Saturday, December 15, 2007

Top 5 of 2007 and 2008

In 5 years if you take a look back at the 2007 and 2008 NASCAR Racing seasons, you might find a strange similarity between the top 5 stories from both years. That’s because the stuff we’ve been talking about for the last 12 months will indeed be the same stuff we talk about this time next year.

My top 5 for 2007 and 2008 are as follows:

5) Mergers between teams and other investors.
It started in January with Jack Roush announcing he was taking on Boston Red Sox owner John Henry as a partner in his racing ventures. The birth of Roush-Fenway Racing was made just before the Daytona 500 and then the race was on to see who would partner up next. Roush would close the year announcing that Roush-Fenway and Yates Racing would partner up in the Ford Racing Development arena, essentially creating a 7 car team, as both individual stables will share the same equipment and some of the same personnel. In addition, Evernham Motorsports has taken on investors and Ginn Racing merged with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in August. I would look for even more mergers next year.

4) Toyota’s entrance into Cup Series racing.
Toyota came in slowly to the Craftsman Truck Series in 2004. By 2006, they had their first NASCAR championship. Also in 2006 the foreign brand announced they would make their debut in Cup and Busch in 2007. Things did not exactly go their way in the Cup series, especially when Michael Waltrip went under the gun at Daytona with the illegal substance found in the 55 car’s engine. No Toyota team won a race but they did get a pole at New Hampshire with Dave Blaney. Toyota may have upped their brand name into the upper echelon of NASCAR Racing by signing Joe Gibbs Racing to a long-term deal in August. That basically means you’ve got veteran and 2-time champion Tony Stewart, promising young gun Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch who some people think is the best driver out there. Toyota will definitely get their first Cup Series win next season, and maybe even contend for a Sprint Cup.

3) The Car of Tomorrow becomes the Car of Right Now.
We knew it was coming in 2007. We just didn’t know what it was going to do. The wing car made its debut at Bristol in March to mixed reviews. 16 races last year wasn’t really enough to tell us if the car will be successful long term. Of course in 2008, it will be the only car the Sprint Cup Series competes with. Maybe a full season of just dealing with this car will be the spark to allow drivers and teams to figure the car out and produce even better racing. That after all was one of NASCAR’s goals with the new car: better racing, safety improvements, and cutting costs. Safety, yeah. Better racing, not sure. Cutting costs, not according to Jack Roush. I think the new car is better than the old one and will produce better racing while lowering costs. Will it allow a team like BAM Racing to compete door-to-door with the Hendrick Motorsports of the world? Well, I don’t think anything will allow that.

And now for the top 2. These can be combined but they are better served as one and two.

2) The Dominance of Hendrick Motorsports.
18 of 36 is 50% no matter how you slice it. Add into that 3 cars in the chase with the champion and second place finishers being from your stable and you can call Hendrick Motorsports’ 2007 season complete and total domination. While Hendrick won 18 races, no other team won more than 7. Jimmie Johnson won 10 races, including 4 of the last 5. Jeff Gordon had one of his best years ever with 6 wins and 30 top-10 finishes, which is a new record. Kyle Busch is leaving but was strong for most of the year, and Casey Mears broke through with a very popular win in the Coca-Cola 600 in May, and rallied to finish 15th in the final standings. With Joe Gibbs Racing switching to Toyota next year, GM will give even more support to Hendrick. Honestly, 25 wins in 2008 is not out of the question, especially if you add in our number one story.

1) The Saga that is Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Voted as the most popular driver for the 5th consecutive season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made headlines by leaving the team his father started, in which Junior has driven for his entire career, to move to Hendrick Motorsports. Many long-time Earnhardt fans said there was no way they would continue to support Junior if he was Jeff Gordon’s teammate. I was one of those until I decided I could deal with the issue at hand. Junior was the focus in what I would say over 50 % of all newspaper, internet, and television stories on the year, not to mention the fact that all ESPN could talk about from February to May was Junior. With better equipment, a renewed focus, and not having to deal with the “jerks” at DEI in 2008, this guy has his best chance ever to contend for a championship and live up to the legacy set forth by his father and grand-father. Why is this guy the sport’s most popular driver? Just look in the grandstands this year and notice how the sea of red has turned into a sea of green and blue. Then you’ll know.

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