The NASCAR season is upon us and for fans, it couldn’t have come sooner. Who doesn’t like to watch cars go around in circles for five hours once a week for nearly 10 months? Okay, so NASCAR isn’t for everyone. But for those of you who care, it’s time to take a look at the upcoming 38-race grind and even make some predictions.
Five Burning questions
5. Is this the Year for Mark Martin?
Mark Martin is back for another full time run at the Sprint Cup. But this year he’s doing it as part of NASCAR’s premier team, Hendrick Motorsports.This could be his best chance at hoisting the cup come Homestead in November. He’ll be driving a Hendrick car and has all the resources three-time champ Jimmie Johnson has enjoyed the past, well, three years. He has a proven crew chief in Alan Gustafson and should be fresh. After two years of running a limited schedule, Martin is ready for the daily grind once again. Sure, he’s 50 years old, but he keeps himself in exceptional shape and has the driving style that will definitely land him in the Chase. Everything is there for him. Martin should easily make the Chase and his consistency will keep him in the hunt all year.
4. Will Joey "Sliced Bread" Logano live up to the hype?
No rookie has ever come into NASCAR with higher expectations. Luckily for Logano, no rookie before him has ever been handed the keys to such a coveted ride. Logano was the beneficiary of the Stewart/Haas merger and steps into a car that Tony Stewart made legendary. Not only that, Logano gets a championship caliber team that has two titles under its belt.
Crew chief Greg Zipadelli is one of the best. Having walked through the fire with the most tumultuous driver in recent history, Zipadelli doesn’t have anything to prove. But he will need plenty of patience and that resolve he found so useful when he called races for Stewart.
Rookies usually don’t fare well in Sprint Cup. Sure, the Stewart/Zipadelli combo had one of the most historic rookie campaigns the sport has ever seen, winning three races and finishing sixth in the final standings in 1999. But Stewart was already a seasoned racer – and he was/is very, very good. Logano has won in everything he’s driven, but so did J.J. Yeley, Casey Atwood and Jason Leffler to name just a few. None of those guys are still in Cup. But something seems different with Logano.
There were murmurs toward the end of 2008 that Joe and JD Gibbs may have promoted Logano prematurely. The phenom struggled to make races last year. Rain didn’t help him either as he missed several races due to washed out qualifying sessions and the final 10 weeks of the season was pretty much forgettable across the board at Joe Gibbs Racing. Will Logano’s rookie year be much of the same? Chances are he will run well at times, but I don’t see him asking the Chase. How ironic would it be if he were battling Stewart for the final Chase spot at Richmond? It could happen.
Prediction: Logano finishes outside the top-12 and Zipadelli leaves JGR for a management position at SHR.
3. Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. Finally win a Championship?
Unfortunately for Earnhardt Jr., it looks like his best chances to win a cup championship may be in the rear view mirror. Sure, he has the equipment and is with Hendrick, but nothing I’ve seen since Dale Earnhardt Incorporated was relevant five or six years ago tells me he can beat Johnson, Edwards and Busch. Those three guys win all the time. They will win during the Chase too and Jr. just doesn’t win enough.
This is a make or break year for Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. I know, it seems every year is a make or break year for the driver/crew chief tandem but owner Rick Hendrick expects to win. If the No. 88 team doesn’t show significant improvement, Eury may be gone come season’s end
Earnhardt Jr. should have a much better season. With Stewart’s move into ownership and Johnson the clear top dog at HMS, the media has plenty of other things to focus on. Nevertheless, Earnhardt Jr. is running out of time. The first half of the season will be important for positioning, but the true test of whether Junior is a contender will be how he does down the stretch.
2. How will Tony Stewart do?
Judging by what he’s showed at Daytona so far (which you really can’t do) Stewart will have a successful inaugural season as an owner/driver. But it’s Daytona, so you really can’t put much stock into anything until the circuit heads to Fontana. But what you can see is performance. Both the No. 39, driven by fellow Hoosier Ryan Newman and Stewart’s No. 14 qualified exceptionally well and that is a good sign. It shows the cars are fast.
Stewart is as good as it gets on the restrictor plate races and could easily win the 500 Sunday. In fact, he should be considered a favorite even if he isn’t in his famed No. 20 Home Depot machine. He will ride up front and make some moves that make everyone at home remember he’s still one of the three best drivers on tour. But what happens after that?
Smoke can easily win five races this year. Even though he won only one a year ago, he was in position, and ran well enough to win five or six. He had some rotten luck. But part of that was his fault. You make your own luck to a certain extent. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Stewart a little bit more conservative this year. Sure, he’ll try and lead laps early if he has a car that can, especially in the first part of the season, but I think he’s learned form the past.
The real question will be how he handles himself if he struggles or Newman starts having problems. If one of those two guys is having success, he should be fine. One thing he won’t be able to rely on is Zipadelli. Sure, Zippy will be around the garage. But Smoke won’t be able to vent to him over the radio as in years past. He does have Darian Grubb however. Grubb is a great crew chief and you’ll see that this year. Grubb has shown flashes in the limited opportunity he’s had and if you ask anyone around HMS whether he’s valuable or not, you’ll get a resounding yes. Like Zippy, he is a great chassis man. What’s more, he will be working with Hendrick’s stuff. Stewart has everything set up for him. The question will be how fare can he go with it? My guess is he’ll make the Chase and win at least three races.
1. Can Johnson possibly win
a fourth consecutive championship?
The same question arose this time last year and many around the garage and in the media and was answered, yes. But that was before we knew Carl Edwards would be a factor again after a subpar two years sans his rookie season. With Edwards as formidable as any foe can be, and Kyle Busch emerging as perhaps the most talented driver on the circuit, a fourth championship will certainly be earned. But Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are second to none. They’ve been through heartbreaks. They’ve fended off challenges and they’ve always put themselves in the right position.
Johnson will likely have a stretch somewhere in the season where everyone will question whether he has what it takes. It’s nothing new. He’s struggled at some point in each of his championship seasons. But each time, the No. 48 team has responded. Call it fatigue or just a lack of focus. It is a long season after all. Johnson is a lock for the Chase and should be considered the favorite going in. But it’s a long season and winning multiple championships in a row takes a tremendous amount of energy. I think we’ll see a new champion in 2009.
Who’s in and
who’s out of the Chase
Here are your Chase drivers in no particular order: Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer., Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Bush.
Coming up short: Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, David Ragan, Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman.
And your 2009
Cup champion will be...
Carl Edwards is ready to win his first Sprint Cup title. He came so close last year, it’s just a matter of time before he finally breaks through. He has a couple of things going for him. For one, the Fords are very fast and the gap between manufactures has all be erased by the COT. Second, Jimmie Johnson has won the past three championships and conventional wisdom says he will not win a fourth. How can he, right? (see question 1)
The days of running consistent won’t win you a championship anymore. Not with Edwards, Kyle Busch and Johnson’s propensity to win multiple races. Stewart won the title in 2005 by averaging a 9.9 average finish and completing 99.4 percent of the laps. Since then, Johnson has won at least three of the final 10 races each year. Edwards can do that. Busch can do that. Outside of that, no other driver right now has shown the ability to reel off wins as consistently.
Johnson will be hard to beat down the stretch. But Edwards is a beast and eats up 1.5 mile tracks. The Chase sets up well for him. It does for Busch and Johnson too, that’s why it will come down to Homestead. Edwards nips Johnson and Busch in the final race to hoist his first Sprint Cup.