Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

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

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