The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : 2008 Questions and Surprises by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday March 27, 2008

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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : 2008 Questions and Surprises

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday March 27, 2008

 

Only five races into the 2008 Cup season, it’s still premature to draw too many conclusions as to how various drivers and teams will fare this year. Things could change radically in the next five events and, like those disclaimers concerning mutual funds state, past performance is no guarantee of future success. But what is inarguable at this juncture of the season is that with the Cup Series taking the Easter Weekend off, there just isn't much to write about. So, let's take a look back at some of the questions we had heading into 2008, and see whether they’ve been answered yet; and while we’re at it, check out what surprises have popped up along the way.

It seemed that during the entire offseason, a majority of media attention was focused on Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s move to the Rick Hendrick organization and how he would fare as part of stock car racing's “super team.” To date, Earnhardt has done just fine, thank you; he’s currently sitting fifth in the points, with Top 5 finishes in the last three events.

Not all of the Hendrick teams have lived up to the preseason hype that they would be a dominant force in 2008.

But it is worth noting that Earnhardt's high profile teammates, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, have gotten off to a relatively slow start. In the last three races, they have combined to score a single Top 5 finish between them, putting them on the outside looking in at the Chase. Gordon has already failed to finish two races this season — twice the number of DNFs he suffered in all of 2007 — and he’s combined with Johnson to lead just 184 laps this year, roughly half of points leader Kyle Busch's total. It's way too early to write off the Dynamic Duo just yet, though. Over the last five years, Martinsville has become all but a Hendrick Motorsports benefit, with either Gordon or Johnson winning eight of the last ten Cup races run at Martinsville.

Another big question mark heading into 2008 involved Joe Gibbs Racing’s manufacturer switch to Toyota. There was much speculation as to how long it would take the Gibbs crew and drivers to get up to speed in their Camrys, or even if they'd ever find the speed they enjoyed last year in their Chevys. As it turns out, the learning curve hasn't been that steep. Kyle Busch is atop the point standings, and scored Toyota's first Cup win at Atlanta, giving the No. 18 team its first victory since 2003. Combined, Busch, Stewart, and Hamlin have led 755 laps, almost half the total laps completed in points races this season. To put that in perspective versus last year's superteam, Earnhardt, Johnson, and Gordon have led 275 laps combined in 2008. Jack Roush's top three drivers — Biffle, Kenseth, and Edwards — have also led 275 laps to date this year.

But the "Rising Tide" that was supposed to lift all Toyota's ships to a level of respectability has failed to do so just yet. While Brian Vickers is off to a much better start than last year for Team Red Bull, the three Michael Waltrip teams continue flailing hopelessly about, with none of them registering a Top 10 finish to date. One concept that is rising, though, is Toyota’s new pattern of saying what’s on their minds. A big story to date this year has been Tony Stewart's tirade — complaining about Goodyear tires after the Atlanta race. Stewart was clearly furious despite finishing second. He wasn’t afraid to speak up then; nor was Lee White, who accused Jack Roush of intentionally circumventing the rules with Carl Edwards’ No. 99 at Las Vegas.

Speaking of Edwards, he had an off year last season despite winning three races and ending up ninth in the points. Not so in 2008; he's already taken home two trophies this season, but despite winning 40% of the Cup races run so far, he's currently ranked 16th in the standings. It’s not just the rules penalty at Las Vegas which hurt this team; that mechanical DNF at Atlanta looms large, even this early in the season. Prior to that meltdown, it seemed Edwards was headed to his third consecutive win, but they pay points based on how you finish a race… not how well you run during it.

While their finishes haven't been as flashy as those of the Gibbs, Roush, or Hendrick entries, Richard Childress Racing is the only organization with three drivers in the Top 12 in points right now. Roush, Gibbs, and Penske have two drivers in, while Gillett Evernham, Hendrick, and DEI each have one. Roush, Hendrick, and Gibbs are the only three teams to have at least one driver finish in the Top 10 in each of this season's first five races.

