Considering the fact that a points-paying race has not yet taken place, gauging the true momentum of drivers and teams is a bit more of a daunting task than it is between races. So much flux and change has occurred in the garages of all three of NASCAR’s top series this offseason, mainly because of the changes teams had to make because of the economy. That constant team and driver upheaval in the garage has left many organizations with a completely different makeup than last year, also opening up new spots for some new startup teams to try and entrench themselves as parts of the weekly NASCAR circus. While their presence is welcomed, it makes the ability to pinpoint their progress more difficult than ever.
Following Saturday’s Bud Shootout and Sunday’s qualifying session, some drivers and teams have already begun to stand out as possible contenders and definite holders of momentum — while others already have chinks in their armor before they can even get a donut on the driver’s side door.
Here is this week’s list of Hot, Warm, and Cold drivers:
HOT Carl Edwards: There is no doubt that Carl Edwards is the hands-on favorite to challenge three-time defending Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson for the big trophy at the end of the season. Edwards ran well and avoided trouble during the Bud Shootout, finishing 2nd and being one of the few drivers to not wreck Greg Biffle (unlike Talladega back in October). He has a new sponsor in Aflac, and has the same crew chief and team in place. The No. 99 won nine races last season in many different fashions, and seemed to be the only car that could really keep pace with Johnson during the Chase. Winning races and championships takes not only good skill and equipment, but also good luck; Edwards seems to have all three. HOT Jimmie Johnson: Not only has he won the last three championships, has most of the same team components as last year, and has won the Daytona 500 before (2006), but Johnson has a couple of good hot rods down at the beach this year. Johnson was running in the Top 5 during the Bud Shootout Saturday before getting wrecked, and JJ also ran 6th fastest out of 56 drivers during Sunday’s time trials. The only thing that Johnson may have going against him this season is the sheer fact that lightning has to stop striking the same place twice at some point. Johnson has not only been the best driver on the best team for the past few seasons, but he also has had the best luck.
Just like the Atlanta Braves’ run of 14-straight division titles came to an end — and just as the dominant eras of Petty, Earnhardt, and Gordon faded to a denouement — Johnson eventually will show vulnerability. However, until some part of his team changes or Johnson stops winning, there is no reason to bet against him, especially on a track where he runs well, like Daytona.
HOT Kevin Harvick: He survived an ill-handling race car and more than one brush with near catastrophe during the Bud Shootout to streak past Jamie McMurray to Victory Lane. Harvick always seems to come through in big races. He won almost right out of the box in 2001, withstanding the pressure to pilot Big E’s team to Victory Lane as a rookie at Atlanta Motor Speedway. More recently, he won the 2007 All-Star Race, the 2003 Brickyard 400, and the 2007 Daytona 500. Restrictor plate races are not true determinants of good teams, but Harvick seems to shine when the spotlight falls on him. Barring any brush with ill-fate, the No. 29 will be near the front of the pack at the end of the Daytona 500 with a shot to win. WARM Kyle Busch: The only reason Busch does not get bumped into the “HOT” bracket is the No. 18’s fall from grace during last year’s Chase. The 180 degree turnaround of Busch and the team’s attitude and luck may be a sign that they are not ready to run well when running well counts most. Busch was a contender during the Bud Shootout, qualified 15th during Sunday’s session, and was a contender during last year’s 500. However, Busch will have the pressure through the season of proving last year’s eight wins were not a fluke. This has been not a monkey, but a gorilla that recent winners of many races in a season have had trouble trying to get off their backs. Since 2001 (the year I started following NASCAR), several drivers have experienced a surge of success one season, followed by a much more subdued follow-up year.
In 2001, Jeff Gordon won six races and the championship; in 2002, he did not win until August and finished with three wins. In 2002, Matt Kenseth won five races, but won only one the next year — though he did snag the 2003 championship. Ryan Newman became a weekly contender in 2003, using fuel strategy and dominating qualifying efforts to score eight wins and eleven poles. In 2004, Newman and the No. 12 won only twice (and only twice more the next four seasons). Jimmie Johnson won eight races in 2004 (six in the Chase), but only four in the next year. In 2005, Greg Biffle won five races in the first half of the season and six overall, but only went to Victory Lane twice in 2006. Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick each won six races in 2006, followed by a total on one win between the two in 2007. Jeff Gordon had a dominant 2007, winning six times and scoring 30 Top 10s, before going winless in 2008.
So, the stats are stacked against Busch, but the 23-year-old’s unbridled talent and versatility could make him an exception to this trend — much like Johnson and Edwards have been in the past few years.
WARM Jeff Gordon: The 37-year-old and four-time champ is hungrier than ever. After masterfully steering through several wrecks and into the Top 5 during the Bud Shootout, Gordon has to be a favorite to at least return to Victory Lane this season. He is no stranger to winning at restrictor plate tracks, and has never shied away from Daytona success. Back-to-back winless seasons are not on the No. 24’s radar, and a new paint scheme only adds luster to what this season could mean for Gordon. WARM Jamie McMurray: Jamie McMurray came within a half lap of winning the Bud Shootout. He has been reunited with crew chief Donnie Wingo, with whom he enjoyed racing consistency during his fruitful years at Ganassi in 2004 and 2005. McMurray also loves Daytona. When approached with the prospect of Daytona getting repaved, McMurray insisted that the bumps in the track give it the character that makes it a fun track to drive. McMurray won the 2007 Pepsi 400, and can be in contention for this year’s Daytona 500 — if he can avoid his own bad luck and not wreck. COLD Elliott Sadler: A tumultuous offseason — one that saw Sadler removed as driver of the No. 19 before he filed a court order to keep him in the car — only made his dismal 2008 race season seem worse. So, for Sadler 2009 will be about trying to rebuild his career. His race team, Gillett Evernham Motorsports, has merged with Petty Enterprises and became Richard Petty Motorsports, giving him additional resources at his disposal. A rejuvenated Sadler seems ready to conquer the world this SpeedWeeks, especially after being reunited with Kevin Buskirk (his new team director/crew chief), who worked with him at Yates Racing. His initial head of steam was snuffed out by a crash during the Bud Shootout on Saturday, though, relegating the No. 19 to a 21st place finish.
