Friday, February 16, 2007

2007 Season Preview Pt II

The points penalties delivered to Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler, Scott Riggs, and Matt Kenseth are not a serious enough setback to keep them out of the Chase for the Championship. It is almost certain that they will stay in the top thirty-five in owner's points, and just as certain that each of them will win races this season. In fact, though the Yates cars look good for Daytona, the Everham and Roush cars are better at racing at the different kinds of tracks on the schedule. This could very well be Everham's year to have all three cars in the Chase. Certainly, the level of competition may be enough to keep them out of the coveted top twelve, but all three of the Everham drivers are extremely talented, and with the new aero package for Dodge, they could very well dominate the season between them.
I don't worry about Matt Kenseth. Even starting the season with a fifty point deficit, that won't matter after the first two races. Kenseth can "get er done" when he needs to, and will be a serious contender all season long.
Jeff Gordon is getting over all his bad luck early this year. He had to drop out of the Bud Shootout last weekend due to bad electrical problems which caused his engine to fail, went to qualifying and practice with a poorly handling car, and, after winning the second heat of the Duels at Daytona, has to start at the rear of the field Sunday due to a faulty shock absorber installation in the left rear of the car. Still, he can be positive about the rest of the season, because he is one of the best. Starting in the rear of the field for the Daytona 500 should be no handicap for him, as long as his car handles well enough and he doesn't get caught up in somebody else's mistake on his way to the front. Gordon is the driver I love to hate, but I can only love to hate him if he is having a good season.
If the championship took turns, we could say that it is Kevin Harvick's turn. We have seen the 2001 ROTY mature from a wreckless, over the edge racer to a smart and talented veteran racer. RCR is on a positive trend right now, and we will see good things from all three Richard Childress Racing drivers. But Harvick, after a record breaking Busch Series Championship, is on a roll and focused. The Childress cars are strong, and Kevin Harvick will be the standard bearer for that team this year. Not to say that Jeff Burton will be a slouch. He is once again a rising star, and he will continue to improve even over last year's performance. I would put Jeff Burton at the top of the "Comeback Kids" category, except that he has made his comeback and will be a very serious contender for the championship this year.
We could just as well say it is Dale Earnhardt, Jr's turn to win the championship. It has been considered to be only a matter of time before he takes the Cup since his rookie year in 2000. He has been showing more confidence in himself and his team than ever, and confidence is what he needs. He will not let the administrative and contractual problems at DEI bother him while he is on the track. He knows that he will have to be more aggressive to take the championship--it is the nature of the competition. It will disappoint some Junior fans, and put many others in a state of denial, but he knows that if he is to win the championship this year, he will have to put moves on other drivers that he is not generally known to make.
There is no reason to believe that the reigning Nextel Cup Champion, Jimmie Johnson, will suffer a post championship slump. He has been in the top ten at the end of every season since his rookie year. But not everybody who deserves to be in the Chase for the Championship will make it, and, even though he has tons of talent, his team may not have the stamina to stand up to the tough competition for the twelve Chase cars. Just a gut feeling.
Denny Hamlin knows how it feels to win, and he has the talent to continue winning. We have every reason to believe he will improve on his record from last year, which should put him in the top twelve for the last ten races of the season.
All this is moot. Love him or hate him, Tony Stewart, aka "Smoke," is an awesome driver. He has already won four of the five racing events in which he has been entered this year, and if a positive attitude is what it takes to win races and championships, Smoke's attitude is over the top at the beginning of the season. Combine that with his talent, and there is no doubt that he is implacably on the road to a third championship. If nothing goes seriously wrong with his car, he will win the Daytona 500. This will put him in control of the rest of the season, since he is good at every track on the schedule. Even with the tough competition from Kahne, Sadler, Riggs, Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Junior, Harvick, Hamlin, and, yes, Ricky Rudd, there is no reason to not believe that Smoke will come out on top at the end of the season. I would say the same thing even if I weren't a Tony Stewart fan--Stewart is the man to beat this season.
Breakthroughs:Casey Mears is now driving a Chevy for Hendrick Motor Sports, with the very capable Darian Grubb as crew chief for the number 25 team. Grubb, you'll remember, helped the number 48 team of Jimmy Johnson get through the four race suspension of Chad Knaus at the beginning of the 2006 season without missing a beat. Mears is a proven driver, though he has yet to win a Nextel Cup race, and Hendrick may have the package he needs to get that win. This should be a breakthrough season for Mears. He is certainly due one.
David Stremme is another driver from whom we will see a breakthrough season. Still a little rough in his driving style, Stemme is learning quickly. He showed marked improvement in the last half of the 2006 season, and should continue to improve. The entire Ganassi team is on the rise, with the already proven Reid Sorenson, and veteran world class racer Juan Pablo Montoya on their payroll, along with the new attitude that maybe it was the car and not the driver that was the problem, Team Ganassi should make a very good showing this year.
Jamie McMurray certainly needs a breakthrough season. Personally, I think he has a lot of talent, but just hasn't come up with the correct mixture of luck and purpose. He needs to find the purpose, and the luck will follow. Roush Racing, now in partnership with the Boston Red Sox, has nearly unlimited resources, and if McMurray is going to show what he is capable of, this will be the season to do so. I hope Jamie does well this season, but we will have to see how things go for him in the early part of the season. It would be wrong to give up on him, yet.
