Last year during the first off weekend for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, I made five predictions that I really thought would play out for the remainder of the season. Not to brag or anything, but I got all five correct.
Now, although the first off weekend this year falls after the 5th race, it's time to make some more predictions. Some were actually made during the February 4th edition of The Locker Room Sports Show (Monday nights at 6:00 on KOOL 102.7) and some are just after making some observations in this young season.
1) Michael Waltrip will make all 36 races
Although bold back in Feburary, Waltrip has made the first five races of the 2008 season. He did get a little help after two of the five qualifying sessions were rained out at California and Bristol, but he successfully qualified for Daytona, Vegas, and Atlanta and now finds himself in an unfamiliar position-- inside the top 35 in owner's points and guaranteed a starting spot for next week at Martinsville. In fact, all three of MWR's teams are in the top 35. David Reutimann is really starting to come into his own and rookie Michael McDowell, who is essentially replacing retired champion Dale Jarrett, will make his Sprint Cup debut at Martinsville with the comfort that he doesn't have to worry about qualifying for the race.
2) Toyota will win 5 races this season
One down and four to go but I think this number is easily achieved with how well Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch have been running. You throw in there an improved Team Red Bull driver Brian Vickers and the surprising Michael Waltrip Racing and I honestly think that number could be higher. Toyota has improved 100% over last year. Going to Martinsville, there are 8 Toyota drivers guaranteed a starting spot. This time last season there were none. To the dismay of Jack Roush, Toyota is for real in 2008 and could not only contend for more than 5 wins, they'll also be close to the front when it comes time to crown a champion at Homestead in November.
3) Hendrick Motorsports will win 20 races
Five races in and the one thing that I didn't see coming has actually happened. Hendrick won the pole for the Daytona 500, the Budweiser Shootout and one of the Gatorade Duels, but hasn't won anything since. No points wins through five races and everyone is saying that Hendrick is down and everyone else is so much better. Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads the way sitting 5th in points, but Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are 13th and 14 in points and the series heads to a track where the two have combined for 11 total wins and 8 of the last 10 races dating back to 2003. As a new fan of HMS (one that even has purchased a Hendrick t-shirt) I can promise you that this team will get their wins this season and will be a threat for the championship. If you ask me, the most surprising theme from this team is the struggles of Casey Mears, who is currently 33rd in points. I, along with just about every member of the media, said that he would be the breakout driver this season. Last year, he struggled through the first 6 races, but then picked up the pace and was 13th by season's end. Gordon, Johnson, Mears, and Earnhardt will all visit victory lane this year.
4) The rich get richer...
But the poor get poorer. This analogy can be directly related to the struggles of some of the single car teams, specifically the famed Wood Brothers. The 21 car has made one race this season. That's right one race. Thanks to a rainout at California, Bill Elliott got into the Auto Club 500 on a past champion's provisional. He started 38th and finished 26th, one lap down to the leaders. It's a sad state of affairs when the Wood Brothers can't make a race. If 44th in owner's points isn't bad enough, they're 162 points away from 35th and a guaranteed starting spot. They would have to make make a race, which seems a tall task at this point, lead the most laps and win and then would only get into the top 35 assuming the guy who's there now finishes last and everyone between 36th and 43rd finished outside the top 30. 97 wins since 1953 will not be enough to keep this team afloat in current times. The Wood Brothers have to go out and find major sponsor dollars, partner with another successful team and hire a new, young driver if they want a chance at competing anymore. Honestly, and I hate to say this, they will not qualify for more than 5 races this season.
5) Open-wheel is not here to stay
Except for Juan Pablo Montoya. Johnny really did something last year besides get in everybody's way every week. He qualified for every race and ran somewhat competitively in those races. He won at Infineon and almost won the Brickyard 400. I think he can stay in stock car racing long term and be successful. I can't say the same for some of his open-wheel turned stock car Brethren. Just look at what Patrick Carpentier, Dario Franchitti, Jacques Villeneuve, and Sam Hornish Jr. have done this year. Aside from Hornish's car owner buying him a starting spot for the first five races, nothing. Hornish is 35th in points right now, but is just four points ahead of Jamie McMurray right now. After Martinsville, Hornish will be out of the top 35. Carpentier has made 2 races, Franchitti all five but is now below the Mendoza line, Villeneuve was booted from the 27 car before the season even started, and Hornish is probably going to be outside looking in after a trip to Martinsville. The days of successful jumps from open wheel to stock cars may be behind us. Montoya was likely the last. Stewart, Gordon, Mears, Kahne, Foyt and Mario and John Andretti will go down as the only once to successfully make the jump. I guess some of these guys should have stayed in open wheel a bit longer. Afterall, the IRL and Champ Car are getting back together. Maybe they should go back there because they don't have a top 35 rule.