Cami Starr · Monday February 6, 2006
First off, I’d like to say thanks to all the great people here at Frontstretch.com who allowed me to come play with them this season. I can’t wait for another season of racing to start! Now that the Super Bowl has come and gone, NASCAR becomes my sports fix.
Each week, I’ll be going over Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Nextel Cup Series, and doing my best not to play favorites! To kick things off, I decided to rank drivers based upon their 2005 performance, plus what I think their expectations and chances are for the 2006 season. As you’ll read, some of these guys have a lot of catching up to do, and the season hasn’t even started yet!
Greg Biffle: Biffle’s six wins last year were tops in the series, and he put pressure on Tony Stewart for the title right up until the very end. He was the most improved driver in 2005, and has his sights set on the big prize in 2006. I don’t see any reason why he can’t become the first driver to win the championship in each of NASCAR’s top three divisions.
Tony Stewart: Smoke rolled over the competition in 2005, winning on a variety of tracks while becoming a consistent front runner, finishing in the top-10 in 25 of 36 races. To me, that’s the definition of a real champion. But winning back to back titles is no easy feat. Hopefully, he’s stuck to his off-season diet plans, because he will have everyone gunning for him in 2006.
Carl Edwards: Five Top 10s and two wins in the final six races of the season make Edwards a hotshot coming into 2006. Watch for several more back flips in victory lane by the time this November rolls around.
Denny Hamlin: Hamlin made seven starts in the 2005 season, managing to score three top-10 finishes and one pole. Perhaps the most impressive stat is that he finished each one of those races with a team that struggled to qualify at times with former driver Jason Leffler. I expect that consistency to pay off big time for Hamlin in his rookie season in 2006. With the resources he has to draw from at JGR, Hamlin should easily be in the thick of the Rookie-of-the-Year race this season.
Mark Martin: Martin made the Chase for the second straight year, but once again came up just short. He ran well late in the season, posting four top-5 finishes in the final six races, but an untimely wreck at Talladega dashed his title hopes. This season, I wonder if Martin can keep up the pace all year long while running Busch, Truck, and IROC as well as Cup. Remember, he wasn’t even planning on being in the Cup series this year until a late push by Jack Roush caused him to delay his retirement. I don’t doubt Mark’s talent and drive, but I think it will be interesting to watch how he performs throughout a long Cup season he wasn’t planning on running.
Jeff Gordon: It’s hard to say that a driver with four wins last season is just "lukewarm," but Gordon was downright frigid at one point last year. However, the team rebounded well under new crew chief Steve Letarte, and finished the year strong with a win and four Top 10s to round out the season. Gordon is going to win his share of races, but the real test will be how his team handles adversity when it creeps up this season. Most importantly, can LeTarte finally find a way for Gordon to run well when he’s in traffic?
Jimmie Johnson: For two straight years, Johnson was the NASCAR bridesmaid, coming in second in the final point standings. Last year looked to be following the same pattern, before a blown tire in the final race of the season dropped Johnson to fifth. No doubt, this team on paper is capable of winning a title. But can they get all their ducks in a row and get the job done? What about those rumors about Chad Knaus leaving the team? Obviously they turned out not to be true, but is there some discontentment within the 48 team? Johnson and Co. have a lot of pressure on them to live up to their past performances, while working to finally seal the deal at the end of the season.
Ryan Newman: If points were awarded for poles, Newman would be a serious title contender each year. Since that’s not the case, though, Newman has put in mediocre results the past few years. Obviously he knows how to win"¦just check out his Busch Series numbers from last year. This team of engineers needs to figure out how to translate speed in qualifying into performance on Sunday. The elimination of the impound rules should help them, and I see Newman getting more than one win this year. The addition of a new teammate, who has the potential of being an even bigger distraction than the Newman/Wallace feud, as well as the continuing struggles of the Charger are two more hurdles Newman will have to overcome this year if he wants to be seen as a series Championship threat.
Martin Truex, Jr.: Truex was the hottest thing going in the Busch Series the past two years, but that might not mean too much as he moves up to race with the big boys full-time in 2006. Obviously, he’s a talented driver, but he’s moving up in an organization that has been struggling at the Cup level over the past two years. All of Truex’s Busch titles don’t mean anything if D.E.I. can’t get their act together. Plus, Truex hasn’t been very impressive in his limited Cup starts. In seven attempts in 2005, he finished the race just twice. That thought might be giving the D.E.I. fab shop nightmares as the season nears.
