Wednesday, February 11, 2009

'09 should be a wild ride

Rev' Jim's RantsnRaves always tends to be late for the party at the beginning of each season, and we have yet to change that habit. However, rather than missing the pre-season picks party altogether this year, we decided that we will be fashionably late.

2009 will bring many surprises to those who expect the expected. With all the team mergers and partnerships, and with some of the driver changes, more drivers and teams are actually in a position to win races than before. And, because of the heightened level of competition, some drivers and teams who are expected to have a successful season, may not even make the Chase for the Championship.

This year, we may see as many as 23 different race winners over the entire season, so consistency will be more important than ever in making the Chase. Though the ban on testing at NASCAR sanctioned tracks will not improve the racing at the 1.5 mile venues, there will be no one team that dominates at the type of track that makes up the majority of venues on the schedule. This will hurt some teams that have been powerful on the intermediate class tracks, and will help others.

Scott Speed should take Rookie of The Year honors, hands down this year. He not only has a year and a half of ARCA experience, but made a respectable showing in the Truck Series last year with one win, four top fives and nine top tens in sixteen starts. He should be a quick study in the Sprint Cup Series, with more previous racing experience than some two or three year drivers in that series. We may even expect him to win a race or two during the regular season, and may even make the Chase for the Championship. He should also replace Kyle Busch as "The Most Hated Driver" in NASCAR.

Joey "Sliced Bread" Logano, on the other hand, will falter. He may get some top tens, and some top fives, but the Joe Gibbs Racing wonder boy has been moved up way too quickly, with little experience in NASCAR. That will lead to some anxiety, and some frustration. Logano may earn some respect from other drivers, but he will end the season knowing that he will still have a lot of work to do.

Other Surprises

Bobby Labonte, in the #96 Hall of Fame Racing entry under the Yates Racing banner, will be the comeback story of the year. Driving in substandard equipment for the past few years does not mean he is not a top-notch driver. The 2000 Winston Cup Champion will be the same kind of "Kick in the Behind" for Yates Racing that Jeff Burton was for Childress in 2006. He will get a win or two, and with Roush-Yates Ford power, he will be able to show the same consistency that awarded him his first Championship. Expect Labonte to make the Chase.

An early season surprise will be Tony Stewart. Many writers, including the one writing this post, expressed strong doubts of the wisdom of Stewart leaving Gibbs at this point in his career. We doubted that he could be successful, at least in the near future, as an owner-driver. Smoke took that as a challenge, and, as is usually the case when Stewart accepts a challenge, seems to be up to it. Assailing Daytona Speed Weeks with a brand new car and a brand new team, Smoke showed us all that his Stewart Haas Racing team is ready to run for the lead right out of the box. This should also mean a good season for his team mate, Ryan Newman. We gladly eat our earlier words of doom and gloom for NASCAR's newest owner-driver.

David Stremme is back. He was showing some remarkable improvement during the last full Sprint Cup season he ran in 2007. In spite of his reputation for crashing, he was involved in only four wrecks that year, and could not be faulted for three of those. He will be Penske Racing's Ace in the Hole this year, coming back to show that he is, indeed Championship material.

Who won't make the Chase?

Thirty-one drivers won't make the Chase for the Championship, but under this banner, here are a few who may be expected to make the cut-off, but probably won't.

If reigning three-time champion Jimmie Johnson's team follows the same path that has been successful, the #48 team will not even make the Chase. "Peaking at the right time" may be peaking too late for "Knaus and Kompany" and they will fail to make the Chase by just a few points.

As much as we love Matt Kenseth, it will be a stretch to expect him to make the Chase this year. In the era of heightened competition, he will have to be more aggressive than we are used to seeing him to make the cut to the final twelve. Though he did show some uncharacteristic aggression last year, he would have to sustain that level, something he may not have the heart to do.

Denny Hamlin's lack of self confidence will plague him this season, and he won't even be an also-ran when it comes down to race 26. It isn't that he isn't a great driver, because he is. Rather his penchant for folding under pressure will bite him this season.

Others we may expect to see in the Chase

Mark Martin, now driving the #5 car for Hendrick Motorsports, should be able to take advantage of this opportunity by winning at least one race, and perhaps even making the Chase. He has always been a skilled driver, and is one of the most dangerous to pass, in spite of his reputation for being a "clean" driver. He will win some races at intermediate tracks, most likely Charlotte (Lowe's) and Texas, and may even get a win at Richmond or Darlington. He will be one of the top contenders for the Championship this year.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr will make the Chase this year, by sheer will and determination on his own part, not on the part of his fans. He is a racer, and he will use his equipment to the maximum of its endurance. Hopefully, the Hendrick shop has figured out how to build a car that will stand up to his abuse, and he will have his best season yet.

Kyle Busch will once again be the top winner during the regular season. When he is on, he is unbeatable, and his ability to drive a car that doesn't feel or look right, will remain his signature, even as he matures. He will again be the points leader entering the Chase, but will once again fade towards the end of the season.

Carl Edwards will continue to show off his exceptional talent, as well as his driving skills. He will enter the Chase right behind Kyle Busch in the points standings.

It has to be Kevin Harvick's turn. Things are going well for him--with some very strong showings in '08, and a hard fought Bud Shootout victory--and he seems to be poised to be a multiple race winner this year. His team is known for its consistency, and, as noted earlier, consistency will be very important in 2009.

In spite of appearances, those of us who follow the drama of The House That Jack Built, know that Jamie McMurray is not the proverbial "red-headed step child." of the Roush-Fenway organization. That honor falls to Greg Biffle. If Da Biff can overcome the handicap of driving Roush's second rate equipment--something he did with authority toward the end of the '08 season--he will be in the Chase. This could very well be his final year with Roush, but there will be no problem for him in getting a ride for 2010, especially if he finishes the season in the top ten.

And your 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion

That would be no other than Jeff Gordon. He will not only make up for his unproductive season last year, but will be out to kick the proverbial donkey this year. We know he is not letting '08 get him down, and will use that as a learning experience. Remember, the greatest drivers never stop learning, and we will not see Gordon stagnate. During last Saturday's Bud Shootout, he seemed to have the COT--that has caused him problems up to now--under control. He not only expertly threaded his way through a mess of spinning and wrecking cars untouched--a feat that required pure instinct--but controlled what other drivers on the track did. He put at least three drivers into the wall, for example, and it was the other drivers' fault that they ended up there.

This is the Jeff Gordon of the old days, the one we haven't seen since 2001. If he can continue to drive like he did Saturday, for the entire season, he will be a Jeff Gordon to fear. The drive for five is definitely still alive.

In recap, our picks for the Chase drivers at the end of the season are, in no particular order:

Tony Stewart
Ryan Newman
Scott Speed
Kevin Harvick
Mark Martin
Dale Earnhardt, Jr
Bobby Labonte
Greg Biffle
Carl Edwards
Kyle Busch
David Stremme
Jeff Gordon*

*Projected Champion.

1 comment:

RaceDriven said...

Good post, while I argree with you on a couple of areas, I disagree with you on others (and that's what one part of blogging is)

First, Joey Logano will be the Rookie of the Year in 2009 while Scott Speed and Kyle Busch will fight all season long, getting into it at least once this season for the honor of "The Most Hated Driver" in NASCAR.

Tony Stewart will win a race in 2009, unknown for Ryan Newman just yet.

And Jimmie Johnson will four-peat in 2009.

See Yeah!