The Frontstretch: NASCAR Sprint Cup In 2008 : Where Are We Now? by Thomas Bowles -- Monday July 21, 2008

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NASCAR Sprint Cup In 2008 : Where Are We Now?

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday July 21, 2008

 

At the beginning of the year, Frontstretch asked our staff of nearly two dozen writers a handful of questions that we thought would develop into the major storylines within NASCAR in 2008. It was a potpourri of pressing stories, predicting anything from the future of the sport’s Most Popular Driver to the mindset of its most disillusioned fan.

Six months in – during the final off week of what’s shaping up to be a seventeen race stretch to the final checkered flag at Homestead – I thought it’d be as good time as any to revisit those questions and where we stand at this point during the season. So, without further ado … let’s check in on the pulse of the sport:

Question 1: How Has Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Done At Hendrick?
Click Here For Original Staff Predictions
Quick Answer: Better than expected, but still hoping for more.

Analysis: Junior’s stint in the No. 88 car got off to a near-perfect start, winning the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona and following it up with a thrilling victory in the Gatorade Duel Qualifying Race. That made NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver the favorite to pull out his second 500 win; but when push came to shove that Sunday, Junior and Co. would make a crucial error that cost them a shot at the Great American Race. Failing to heed a call by Tony Eury, Jr. to come down pit road for fresh rubber, the National Guard / AMP Energy Chevrolet stayed on track and simply got freight trained as the laps wound down in the Great American Race.

Still, Junior finished 9th that day, beginning a pattern that’s made both himself and his fans reason to be optimistic: a total of 12 Top 10 finishes in nineteen starts equals his total from all of last season driving the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet. The best-performing Hendrick car in the point standings, Eury and Earnhardt have taken a team that didn’t make the Chase with Casey Mears and left it 262 behind Kyle Busch for the top spot. And for all their communication faux pas, it was a gutsy call by Eury to leave Junior out on fuel at Michigan that ended his winless streak in points-paying races at a gut-wrenching 76.

But despite all the positives – and Junior’s clearly had an above average transition – there’s still more work to do at the No. 88. For every Michigan, there’s been three Daytonas where miscommunication between driver and crew chief has led to bad adjustments late in races — mistakes that leave Junior dropping from contention for the win a little too often these days. He also needs better support; for despite the team’s surprising consistency, Hendrick Motorsports as a whole seems a step behind Gibbs and perhaps even Roush Fenway when it comes to both Car of Tomorrow development and horsepower. And to top it all off, the man Earnhardt replaced, Kyle Busch, has been running roughshod over the rest of the circuit – including an ugly incident at Richmond in which contact left Junior hard in the wall while Busch chugged towards a second place finish.

So, Junior has plenty of be proud of, but plenty of obstacles still ahead – and he’s still a longshot for the championship, despite a lock for his first Chase bid since 2006.

Question 2: Will Toyota Enter A Sophomore Sensation With Gibbs … Or Enter A Sophomore Slump?
Click Here For Original Staff Predictions
Quick Answer: Sophomore Sensation.

Analysis: To say that Toyota’s rebounded in their second season on the Cup tour would be an understatement. With eight wins in nineteen starts, the manufacturer has a healthy 19-point lead in the manufacturer’s championship, on track to unseat General Motors for the first time since 2002. If that holds, it would be the first time a “foreign” car has won top honors in NASCAR’s 60-year history – and with the economic struggles of Ford, Chevrolet, and Dodge, it likely won’t be the last.

Of course, the manufacturer’s rise to prominence has come courtesy of a gifted 23-year-old Rowdy for revenge against his former team. Kyle Busch has turned his pink slip at Hendrick Motorsports into a positive with Joe Gibbs Racing, winning seven times and making a mockery of the current championship standings. Teammate Denny Hamlin has also won once, and he joins Tony Stewart on the fringes of Chase contention. If the playoffs started today, that would make Joe Gibbs Racing the only one of the Big Four superteams to have all their cars in the field — a statement thought all but impossible to make at this time back in January, when the team was still busy turning Chevys into Camrys at breakneck pace.

