Editor’s Note: You may recognize parts of this column from a few months ago. That’s because I initially showed readers how awful my predictions were back in July… sadly, they didn’t get any better, but it’s my duty to remind you all over again now that the season is complete.
One of the funniest things I’ve encountered since starting to write about this sport in 2001 is how readers and fans truly believe that with your license to write in NASCAR, you’ve automatically developed a side career as a psychic.
That’s right. Whether it’s asking me to pick your fantasy team for you, to deduce whether Budweiser will still be the primary sponsor for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2012, or to say when Kentucky Speedway will be added to the Nextel Cup schedule (all real questions I’ve gotten in my email inbox this year), you readers can be a pretty crazy bunch sometimes.
Don’t get me wrong; receiving those emails is definitely an honor, because I truly appreciate and respect that people will look to me to answer those types of questions about the future. I truly hate to burst that bubble, but, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. While I’d like to think I’m pretty knowledgeable about this sport, in terms of predicting the future, I’m no different than any Joe Schmo out there on the street with a crystal ball in front of Madame Tussaud’s. My NASCAR fantasy team continually finishes at the bottom of the barrel in pretty much any league I try to participate in (I still blame it on a classic case of constantly overthinking my team to the point of picking too much on past history). I also have as much luck as predicting the winner of each race as winning the lottery; over at SI.com, I finished up third out of five writers in the “pick the winner” standings this year.
But it’s my yearlong predictions that truly take the cake. With the season over, Thanksgiving turkey entering leftover status, and the top NASCAR teams set to travel to New York for the banquet, I thought it high time to sit back and share a few laughs with you all at my list of predictions for what would unfold in this sport back in February. It’s truly memorable, for all the wrong reasons.
Rookie of the Year: February Prediction
I don’t think there’s any doubt Martin Truex Jr. is the overwhelming favorite here. Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin have the best chance at giving him a run for his money, but in the end, even subpar DEI equipment won’t keep a star of the future from making his mark on the Nextel Cup Series, perhaps even with a race win to go along with the rookie trophy.
Whoops! Just a little off-base on that one, to say the least. While Truex did put together a solid late season run of performances that landed him 19th in the final point standings, including a runner-up finish at Homestead, he was clearly outclassed by both Bowyer and Hamlin. Hamlin became the first rookie ever to make the Chase and flirted briefly with winning the title before settling in to finish the year third in points, a record for rookies in the modern era. I’d say Hamlin gave Truex a run for the money alright… he took it all.
Biggest Surprise: February Prediction
Throughout all the hubbub of Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon missing the 2005 Chase, people forgot how Joe Nemechek would have snuck into the top 10, if not for a blown engine while leading at California last February. With solid veteran MB2 teammates in Sterling Marlin and possibly even Bill Elliott in a reasonable part-time schedule, this could be the year “Front Row Joe” finally backs up his qualifying runs with tangible race results.
I’d say Nemechek was a surprise alright… for how badly his team retreated in the opposite direction. By the time the No. 01 Army Chevrolet snagged its first top 10 at Charlotte, it was October; the halfway point of a Chase playoff race Nemechek was never a part of. Part of the disappointing MB2 combination that saw teammate Marlin finish the season with his team outside the Top 35 in owner points, Front Row Joe needed two top 10s in the final six events simply to finish the year ranked in the top 30. After finishing 15th in the 2005 points standings, he ended the year ranked 27th and finds himself with a new team within MB2 Motorsports for 2007.
Biggest Disappointment: February Prediction
There are a few rookies I could see ousted before the end of the year, but the veteran driver in the worst shape in my mind is Kevin Harvick. Although the circumstances may not be entirely his fault, his performance the past two seasons has not reflected his standing as RCR’s No. 1 driver, and with Toyota beckoning in 2007, a slow start may mean a new beginning for Harvick somewhere else, with an early release coming after Richmond in September.
Yeah, Toyota wishes they could have gotten their hands on Harvick. After resigning with RCR in April, Harvick went on to produce one of the best seasons ever recorded in NASCAR’s modern era, backing up five Nextel Cup wins and a Chase bid with his second Busch Series championship – won with a record margin of nearly 900 points. If not for mechanical woes that plagued Childress’s team during the Chase, the Cup title would have also been Harvick’s to lose; in the end, he wound up fourth in the standings, accomplishing more than he could have ever expected if he buckled to the negative pressure from every NASCAR-related publication back in February.
2006 Champion: February Prediction
I’m going with a gut feeling more than anything, but at the end of last year, no one was running better than Carl Edwards. There are many things that scream out “sophomore slump,” but in a year where the title chase appears wide open, if Edwards has a storybook run to a Nextel Cup title, don’t be surprised.
Should have known “gut feelings” would make me stomach sick. In picking Edwards, I forgot the Golden Rule for all “second-year” drivers… the dreaded sophomore slump. It never lasts the whole season… but it lasts just enough to make the year a living nightmare, taking them out of title contention in the process. Look up the numbers of former Rookies of the Year Gordon, Jeff Burton, even this year’s Chase participant Kyle Busch, and you’ll see what I mean. Edwards’s slump started quickly; he ended his Daytona 500 on Kyle Petty‘s hood, following that up by three more finishes outside the top 25 in the first seven races. By the time midsummer came around, Edwards had gone through a crew chief change and was simply looking ahead to 2007, falling short of making the Chase by over 200 points. Ironically, Cousin Carl ended the year with a flourish, scoring top-15 finishes in every race during the Chase that would have put him neck-and-neck with Jimmie Johnson; unfortunately, it was far too little, far too late.
Biggest Problem of 2006: February Prediction
Without question, the tires are the series’ biggest question mark. The race at Lowe’s last fall was a debacle that left a black eye on the sport’s integrity and put NASCAR in a position in which they nearly (and should have) cancelled the event. Goodyear claims they have a better tire for the coming season, but with the current spoiler and tire rules, you have to be at least a little skeptical about how much they can actually improve the compound. Ever the optimist, I’m hoping for the best… but reality sings a different tune that problems will continue.
This one is actually the closest I came to a reasonable prediction. Of course, there are still some tracks, such as the abovementioned Lowe’s, where tires continue to be a problem. However, harder and better compounds produced by Goodyear made this a non-issue elsewhere, as we’re seeing green-flag pit stops again for the first time in ages (at least in races where a mysterious piece of debris doesn’t pop up every once in a while). Looks like Goodyear is owed a “thank you” card from me, although I still can’t quite get over all the races from 2005 that they ruined. Maybe this Christmas, I’ll get around to it.
So, as you can see, even the writers don’t always get it right. There’s a famous saying somewhere that the best kind of laughter is when you’re able to laugh at yourself, all I need to do is look at the computer screen for proof of that. For those readers who took my predictions to heart, backing it up with their checkbook, while I wish I could have served you better, but I hope you learned a lesson.
If I had the power to predict the future, I certainly wouldn’t be doing this column, and neither would any of your other NASCAR writers out there. Of course, that doesn’t mean we won’t stop trying, there’s always the off chance I could actually get one of these things right someday.
Looks like that chance will have to wait for 2007.