Elliott Sadler: In 2004, Sadler surprised many by making it into the Chase, but many saw promise in the young Virginian, and thought he would make it back in 2005. But Sadler’s numbers dipped; he went winless, and missed the Chase. It would be easy to blame Sadler’s fall if he was the victim of accidents that weren’t of his own doing, or simply had bad luck. You can’t really use that excuse in Sadler’s case, though, as he DNF’d just twice last year. Simply put, he was running at the end of most of the races"¦ just not running well. With the new Fusion, hopes are high once at Robert Yates Racing, but I’ll have to see some better on-track results before I start bumping Sadler up the list.
Jamie McMurray: After winning in just his second Cup career start, many pegged McMurray as the next hottest thing in NASCAR. In 2004, he barely missed the Chase, but last year never seemed to get things going. One possible reason (excuse) could be the fact that the team knew that McMurray wanted out in the middle of the year. McMurray got the trade he wanted, and now it’s time for him to show if he is the capable of being a contender, or simply if he was much ado about nothing.
Bobby Labonte: Labonte has been on a downward spiral since the middle of 2004. At the time, he was in the thick of the battle for the Chase, then all of a sudden, crew chief Michael McSwain was let go. The results started to drop, and Labonte missed the Chase as a result. In 2005, other than an exciting second place finish at Charlotte, there wasn’t much for Labonte fans to cheer about. This year, he’s moved to Petty Enterprises, and hopes to be part of the rebuilding process of one of the sport’s most successful organizations. PE has stacked up on talent, and I expect improved results. But given how Labonte and PE have run in the last few years, that’s not expecting a whole lot.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: How sick to his stomach was Brian France when the Series’ Most Popular Driver failed to make the Chase for the Championship? Probably as sick as Dale, Jr. fans were last year, watching their driver struggle and look like a faint memory of the driver who had taken Nextel Cup by storm. You can blame it on the engines, the crew changes, the driver, or whatever you want, but there was certainly enough to go around. Obviously, Jr. should be a threat at Daytona to kick off the season, but what about California and beyond? How much worse can this year be over last? Millions of fans are afraid to find out. I think Dale, Jr. and his revamped crew will bounce back this year, but making the Chase isn’t a lock by any means.
Kasey Kahne: Kahne finally got the win last year that so many expected him to earn in his rookie season at Richmond. Unfortunately, that was the only bright spot for Kahne in 2005. With only eight top-10 finishes, he found himself deep in a classic sophomore slump. Was the new Charger to blame? Maybe. Did everyone overhype Kahne in 2004? Maybe. Whatever the cause, I look for Kahne and Co. to improve over last year’s disappointing results. A spot in the Chase could be a stretch, but I don’t see him finishing back in 23rd place again this year.
Kevin Harvick: 2006 will be a telling year for Kevin Harvick. After replacing the late Dale Earnhardt in 2001, Harvick had a tremendous season, finishing 9th in the standings despite not running in one race. The next year, he faltered before bouncing back to a fifth place finish in 2003. The past two years, Harvick’s been a non factor, finishing 14th in the points each season with just one win in those two years. Is Harvick to blame"¦or is it RCR and their reorganization changes that are the culprit? One thing is for sure: Harvick’s contract is up at the end of 2006, and he’s been rumored to be headed to Toyota in 2007. Will Harvick battle hard to show that he is a talented driver capable of leading a new team, or will he just continue running in mediocrity?
Kurt Busch: How much colder can you get when you miss the last two races of the season? I’m not going to get into the whole police incident in Arizona. Certainly though, Kurt Busch has more work to do off the track than he does on the track in 2006. He’s a talented driver, as you would consider most past champions, so I don’t doubt he can run well. But there is a lot of pressure on Busch this year. He’s taking over one of the most popular rides in the series, and right now isn’t on many fans’ lists as a popular driver. How he will handle the pressure from the media, fans, and I’m sure his fellow drivers will be telling, and could affect his performance on the track if he can’t keep his emotions in check.
Next week: The Starr Report takes on the Budweiser Shootout!
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