How important is it to get off to a good start this early in a Cup season? Very. Of the Top 12 drivers after the first Bristol race last year, 10 went on to make the Chase. Only Mark Martin (running a part-time schedule) and David Stremme left Bristol in the Spring of ’07 in a Chase spot they ended up giving away. The two drivers outside the Top 12 after Bristol last year who eventually made the cut were Kurt Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. Busch was 20th in the standings after five races last year, while Truex was 25th at this juncture. So, while it's too early for those in the Top 12 in the standings to start reserving tuxedos, it's likely a majority of them are going to be in New York come the first Friday in December later this year.

On the flip side, some drivers are already under intense pressure to turn their seasons around. Despite driving for super teams that have combined to win four of the last five Cup championships, Jamie McMurray (Roush Racing) is currently 36th in the standings while Casey Mears (Hendrick Motorsports) is 33rd. Neither of these drivers has managed a Top 10 finish to date in 2008; Mears, in particular, needs to step up to the plate or start searching the Help Wanted ads. Tony Stewart is making noise about wanting to be back in a Chevy next year, and as far-fetched as it might seem to guess he'd wind up the fourth diamond in the Hendrick crown, it seemed equally far-fetched last year Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would be driving for Rick Hendrick this year.

It hasn’t been the greatest year for freshmen. Of the five declared Rookie of the Year candidates for 2008, Sam Hornish is highest in the standings… way back there in 35th in the points. Jacques Villenueve may have won an F-1 title and the Indy 500, but his Cup career was over after his qualifying race at Daytona.

A lot has happened already five races into the 2008 Cup season and a lot could change over the next five races; Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix, Talladega, and Richmond. I'll go out on a limb here and predict that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and either Gordon or Johnson will win a race in the upcoming stretch, Kyle Busch will win another one of those events, and Stewart another. But my guess is when we reach that juncture 10 races deep into the season, at least nine of the Top 12 drivers heading into Martinsville will still be atop the standings.

Drivers to Watch This Weekend

Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson: As noted above, these drivers have combined to win eight of the last 10 Cup races held at Martinsville.

Kyle Busch: Busch finished fourth in both Martinsville events last year, and continues to be on a roll in 2008.

Denny Hamlin: Hamlin has posted Top 10 finishes in the last three Martinsville Cup races and in four of his five Martinsville Cup starts to date.

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Gregg
03/27/2008 11:45 AM
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Could be that Hendrick is focusing all resources to make sure Jr. succeeds, other 3 teams are suffering from lack of attention.

Connie
03/27/2008 12:10 PM
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If anyone thinks that Jeff and Jimmie would sit still and let Jr. get all the resources is NUTS. They would be crying foul immediately. They are the cream of the crop for Hendrick and have championships to prove it. They are just barely out of the top 12 in points (where they will not stay long).

I knew some Jr. bashers would start crying that. Hendrick would not focus on only Jr when he has two other drivers that are proven champions and pretty much are a guaranteed to be chase contenders. Hendrick would never put all his eggs in one basket. GET REAL.

Go 88

Larry
03/27/2008 12:22 PM
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I’m with you Connie, given the resources Hendrick has why would he focus his resources on one driver. That is the second time I have read that. Jr bashers will grab at any straw they can. 88 is the man!!!!

Dpn
03/27/2008 12:31 PM
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Gregg
That is the dumbest remark yet.
nuff said

Max Fan
03/27/2008 12:48 PM
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Just wondering where you get your facts, Matt? I’ve hear a lot of fans speculating (or more appropriately, hoping) that Stewart will end up in a Chevy next year, but I’ve not heard anything from the man himself. He seems quite content with how his Toyota is running. I think as long as it has wheels, Smoke will find victory lane with it.

Besides, Tony has said REPEATEDLY that he wants to remain with JGR and Zippy until they both decide to retire. Don’t read too much into his not resigning with JGR yet, I think he just wants to focus on starting the season on the right foot. Although I bet all this media speculation of him being a free agent at the end of the year is really going to help in his negotiations ($$)

Matt
03/27/2008 11:16 PM
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I think it’s notable that Tony rarely if ever mentions the brand of car he drives this year. Home Depot will apparently follow him almost anywhere and inside sources tell me that the three Gibbs drivers souvenier sales are way off since the change to Toyota. That ancilliary income can be millions of dollars a year for a high profile driver and more so than most drivers Stewart has made it clear he’s not going to be racing into his forties at least in a stock car.