But along with Toyota’s dominance, there’s cause for concern. The manufacturer’s success in the Nationwide Series – 14 wins in 21 attempts – has left some griping those teams have as much as a 20 horsepower advantage over Ford, Chevy, and Dodge engines. Gibbs’ Nationwide program has certainly been breathtaking, with wins coming from no less than four different drivers – Hamlin, Busch, Stewart, and newcomer Joey Logano. Whether restrictions come from the powers that be to stop their firepower will be something to watch, and could also be an indicator of whether NASCAR will do anything on the Cup side to help the Big Three prior to September’s Chase for the Championship.

Question 3: Is There Another Montoya In This Year’s Rookie Class?
Click Here For Original Staff Predictions
Quick Answer: Not even close.

Analysis: Montoya has regressed in his sophomore season on the Cup circuit, but he’s still light years ahead of any of the new open-wheel converts. It took just one race for former F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve to lose his ride – he missed the 500 and was promptly dropped by Bill Davis Racing – and none of his compatriots have fared much better. In fact, this rookie class could be the first in the modern era to go without a Top 10 finish from any driver competing for the award.

Of the three remaining open-wheel converts, Patrick Carpentier appears to have shown the most promise. A qualifying ace, he’s made fourteen straight races on time and even captured a pole at New Hampshire the end of June. If GEM could get its race setups better across the board, he might be a longshot to contend with fellow open-wheeler Sam Hornish, Jr. for the rookie title.

But as for Hornish himself, his future on the Cup circuit is in question beyond this season despite his lead in the rookie standings. And Dario Franchitti is even more likely to take off, as he doesn’t even have a Cup ride at this point — his No. 40 team recently closed up shop without a sponsor, and shows no signs of reappearing anytime soon. With neither finishing better than 13th in Cup, the allure of the IRL-Champ Car merger have both considering jumping back towards the other side of the fence; and now, the new question is whether anyone else will even make the jump in the future. With open-wheel stars Helio Castroneves and Dan Wheldon both turning down stock car deals in recent weeks, it seems the trend to go from Indy Cars to stock cars may be ending as quickly as it began.

Question 4: Who Is This Year’s Chase Surprise?
Click Here For Original Staff Predictions
Quick Answer: Kasey Kahne – if that counts.

This season, we’ve certainly had our share of underdogs staking their claim to a spot in the Top 12 – Brian Vickers and David Ragan immediately come to mind. But if the season ended today, neither one would make the playoffs – and the twelve drivers going in their place would be awfully familiar. That’s because every driver on the current playoff list has at least one Chase berth since the 2005 season, with eleven of those drivers employed by the sport’s Big Four teams (Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, and Joe Gibbs Racing).

Has Kasey Kahne kicked back with a cold one too soon? He’s reclaimed a spot in the Chase for now, but he needs to get back on his game to hold it.

With those types of statistics, Kahne’s the only one you could call a bit of a surprise. After a disappointing 2007 with Gillett Evernham Motorsports in which he went winless and barely cracked the Top 20 in points, the team caught fire in May once Fan Voting gave Kahne a surprise slot in the All-Star Race. The popular driver used that momentum as a springboard to win the main event, and then followed that up with wins in the Coca-Cola 600 and at Pocono to solidify his claim as a Chase contender. However, inconsistency continues to be a bugaboo for the No. 9 Dodge; and should 13th-place Clint Bowyer make it back around Kahne, there will be no such thing as a Chase “Cinderella” this year.

Question 5: How Can NASCAR Stop The Bleeding?
Click Here For Original Staff Predictions
Quick Answer: It’s still not sure how.

Back in January, CEO Brian France had a revealing discussion with the media in which he revealed the sport’s making an effort to reconnect with its roots. But the man responsible for leading the sport never revealed an exact method for doing that; and up until this point, that’s led to a mixed bag of results so far this season.