Sadler will be in mid-level equipment at best this season. The big changes at RPM will cause him and his team to spend much of 2009 forming chemistry, setting them further behind the more successful teams. Sadler also qualified only 29th on Sunday and is not known for running particularly well on plate tracks, meaning that he will need more than a little bit of luck to win the 500.
- COLD – Scott Riggs: Riggs has had some awful racing luck the past few seasons. As a result, the sixth-year Cup driver is now driving for his 3rd different team in three years, teaming up with unsponsored Tommy Baldwin Racing. Tommy Baldwin is a proven crew chief and will be a good owner, but he has no funding for Riggs and the No. 36 Toyota team — and is not likely to secure much, given the current economic conditions. If Riggs can make the 500, he will be in business. But that in itself will be a tough feat. Riggs missed the 500 with his new No. 10 team at Evernham three years ago, and has not been known to run well at restrictor plate races — though he did finish 5th in the 2005 Daytona 500. If Riggs misses the race, the No. 36 will not be able to cash in on the high purse, will be even less likely to score funding, and likely will not last much longer.
Riggs was only 36th fastest during Sunday’s pole qualifying session, well short of the mark needed to lock the team into the race.
- COLD – James Hylton: Yes, the 74-year-old Hylton and his small race team based out of Toccoa, Georgia were a long shot at best to make the race, but we did not expect them to have a weekend like this one. The No. 60 Dodge (a partnership between Hylton’s team and Boris Said’s placed Hylton in the No. 60 and Said in the No. 08 – it is called Carter/Simo Racing), could not run a lap at a speed competitive enough to be allowed to qualify for the race. The carburetor on the car and other components kept malfunctioning, costing the team precious practice time. Hylton turned many heads two years ago, when he nearly won a spot in the Daytona 500 during a Duel race, but this year proved to be completely different. This small team has struggled more than the rest during its existence, failing to make most of the races it attempts.
Still, kudos go to Hylton for chasing the dream.
Here is a showcase of some more of the good and the bad in the sport:
- HOT – No testing: I have been against the testing limitations from their initiation, because I think teams need to work more and more on the CoT to make the racing better. I am starting to feel differently, however, because of the energy that drivers had this past weekend. Many have said at Daytona that they were chomping at the bit to get back in their race cars and that in past years, they and the teams were a bit worn out by this time because of the long tests at Daytona, California, and Las Vegas. As the season stretches on, if the racing action stays the same or gets better without testing, maybe its benefits will be enough to keep the limitations in place.
- NOT – Owner’s points monkeying around: NASCAR seemed to have an answer very early in the offseason about the status of the owner’s points for the No. 15, No. 01, and No. 22 teams, all of which appeared to be destined for closure. They said that the Top 35 in points would simply adjust without those teams, bumping several ones outside the Top 35 into the coveted club that assures teams a spot in races.
Several weeks later, they’re humming a different tune. In just the past couple of weeks, Front Row Motorsports has bought the points for the No. 15, Richard Childress Racing has purchased the points for the No. 01 (listing Bobby Ginn as the owner – what a joke), and Penske Racing has purchased the No. 22 points from Bill Davis Racing. The way that all of these teams got around NASCAR’s rules is by making the owner of the points a part-owner of their team or the listed owner of the entry, allowing a ghost “transfer” to take place. This confusion caused A.J. Allmendinger to get bumped from a guaranteed spot in the Daytona 500 field (the No. 44 had the No. 10’s points), breaking promises the team had made to sponsors and putting their financial deals in jeopardy. Though seeing these changes unfold is interesting to follow, it is only another example of NASCAR calling the rules as they happen, a practice that has been detrimental to the sport the past few seasons.
- HOT – Racing action during the Bud Shootout: What made the Bud Shootout a fun race was each driver’s push to hold onto or gain as many positions as possible, all while barely hanging on to hard-to-drive racecars. The length of the Shootout and the lack of points allowed to drivers to push themselves and their cars to the limit during the race — good fodder for the argument that some races are too long. Do not expect the entire Daytona 500 to look like the Bud Shootout, but expect the last 20-30 to be utter chaos.
- NOT – NASCAR 39/10: This show is not entirely bad. Getting to see only the good parts of races is what many with TiVo try and accomplish every week. The idea of placing so much extra “fluff” footage from various SPEED shows in this broadcast was a bad idea, though, because it makes the program even longer. I get sick of watching that stuff while it is airing, and had trouble stomaching it again months later. The theme music to the show is also a complete misfit. The string music used for the theme sounds like some kind of riff from a Middle Eastern song. It is in a minor key, a key usually used for depressing tunes, which is proper, considering many were depressed with how 2008 turned out. The show also aired midday Wednesday and Thursday, so no one saw it… guess SPEED thought it was just as bad as I did.
That covers the hot and not of the sport this week. Be sure to turn here for post-Daytona 500 analysis next Tuesday… enjoy the big race!
Listen to Doug and host Captain Herb Emory on their racing radio show on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta this Saturday, from 12-2 p.m. You can also hear the show on wsbradio.com.
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