Tuesday, September 09, 2008

2008 regular season had its share of excitement and disappointment

NASCAR's regular season for 2008 ended with a great shootout between two of the best drivers in the sport. The entire season had its share of similar exciting moments, as well as some huge disappointments.

Dodge started out on a high note, with the Penske and Gillett-Evernham teams making a strong showing at the Daytona 500, resulting in a victory by Penske's #12 team and Ryan Newman. After that they sort of disappeared from the radar screen. Kasey Kahne and the GEM # 9 Dodge team had some brilliant moments, and it looked like Kahne could be a championship contender, but a late season string of bad luck over just a few short weeks virtually put that team out of the running.

Dario Franchitti seemed as though he was on the way to Rookie of The Year status, but an accident in which he broke his ankle, at Talladega, sidelined him for several weeks, and, though he had some promising runs when he returned, was unable to hold onto a sponsorship. Ganassi folded that team, financially unable to keep that team intact. Later in the season, Franchitti announced that he would be returning to the IRL.

Just prior to that, Reed Sorenson announced that he would be leaving Chip Ganassi racing to drive for Gillett-Evernham next season. This put another rookie contender, Patrick Carpentier, in a position where he may not have a ride next year. However, Gillett-Evernham has stated that if they can get full sponsorships for three of their cars next season, they will run four, which would include the popular Canadian. Gillett owns the Montreal Expos Major League Baseball team, and it is expected that he will be able to find sponsorship.

Silly Season has been the big story all season long. It began shortly after the third race of the season, at Las Vegas, when rumors sprang up that Tony Stewart's contract with Joe Gibbs Racing would be renegotiated, and that Stewart had received an offer from Haas/CNC Racing of half ownership of the team in return for leaving JGR and driving for them. These rumors turned out to be true, much to our consternation, but, in the end, we can't fault Smoke for taking what was to him the deal of a lifetime.

There were other rumors. Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex, Jr, Casey Mears, Bobby Labonte, Ryan Newman, and Mark Martin, among others, were all up for contract renewal. Which of these would stay with their teams, and which would go to other teams? Nobody was willing to talk until they saw what Stewart did. As it turned out, Harvick, Labonte, and Truex decided to stay with their respective teams. Mears would be going to RCR, and Martin to Hendrick, where he will return to full-time Cup racing as driver of the #5 car. And Newman, after expressing unhappiness with the performance of his Penske team after Daytona, will join Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing next year.

The biggest disappointment of the season could be the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. After much anticipation of the race at the most venerable of all American racing venues, the tires that Goodyear provided for the race did not hold up to the racing surface. It became obvious that the tires were designed for a car with much more downforce than the Sprint Cup car has, and, instead of grinding in to the asphalt, as is expected of the rubber compound, the worn rubber simply powdered and blew away.

Although the #24 team of Jeff Gordon has had some great moments this season, and the team is in the Chase for the Championship, the performance of that team has been somewhat lackluster, especially in view of their success last season. Poor pit stops, run ins with team mate Jimmie Johnson on the track, and completely missed set ups have plagued the team, and we have not seen Gordon, who is arguably the most gifted and talented active driver in the series, show much of his full potential. We don't think he is out of his prime, but if he could turn things around, we would be better convinced that it isn't time for him to retire. Before any Gordon fans get angry at that statement, consider that I often wish my favorite driver, Tony Stewart, would retire so I can pick a new one. However, as long as he is racing, no matter what make of car he is racing or team he is with, we will stick with him. We expect Jeff Gordon fans to feel the same.

The performance of the new car in its first full season in NASCAR has been good at some tracks, but not so good at others, most notably the intermediate tracks. This could also be attributed to the lack of compatibility between the tire and the car. The car seems racy when the contenders are running side by side back in the pack, but it cannot complete a pass on another car that is running in clean air. We hope that NASCAR, who has left it to the teams to figure out how to race the car, will give a little more leeway to the teams in creating different aerodynamic configurations for the car, though that won't solve all the problems. Goodyear definitely needs to come up with a new tire design.

Aside from silly season, the failure of the Dodge teams, and the disappointment in the racing at some tracks, the biggest story of the regular season was most likely the crash between Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt, Jr while Junior was leading the first race of the year at Richmond. Busch tried to pass Junior on the bottom of the track, went into a turn too hot and slid up into Junior's car, spinning Junior and costing him the race. This permanently traumatized millions of race fans, and they will probably never get over it without professional help, even after Junior got revenge in the final race of the regular season. That just goes to show how emotionally involving racing is to the fan. That is what NASCAR racing does to all of us, no matter who our favorite driver might be.

All in all, there have been good races and bad races, moments of brilliance and stupidity, times of celebration and bitter disappointment. NASCAR has made a lot of changes since we first began watching it in the early 1960's, but in the end, it is still NASCAR racing, and is still the only motorports racing series that offers to the fan all that NASCAR has.

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