Let’s start with the good. No question about it, there’s been more political “incorrectness” shown in 2008 than at any time in recent history. The Kurt Busch – Tony Stewart fracas at Daytona started the season off with an emotional charge, and the Kyle Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya escapades in various races stand out as a major personality injection. NASCAR’s also been reluctant to penalize for aggressive behavior unless it’s been so egregious they have no choice but to act – Montoya’s spinout of Kyle Busch in New Hampshire has been one such example.

But for every step forward the sport has taken, they’ve also jumped a step back. Criticism of the Car of Tomorrow has been so pointed, the sport held a private meeting with its drivers in Michigan this June in which Big Brother NASCAR told them negativity was no longer acceptable. It was the ultimate contradiction in terms for the sport: they’re willing to let their own drivers risk reputations by losing their “cookie cutter” sponsor-driven personalities, but refuse to let their own image be tarnished by their political incorrectness.

And it’s that type of weird dichotomy that threatens the series moving forward. Television ratings are up – showcasing optimism the sport’s growth rate has returned – but poor attendance at several races seems to leave that a major question mark. Sponsors continue to flock to the multi-car superteams, but the poor economy has shut two full-time Cup operations down and left a handful of others in jeopardy for 2009. And in just the last two months, new African-American owners (Randy Moss, Brad Daugherty) have been overshadowed by a $225 million racial discrimination lawsuit that threatens to rock NASCAR to its core.

And so it goes … perhaps the best answer here is that while NASCAR’s gotten busy addressing some open wounds, new cuts have appeared somewhere else.

Contact Tom Bowles

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Douglas
07/21/2008 07:15 AM
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Quote: “And so it goes … perhaps the best answer here is that while NASCAR’s gotten busy addressing some open wounds, new cuts have appeared somewhere else.”

You unfortunately do not point out that NA$CAR, being Brian and his band of idiots, have simply NOT addressed any MAJOR issues within the sport!

Such as the CoT!

And the “CHASE”!!

NA$CAR has indicated a “willingness” to address issues, but thus-far they have not made any significant changes to the important things affecting the racing! Err, did I actually say racing? My mistake!

NA$CAR is not about the racing anymore!

Maybe the biggest issue NA$CAR needs to address:

GET RID OF BRIAN, MIKE, ROBIN, and the rest of the NA$CAR idiots that are now in charge! A regime change at International Speedway Blvd. would be a breath of fresh air!

Lets get back to real race cars, and real racing!

baker
07/21/2008 12:04 PM
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I hate to sound like father time, but the racing just seemed to be “better” 10 or so years ago. Safety advances and (at least a start to) a legit diversity program have really been the only changes for the better. Man, I long for the days of the “Underbird!”

Carl D.
07/21/2008 03:48 PM
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I got a kick out of going back and looking at the staff’s predictions from the beginning of the season. When asked about Toyota’s sophmore season, Matt McLaughlin said that “no matter who the jockey is, you can’t win the Kentucky Derby with a mule”. I’m betting Matt would like to take that one back. The #18 jockey is doing just fine and that mule has one hell of a kick.

Carl D.
07/21/2008 04:05 PM
permalink

Tony Lumbis predicted that Bobby Labonte would make the Chase this year. As probably the biggest Bobby Labonte fan around, I hope Tony’s crystal ball isn’t broken, just calibrated for 2009 instead of 2008.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... A Return To Richmond, Post-Spingate And Quick Hits
Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Did You Notice? ... Drivers Still Make A Difference... But Silly Cautions Don't
Did You Notice? ... NASCAR's Free Agent Lynchpin, Uncomfortable Reality And Gambling
Did You Notice? ... Toyota Trouble, Limping Into Action And Testing The Waters

If you want to know more about Tom Bowles or to view all of his articles here at the Frontstretch, check out his archive and bio page.

Want even more Tom Bowles? Check out Tom's archive at SI.com.