This week kicks off a brand new season for the Nextel Cup Series. For all the drivers and teams, points reset at zero and the slate is wiped clean, as 51 teams battle for the championship trophy that will be handed out in nine months. But just because everyone’s points are the same right now doesn’t mean that they’re all starting on even ground. There are always a handful of powerhouse organizations already claiming their place at the top, sharing limited space with your perennial underdogs and plenty of teams in the middle striving to make a big splash.
If you’re new to the column this year, each week we’ll take a look at those haves and have nots and keep track of where their season is heading; not just on a race by race basis, but figuring out what kind of long-term trends the team appears to be establishing. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at some drivers hoping to reclaim the magic from ’06, others looking to reverse their fortunes, and some who would flat out be happy simply to make the race heading into Daytona…
Jimmie Johnson: You can’t say that Johnson backed his way into his first Nextel Cup championship… he earned it. The No. 48 was on a blistering pace at the end of the 2006 season, earning five top fives and six top 10s in the final six races to claim the title. It’s well known that repeating as champion is no easy feat, but the defending winner of the Daytona 500 should get off to a good start; heading into 2007, Johnson’s name is still often on the lips of people when asked who will win this year’s Nextel Cup.
Tony Stewart: Stewart could easily answer the question about how easy it is to repeat as champion; it’s not. Smoke narrowly missed the Chase last year, but then went on a hot streak and won three of the final 10 races of the season to finish 11th in points. His strong push at the end of last year coupled with his desire to return to the Chase have Stewart high among the favorites to win it all in 2007. The No. 20 team has quietly become a dominant force on the restrictor-plate tracks, and Stewart is hungry to add a Daytona 500 win to his resume after going 0-for-8 in his career at the track. Look for his hot streak from last year to carryover into this one; with a win in Saturday’s Bud Shootout, it appears it already has.
Kevin Harvick: Harvick isn’t gaining as much preseason attention as Johnson and Stewart, but maybe he should. Nobody had a better average finish in the final three races of 2006 than Harvick, an impressive 3.0, and overall, he was tied for the most top-five finishes in 2006 (15) with Stewart and Matt Kenseth. While he dominated the Busch Series, winning that championship trophy by a wide margin, he came up 78 points shy of pulling off the first ever Cup-Busch double. This year, much to the appreciation of the others in the Busch Series, Harvick is concentrating on his Cup effort. If he can get off to a fast start, Harvick may draw some of those early prognosticators over to his side.
Denny Hamlin: The young rookie from Virginia virtually came out of nowhere last season to become the first rookie to make the Chase. I know… the Chase doesn’t not have a long and established history, but that shouldn’t undervalue Hamlin’s accomplishments. In his Rookie of the Year season, the FedEx driver delivered two wins by sweeping Pocono and finished third in the overall standings. He ended 2006 with five straight top 10s, and the only thing that has him sitting in the warm section is the tendency of drivers to suffer from the dreaded sophomore slump. If Hamlin can buck the trend, you’ll see him moving up and possibly being the top finisher at Joe Gibbs Racing once again.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: I know people are getting sick of hearing about Junior’s contract negotiations with DEI, but it’s hard to deny that it has the potential to be a big factor in how well the No. 8 team starts off the season. The media will continue to hurl questions at Junior; the key will be how well he turns that off once he starts up his Chevy. At the end of last season, the Budweiser team finished with four top 10s in the final six races of the season, and they have a tendency to get off to hot starts at the beginning of the year. If that happens again, Junior’s finishes will do the talking and the contract questions might subside a bit.
Jeff Gordon: Another driver with possible distraction issues is expectant father Gordon. Last year, Gordon made it back into the Chase, but bad luck and DNFs plagued the team in the final 10 races much like it had all season. On a high note, Gordon did earn four top 10s in the last five races… but they were preceded by three finishes of 24th or worse. There isn’t any question that Gordon still knows how to drive, but there might be questions on well this team can adapt to the upcoming changes on the track this season. It took Gordon and Co. a while to get a hang of the “cookie-cutter” tracks the last few years, where aerodynamics is such an issue, so will they fall prey to the CoT? Only one thing’s for sure; the three-time Daytona 500 winner is a virtual lock to start the season off with a bang.
Mark Martin: Saying Martin ended his tenure with Roush Racing on a high note would be an overstatement. In his final six races with his long-time team, Martin was only able to score one top-10 finish, ending the year winless and ninth in the final standings. This year, Martin will move over to Ginn Racing, running a partial schedule for a team that placed its drivers 27th and 34th in last year’s standings. Perhaps Martin can eke out a win, maybe two, but I wouldn’t get used to seeing him in the top 10 like we have been accustomed to in recent years; those days may be over for good.
Kyle Busch: Did anyone have more of a frustrating run in the Chase than Kyle? It seemed like he was out of the hunt for the title as soon as the playoffs started. With five finishes outside the top 25 in the final 10 races, you can bet Busch wants to leave the memories of last season behind him. On the bright side for all the Shrub lovers out there, a calmer, more mature Busch seems to be in our midst this year (at least so far). He ran strong in the Shootout and didn’t go off in a tirade when Stewart “insert your word of choice here” ran him out of the way in the closing laps. Daytona hasn’t been the best track for Kyle in the past, but the other tracks at the start of the schedule have been, so it may not take long for him to erase the bad memories of 2006.
Michael Waltrip: Waltrip was the epitome of cold last season. He missed a total of three races, four if you include the Coca-Cola 600, where he failed to qualify his own car. He failed to score a top-five or top-10 finish for the first time in seven seasons and finds himself already on the hot seat, having to qualify in the Daytona 500 on time thanks to finishing outside the Top 35 in owner points. With potential trouble brewing for the No. 55 team at Daytona following inspection, could Waltrip be faced with missing out on the Super Bowl of Stock Car racing? He does have past success at Daytona on his side, but he’s not in a DEI Chevy any longer. If Waltrip thought 2006 was a long season, he might be in for more of the same in 2007 unless things quickly turn around.
Jamie McMurray: In 2005, McMurray was the big-name free agent making all the headlines. He was given an early release from his contract at Chip Ganassi Racing to move over to Roush, where expectations were high he could return to the former glory he had very early on in his Cup career. But McMurray and the No. 26 team did not live up to their billing, earning just three top fives all season to go along with seven DNFs. It may be early to predict who is on the hot seat, but if McMurray doesn’t step it up in 2007, he might very well find himself back on the free agent market.
As the 2007 season unfolds, there are plenty of questions to be answered over the next nine months. Can Johnson become the first driver to repeat as champion since his teammate/boss pulled it off in 1997 and 1998? Will Hamlin be able to escape the dreaded sophomore slump? Can Toyota rebound after a poor showing in testing and Daytona qualifying to be competitive this year? We’ll just have to wait and see Who’s Hot and Who’s Not… for real… this Nextel Cup season.