year – winning three of the 10 races and finishing no worse than 15th.

Consistency bordering on dominance – Jeff Gordon originated the modern formula in the mid- to late 1990s, and Johnson has perfected it in the Chase.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. appeared to be a title contender for much of the season, spending a chunk of the year second in the points and finally snapping his 76-race winless drought in Michigan in June. But Junior never found Victory Lane again, and that early consistency faded in the summer and downright disappeared come time for the Chase. Bad luck called the No. 88 home, and strange calls from Tony Eury Jr. (Watkins Glen, anyone?) didn’t help.

2008 saw NASCAR take an economic hit, much like the rest of the country. Few races were sold out, though television ratings were up – fans who could no longer afford to attend races were instead watching them at home. Sponsors were harder to come by, and some teams had to merge in order to survive.

One team, the No. 40 Dodge fielded by Chip Ganassi, folded completely by the time the series returned to Daytona in July, laying off over 70 workers and leaving rookie Dario Franchitti out of a ride. The culprit? Lack of sponsorship.

The races themselves weren’t without controversy, either; the new car, in its first full season of use, came under fire because of its aesthetics and the questionable quality of racing it produced – despite marked improvements in the second half of the season when it came to competition. NASCAR sets tight rules with the car, limiting what teams can do in adjusting the machines – and the sanctioning body’s decision not to change the rules in the offseason has been … shall we say, unpopular.

Still, nothing beats the heat Goodyear took in 2008. The series’ lone tire provider came under scrutiny after the March race in Atlanta turned into a high-speed parade, the tires too hard to wear properly for optimum grip. Tony Stewart in particular was critical of Goodyear, but that was nothing compared to what happened at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

NASCAR’s second most prestigious race – the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard – was turned into a series of 10-lap heat races because tire wear was so drastic no one could drive more than 10 laps before a Goodyear exploded. NASCAR spent the day throwing mandatory caution flags, keeping the drivers from really racing each other and treating the over 250,000 in attendance to one of the worst competition calamities in recent memory.

Jimmie Johnson may have won that race, but even he wasn’t all that thrilled with what happened. Goodyear dropped the ball with a half-assed tire test, a problem that has since been corrected. NASCAR and Goodyear held two tire tests at the track over the fall, and one more is scheduled this coming spring.

But here’s an idea: get a new tire compound. The new car is heavier and wider than the old car – logic dictates the tire would have to be larger to compensate. Someone with some pull should really tell Goodyear this.

Season Preview: Can Jimmie Johnson make it an unprecedented four championships in a row? Conventional wisdom says no; after all, it’s near impossible for all the stars to align for that length of time – but if anyone can pull it off, it’s the No. 48 team.

Still, one has to figure that eventually, other teams will start to catch up. Maybe the Roush Fenway camp, perhaps Joe Gibbs Racing … hell, Johnson’s own teammates – Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – might be the ones to catch him. The luck will probably also run out soon enough … I’m still trying to figure out how Johnson slipped by The Big One at Talladega when the other Chase contenders were doing their best pinball impressions.

Were it not for disastrous finishes at Talladega (Big One) and Charlotte (mechanical failure) in the Chase, Edwards might’ve hoisted the trophy in 2008. Expect Edwards and crew chief Bob Osbourne to learn from 2008’s failures to make a spirited, season-long run at the championship in 2009.

Edwards has already demonstrated an intense desire (see his Bristol spat with Kyle Busch and his last lap dive-bomb at Kansas); now all he needs is a little luck and the consistency that has become Johnson’s staple.

But is it really the Johnson-Edwards show? Busch certainly figures into the equation, because of his ability to win at any time, regardless of track. Busch’s eight wins last season came on short tracks, road courses, superspeedways and intermediates, so assuming the team doesn’t make any mistakes – and Busch himself doesn’t implode – the No. 18 will be in the thick of it.

Jeff Gordon has to be considered a title threat, simply because he’s Jeff Gordon. Sure, he hasn’t won a title since 2001 and he went winless for the first time since 1993 last season, but Gordon is considered one of the all-time greats for a reason – and let’s face it, he’d have six championships if not for the Chase. Look for the No. 24 to hit Victory Lane at least three times this season – maybe as early as the Daytona 500.

As much as Junior Nation would love to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. take home the hardware in 2009 – and I admit, I’m a card-carrying member – I don’t see it happening. Junior will have a better year than 2008, when he won only one race and sputtered in the Chase, but I have a feeling Junior will never contend for a Cup title with Tony Eury Jr. calling the shots.

Something I think Rick Hendrick will realize in the offseason.