The breakthrough to watch will be that of Clint Bowyer. Neither he nor Denny Hamlin will suffer the sophomore curse that has plagued many a rising star. Bowyer finished the 2006 season with a strong showing, and the optimism and teammanship of Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton will help him have a very successful season.
The Comeback Kids Ricky Rudd, Ward Burton, Greg Biffle, and Ryan Newman are all looking for a comeback season this year. Of these, I would put "The Rooster," Ricky Rudd on top of the list. The Robert Yates Racing team, which I mentioned in Part 1, worked hard over the off season to come up with some good engineering. This, after Robert Yates nearly walked out of the sport and seriously considered selling all or part of his operation. Rudd will have a good car this season, and he is a good all-around driver. His lust for racing and competition will give him what he needs to make the Championship Chase. Yes, I know that there is a contradiction over what was written in Part 1 of my season preview, but changing my mind after a little thought isn't anything new.
As much as we would love to see Ward Burton make a stellar comeback, it just ain't going to happen. Although his team, Morgan-McClure has a rich history in racing, they still have some building to do . Ward won't be racing full time, sharing the #4 ride with Eric McClure, which doesn't mean Ward won't win some races. A wreck in the Duel race destroyed his chances for the Daytona 500, of which he is a past champion, and he has a struggle this season. I am predicting that he will get a win at Darlington, and that he will look good in the Car of Tomorrow (COT) races.
Greg Biffle has a new crew chief, and a fresh start. As is the case with Jamie McMurray, Roush Racing has the resources to make sure the Biff has a good car. The man does have talent, and it was mostly bad luck that plagued him last year. He is another driver whom I would love to hate, if he has a good season.
Ryan "The Rocket" Newman and Kurt Busch are by no means team players, a trait which won't work for them as well as it will for the Yates drivers. Kurt Busch started his comeback in the last quarter of the 2006 season, and things should be looking up for Newman. The Rocket has a crew cheif he can relate to, an engineer with a Masters Degree. This may work out for him, but the competition is tough, and a comeback will be an uphill battle for the Penske team.
The Rookies: I forgot to mention Paul Menard and Aric Amerida in the list of rookies in part 1 of the season preview. This is not to belittle their talent, it is merely a brain fart on my part. Still, these are two of the drivers who did not make the cut for the Daytona 500, so they already have an uphill battle for the first half of the season. Menard, racing for DEI has the best chance of these two to acheive stardom this season, just on the merit of having better equipment.
As a Formula 1 fan, I am familiar with Juan Pablo and have come to like the guy. He is a world class driver of high esteem, and seems a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year. But, he will have to work for it. He still has a lot to learn about closed car racing. He has never experienced bump drafting, though he did a good job of working with it in his Duel race--before his wheel hub broke he led eighteen laps. Still, there is a lot of racing on a lot of different tracks this season, and drivers such as Reutiman, Allmendinger, and Menard have just as much a chance for ROTY as does Montoya.
David Reutiman's qualifying time last Sunday was good enough to put him in the field for the Daytona 500, after Boris Said raced his way into the transfer spot. He, David Regan and Juan Pablo Montoya were the only official rookies to make the race. None of them finished their Dual race--Reutiman and Montoya having serious mechanical difficulties, and Regan crashing. Regan and Montoya are in the 500 because of owners points, though I believe that if Montoya hadn't had his wheel bearings burn out, he would have gotten in on talent.
Even so, if David Gilliland wasn't exempt from ROTY competition, he would be my choice for that title.
Backtrack Disappointment prevails as neither driver for Red Bull Racing made the cut for the race. AJ Allmendinger was running very well in the first Duel race when he had the misfortune of being in the same place at the same time as Robby Gordon. Much to Gordon's credit, he took the blame for the crash, but it was a serious setback to the start of Allmendinger's rookie season. Brian Vickers cut a tire in the second Duel, and hit the wall. He was also running well at the time, so we can still hold high hopes for an interesting season for Red Bull Racing.
Once again I underestimated Michael Waltrip. Sometimes one can just never learn the obvious. Waltrip is a master at plate races, being a two-time winner of the Daytona 500. After his woes in post-qualifying inspection, Mikey was considering withdrawing from the race. With support from friends and associates, he decided to go for it. And go for it he did, racing his way into the field by taking the top transfer position in the first Duel race. He did this in a car in which he had no practice, David Reutiman's back up car. In fact, all three of the drivers for Michael Waltrip Racing will be in the Race Sunday. Lake Speed, Todd Bodine, and Robby Gordon have all paid for underestimating Michael Waltrip. Please don't hit me, Mikey. I love you, man.
This is a long and wordy post, so for those of you who have stuck with me this long, here is my pre-season prediction for the twelve drivers who will be in the top twelve for the final ten races of the season:
Tony Stewart
Matt Kenseth
Kevin Harvick
Denny Hamlin
Jeff Gordon
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Elliott Sadler
Scott Riggs
Kasey Kahne
Ricky Rudd
Jeff Burton
Clint Bowyer
This is tough, to pick only twelve. Any driver on this list will be interchangeable with Dale Jarrett and Dave Blaney, if Toyota is to step up this year.
Photo Credits: David Gilliland AP, JP Montoya NASCAR Photo, Tony Stewart Home Depot Racing News.

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