Editor’s Note: Miss out on any of the season preview articles from last week? No worries… just click on the links below to get to the prediction you want to see…
Day One/Car Of Tomorrow
Day Two/Toyota’s Impact on Nextel Cup
Day Three/What Teams Are Closing Up Shop?
Day Four/Juan Pablo Montoya
Day Five/What Happens To The Busch Series
Day Six/Whose Job Is On The Line?
After an anxious two months of anticipation, the offseason is finally nearing an end! With Daytona testing a distant memory, it’s less than two short weeks before the engines come to life and the 2007 Nextel Cup season hits the ground running.
Before the cars take off, though, it’s time to take a look at the issues that’ll make a difference in what’s bound to be one of the most important years for the sport in recent history. With anything from talented rookies to Toyota’s entrance in the sport making headlines, there’s plenty of topics for the Frontstretch faithful to weigh in on. Be sure to check out this space all this week to get our writers’ predictions on what’s bound to be NASCAR’s biggest season yet!
Today’s Season Preview Topic: Who will be the biggest surprise of the 12 drivers in the Chase this season?
Tom Bowles, Managing Editor: With Mark Martin (supposedly) out of the running for this year’s title, someone from the “senior citizen” crowd of the sport has to make the Chase, and this year, my bet’s on Ricky Rudd. Once NASCAR expanded the field from 10 to 12, to me Rudd was a shoo-in to sneak in one of those final two spots in the No. 88 Ford. It’s taken me a while to come around on it… but this guy’s hungry to prove himself, strong in preseason testing, and dedicated to helping Robert Yates turn things back in the right direction. Although he’s 50 years old, don’t underestimate a man who’s run too many races to let rust be a factor after being out of the cockpit for most of last year.
Nikki Krone, Assistant Editor: Casey Mears. Now that Hendrick Motorsports has a driver they really want in the No. 25 car, they will give him the cars capable of making it.
Toni Heffelfinger, Assistant Editor: OK, if I name a driver here who doesn’t even make the Chase, doesn’t that kind of make me look like an ass when we look back on these at the end of the year? Seriously, that is a hard one to call. I’ll do the copout… the rookie… if there is one. The guy who had a crappy 2006 season that came on like gangbusters… if there is one. The guy who everyone thought was washed up but staged a magnificent comeback… if there is one. Doesn’t that sound a whole lot like 2006?
Kim DeHaven, Public Relations Coordinator: Any of the Roush teams… other than Matt Kenseth. They’re in tough shape.
Amy Henderson, Driver Interview Coordinator: Mears. If Hendrick Motorsports steps to the plate and gives Mears the right stuff, Mears could surpass teammate Kyle Busch as the third Hendrick car in the Chase.
Becca Gladden, Senior Writer: Jamie McMurray.
Jeff Meyer, Senior Writer: If I must pick one… Derrike Cope! How’s that?!
Mike Neff, Senior Writer: Look for Martin Truex Jr. to be a surprise participant in the Chase in 2007. Truex ran very competitively at the end of 2006, and DEI as an organization has become stronger on all forms of racetracks in the past 12 months. With a full season at the Cup level under their belts, the No. 1 team will be running up front and contending for wins in ’07.
Cami Starr, Senior Writer: I’m going to go way out on a limb and say Bobby Labonte puts Petty Enterprises into the Chase for the first time. The No. 43 team scored two top-five finishes in the last six races of the season, and I think with one year under their belts, they will come back even stronger in 2007.
Beth Lunkenheimer, Contributor: Mears. With the backing of HMS and teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, Mears will surprise everyone by not only making the Chase but putting together a strong run for the championship.
Vito Pugliese, Contributor: One driver who I think will have a breakout season and could make the Chase is Clint Bowyer. The No. 07 car was on the verge of greatness the second half of the season, but as soon as things would be looking up, those smiles were soon turned upside down. Between blown motors and wrecks not of his making… if there was bad luck to be found, Clint would find it. Truex should run well and possibly win a race this year, but making the Chase is probably a long shot at best. Another question mark is Martin. While the first half of his limited schedule season has “tentatively” been released, there is speculation as to what the team will do if Martin and crew chief Ryan Pemberton get on a roll early on. Should the No. 01 be running in the top 10 by the time he is scheduled to get out of the car at Bristol in April, they might have to pry his hands off the steering wheel in order to give Regan Smith a chance. The No. 01 team has been strong in recent years, and Martin brings with him knowledge from almost two decades helping to build the Roush dynasty that could help the Ginn Racing organization tremendously.
Meegan Sweeney, Contributor: I think it’s JJ Yeley or Truex. It’s a toss up… we’ll see what happens.
Tommy Thompson, Contributor: Kasey Kahne not making the Chase in ’07 may become the biggest surprise. The only truly competitive Dodge in 2006, it will be difficult for Kahne to accumulate the number of wins (six) that he needed to squeeze into the field last year. Dodge is struggling, and unless they have found something with the CoTs that give their power plants an extra advantage, another mediocre season may be in store for all the organizations; this time, that includes Kasey’s, too.
Who do YOU think will be the biggest surprise in the Chase this season? Feel free to offer your personal previews below in the comments section.