Expect the economic turmoil of 2008 to continue through 2009, with smaller teams feeling the effects worse than others. Ticket prices are being lowered, teams are laying off employees and scaling back operations and NASCAR even implemented a testing ban throughout the season. How the ban will affect competition remains to be seen; will the super teams still dominate, or will the playing field finally be leveled?

Three mergers have rocked the Cup Series in the offseason:

-Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Ganassi’s team eventually merged, forming a three-car operation and leaving reigning Rookie of the Year Regan Smith out of a ride.

-Gillett-Evernham Motorsports also merged with Petty Enterprises to form Richard Petty Motorsports, a move that nearly left four-time series winner Elliott Sadler without a ride.

-Yates Racing and Hall of Fame Racing merged, taking the No. 96 car and turning it into a Ford with Roush-Yates engine power. came on as primary sponsor once 2000 series champion Bobby Labonte was named driver.

And what of Tony Stewart? The two-time series champion left Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season to start his new team, Stewart-Haas Racing. Essentially the same operation as Newman-Haas Racing, a chronic underachiever in Sprint Cup, will Stewart and teammate Ryan Newman be competitive right away, or is this going to be a season-long uphill climb?

I expect a slow start, with the team picking up speed by the time the series returns to Daytona. No Chase this year for Stewart or Newman, but look out come 2010.

Team to Watch: The No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy driven by Mark Martin. The veteran driver had been in semi-retirement since 2005, and spent 2008 splitting the No. 8 DEI ride with Aric Almirola. But Rick Hendrick swooped in and convinced Martin to go for that elusive Sprint Cup title one more time, pairing him with young and talented crew chief Alan Gustafson. While Hendrick thinks having Martin on board for 2009 and part of 2010 will improve the entire organization – including Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who both had their struggles in 2008 – the important question is: how competitive will Martin be in his new ride?

Predicted 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup Field (in order of finish): Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Brian Vickers, David Ragan, Denny Hamlin.

Predicted 2009 Champion: Carl Edwards

Predicted First Time Winner: David Ragan

Predicted 2009 Rookie of the Year: Scott Speed

2009 Schedule:
Feb. 7 – Budweiser Shootout, Daytona International Speedway*
Feb. 12 – Gatorade Duals, Daytona International Speedway^
Feb. 15 – Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway
Feb. 22 – Auto Club 500, Auto Club Speedway
March 1 – Shelby 427, Las Vegas Motor Speedway
March 8 – Kobalt Tools 500, Atlanta Motor Speedway
March 22 – Food City 500, Bristol Motor Speedway
March 29 – Goody’s Fast Relief 500, Martinsville Speedway
April 5 – Samsung 500, Texas Motor Speedway
April 18 – Subway Fresh Fit 500, Phoenix International Raceway
April 26 – Aaron’s 499, Talladega Superspeedway
May 2 – Crown Royal presents Your Name Here 400, Richmond International Raceway
May 9 – Southern 500, Darlington Raceway
May 16 – NASCAR Sprint Showdown, Lowe’s Motor Speedway*
May 16 – NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, Lowe’s Motor Speedway*
May 24 – Coca-Cola 600, Lowe’s Motor Speedway
May 31 – Dover 400, Dover International Speedway
June 7 – Pocono 500, Pocono Raceway
June 14 – LifeLock 400, Michigan International Speedway
June 21 – Toyota/SaveMart 350, Infineon Raceway
June 28 – Lenox Industrial Tools 301, New Hampshire Motor Speedway
July 4 – Coke Zero 400, Daytona International Speedway
July 11 – 400, Chicagoland Speedway
July 26 – Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Aug. 2 – Pennsylvania 500, Pocono Raceway
Aug. 9 – Watkins Glen International
Aug. 16 – Michigan International Speedway
Aug. 22 – Sharpie 500, Bristol Motor Speedway
Sept. 6 – Pep Boys Auto 500, Atlanta Motor Speedway
Sept. 12 – Chevy Rock & Roll 400, Richmond International Raceway
Sept. 20 – Sylvania 300, New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Sept. 27 – Dover 400, Dover International Speedway
Oct. 4 – Kansas 400, Kansas Speedway
Oct. 11 – Pepsi 500, Auto Club Speedway
Oct. 17 – Bank of America 500, Lowe’s Motor Speedway
Oct. 25 – Martinsville Speedway
Nov. 1 – AMP Energy 500, Talladega Superspeedway
Nov. 8 – Dickies 500, Texas Motor Speedway
Nov. 15 – Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500, Phoenix International Raceway
Nov. 22 – Ford 400, Homestead-Miami Speedway

*Non-points race
^Daytona 500 qualifying races