Thursday, February 15, 2007

2007 Nextel Cup Preview, Part I

NASCAR photo
What can we look forward to this season? An even more competitive season than last, for one thing. The usual suspects are ready to fight for the championship, and on the way, to win races. Add to the mix some very capable rookies--David "Gilligan" Gilliland (who is not officially a rookie, as he ran more than seven Cup races last year), AJ Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya, David Reutiman--and a loose cannon rookie David Regan. Throw in the new points system, the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow, and the number of teams that will be trying to qualify for each race, and we're ready to r-r-r-r-rumble.
The Yates team may be back. After last weekend's practice sessions, both cars were expected to take the front row for Sunday's Daytona 500, which they did. With Ricky Rudd back from a one year break, and back with Yates, the team could turn last year's disaster into this year's success. There are many contingencies in effect here, however, such as having the right equipment for the different tracks, chemistry between the drivers and their crews, and consistant performance.
When Ricky Rudd and Dale Jarrett were teammates for Robert Yates Racing, they provided quite a spectacle for the fans. They each had the attitude that the best way to help a teammate was to compete with him, often racing each other wheel to wheel. This illustrates the love for racing these guys have. What better way is there to show your racing prowess than to race and beat a nearly identically set up car? Between 2000 and 2003 both Rudd and Jarrett finished in the top ten all three years, and had eleven wins between them. If Rudd and David Gilliland can make a similar partnership work, we could see one or both of the Yates cars in the Chase for the Championship at the end of the season.
The best hopes for Toyota, the newcomer in the Nextel Cup field, would be from Michael Waltrip Racing's Dale Jarrett, the Red Bull Racing teams, and Bill Davis Racing. BDR's #22 Caterpiller car is starting the season in the top thirty-five in owners' points, and is guaranteed a starting spot in the first five races. Given good equipment, driver Dave Blaney is very capable of keeping the Toyota in the top thirty-five. Toyota is involved in nearly every racing series in the world, and though they may have a little work to do to get the right set ups for NASCAR Cup level racing--they probably won't make the Chase this year--Dave Blaney should have a season good enough to keep the optimism flowing.
I am excited about Red Bull Racing's entry into NASCAR. Like Toyota, the Austrian sponser is involved in every major racing series in the world, including a serious developmental program for open wheel drivers. Formula One driver Scott Speed, the only American in that series, came up through that developmental program. So did AJ Allmendinger, who will be attempting to make Rookie of the Year in NASCAR. Both Red Bull and Toyota have expressed confidence in their driver, but Allmendinger needs more confidence in himself, after a miserable time at the pre-season testing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He will get used to the car, but he has to qualify for the first five races. His car was in the top ten in practice speeds, but lack of experience in the car and at Daytona will prevent him from making the Daytona 500.
His teammate, Brian Vickers, is the kind of driver who can win his heat in the Duel today and make the 500. He has an excellent crew chief in Doug Richert, and where he can qualify expect him to do well. Red Bull will struggle this year, and will have a tough time getting into the top thirty-five early in the season, but may have the talent to make that important cut off by the end of the season.
Dale Jarrett is locked into the Daytona 500 by virtue of the Champion's provisional, and he can be expected to be able to qualify his car for the next four races, which will give the MWR #44 car a good chance to be in the top thirty-five by the sixth race.
The Daytona 500, being a restrictor plate race, is not a good indicator of how the rest of the season will go, except if you are not in the 500, you don't get any points. I really like Michael Waltrip--he is very race savvy. Just watch and listen to him on his Speed TV program Tradin' Paint, which is perhaps the most informative show featuring opinion makers on television. However, he is at a serious disadvantage, starting the season with a 100 point deficit due to fuel tampering, and will have to qualify on time for every race this season, and most likely the first five races next season. I don't see him finishing today's Duel race high enough to make the 500.
The four other drivers who were penalized for qualifying day infractions, Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler, and Scott Riggs are locked into the Daytona 500 by virtue of owner's points. Thus, it is incomprehensible to me as to why their teams would push the envelope in the "grey area" of the rules, especially since starting position doesn't matter in the restrictor plate races. These are all excellent drivers, and cheating really shouldn't have been necessary. Hopefully they will be able to overcome starting the season at a points deficit, and put the whole mess behind them. I will write more of these drivers in part two of my season preview, which I hope to get posted by Saturday.
Today is all about the dual 150 mile qualifying races, which NASCAR has officially punned "The Duel 150's." It will be some of the most exciting and dangerous racing we will see all season, as sixty one drivers try to race for four spots in the Daytona 500. It will be wild.
Dale Jarrett Photo from Dale

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