Gentlemen, Start Your Engines! Hard to believe that command to start the 2008 Sprint Cup season is just 12 days away… and counting.
But as fans anxiously anticipate the end of another offseason, it’s time to get the blood racing and your mind fixated on another year of NASCAR. For the third straight year at Frontstretch, your favorite writers will take the next week to preview the upcoming 2008 season, taking a look at the good, the bad and the ugly expected to face the sport in the next nine months. We’ll get you thinking on six different questions we’ve been wondering about ourselves; as we try and find the answers, the staff you know and love will come at you with our usual blend of facts, opinion, and most of all… good humor. After all, what good are predictions if we’re not balanced enough to realize we could wind up completely wrong?
So, without further ado, let’s look into the crystal ball as this 2008 version of the Frontstretch NASCAR Preview officially begins…
Today’s Season Preview Topic: As Hendrick Motorsports comes off another year of dominance, the big question will be how much better they are now that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has entered the fold. Emerging from the shadow of DEI, will NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver succeed in his first year with the new team – or will the pressure of high expectations set him up for failure?
Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief (Mondays/Bowles-Eye View)
All indications are that Junior is coming into this season more focused than he’s ever been. While the expectations are high, it seems like he’s relishing the chance to do his talking on the track, rather than deal with making life-changing decisions off it. Carrying a new, clean-cut image to the media throughout January testing, there’s no question Junior is ready to subscribe to the Hendrick way of doing things, regardless if some of his personality gets lost in the process.
That makes the driver an easy fit; not only does Junior have the talent, but the chemistry with his teammates is already there. In particular, expect Casey Mears to become Junior’s new best friend and really benefit from the newfound partnership between their two teams. But keep in mind a driver will go only so far as his equipment these days, and my worry for the No. 88 isn’t for the man behind the wheel, but the support system around him. Even with some extra time to adjust at the end of ’07, I think crew chief Tony Eury Jr. – with all due respect – may not be used to the rigorous hours the Hendrick head wrenches keep during the season, and I expect he’s in for a bit of a wake-up call. However, as long as that happens quick enough, expect Junior to make the Chase and potentially finish around fifth in points – matching Eury’s prediction of four wins along the way.
Kim DeHaven, Senior Editor (Tuesdays/Numbers Game)
Hendrick get better? They’re already great; the addition of Earnhardt Jr. isn’t going to have a major impact on the performance of such a dominant dynasty. The truth is that lots of seasoned, level-headed drivers could find success behind the wheel of a Hendrick Chevy, and Junior happens to be the lucky one that landed in the seat.
But what Junior will bring with him to HMS is fans – and lots of them. That wider acceptance will become a blessing for one of the most successful – but most hated – organizations on the circuit. On the track, Junior should have the best season of his career, easily making the Chase and possibly contending for the championship.
Cami Starr, Fantasy Racing Editor (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans)
Will Junior’s arrival signal an improvement at HMS? Possibly. They may add an extra win or two to their already large tally… but clearly, the driver is the biggest winner in this scenario. While Hendrick will benefit from Junior’s popularity and merchandise sales, his driver will reap the biggest rewards of having a reliable, proven product underneath him. After a tumultuous final season with DEI, the dependability of Hendrick powerplants alone will produce a turnaround from last year’s results for Junior, when a total of six engine failures took him out of races early. No longer saddled with the excuses of inferior equipment to explain away the lack of wins and titles, we will get to see how great of a driver this guy really is – or isn’t.
Well, the pieces appear to add up to what should be a watershed year for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. I’m not labeling Junior great yet, but I see a solid year ahead of him with a win or two under his belt, perhaps in the Daytona 500 and a position in the Chase. However, don’t expect a serious title charge in his first season.
Toni Montgomery, Senior Editor (Fridays/Rick Crawford Driver Diary)
Hendrick is a case of where the driver augments the team, not is the team. So, from that standpoint the question is more how much better will Junior be now that he’s with HMS? I’ll say this: the pressure of high expectations setting him up for failure would certainly be nothing new. That’s been the case at DEI for the last few years now; but I think in all honesty, Junior’s chances of doing better at Hendrick than he’s done at DEI – even given the learning curve of a new team – are pretty much a given considering the circumstances.
Amy Henderson, Assistant Editor (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
I don’t think it’s a matter of HMS being better – they gave up a huge talent for Junior in Kyle Busch – but the move will certainly benefit Junior, personally as well as professionally. I do think one overlooked factor is that his presence benefits the other three Hendrick drivers in specific areas. If Junior can work with Jimmie Johnson on the plate tracks, watch out… and keep in mind that the biggest beneficiary of Junior’s move as far as HMS is concerned is Mears. Mears got promoted to the No. 5 team and veteran crew chief Alan Gustafson when Earnhardt came on board, and because of the move to grab Junior, HMS may well find four teams in the Chase in 2008.
But even with those improvements in mind, it’s clearly Junior who gets the most out of this deal. He’ll be under a huge amount of pressure to perform, of course; but one could argue that racing for the team that bears his name, as well as his father, was a pressure situation, too. If he can keep his cool with crew chief Cousin Tony, Junior will return to both Victory Lane and the Chase without much of a problem. But realistically, making the Chase and winning the championship are two different things, and Junior will have to get in line behind Jeff Gordon and Johnson for that.
Matt Taliaferro, Assistant Editor (Thursdays/Fanning The Flames)
Junior will be fine at HMS, in time. Although he could very well come in and win Daytona right off the bat, he’ll require a transition period on the 1.5-milers (as any new driver/team combo does). That said, the best thing Eury Jr. did was go to HMS with a month left in the 2007 season. His being familiar with how things work at Hendrick will inevitably be more important than Dale Jr.’s comfort level in his new digs.
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer (Mondays/Thinkin’ Out Loud)
If there’s ever been a case of too many roosters in a henhouse, it’s this year’s HMS team lineup. Though they profess themselves friends, Gordon and Johnson ruffled each other’s feathers more than once in 2007, most notably at Martinsville. That having been said, I expect Earnhardt to do just fine at Hendrick, mostly for psychological reasons. Over the past couple of years, Earnhardt has vocally questioned whether his equipment was up to snuff – sometimes in profane terms. He intimated that DEI wasn’t spending the R&D money necessary to keep up with the rest of the pack, one of many issues that led to his departure.
Expect there to be no such criticism here. Going into this season, Junior knows he has top-flight equipment and that Rick Hendrick isn’t shy about spending money to improve his teams. Having Eury Jr. as his crew chief also gives Earnhardt a huge comfort factor as well, which means things ought to get interesting as early as Jump Street at Daytona. Earnhardt is a proven master of the plate tracks, and he’ll be at the wheel of the same equipment that’s been routinely winning on those plate tracks the last few seasons. Anything less than a win will have the Earnhardt nation wringing their hands, already wondering if Junior made a mistake in signing with HMS.
Jeff Meyer, Senior Writer (Thursdays/Voices From The Heartland)
The question – as so aptly stated by so many – is not how much better HMS will be with Junior, but how much better Junior will be with HMS.
With that said, the most important thing is that Junior can now focus his attention exclusively on driving what is arguably the best equipment out there instead of dealing with off-track issues. Just look at his dad, the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.; he may have owned DEI, but he drove for someone else. With the exception of the race that tragically took his life, when Dale Sr. was in a racecar, he was simply driving to win and nothing less. Being with HMS now gives that same luxury of simply driving to Dale Jr., and he will exceed expectations in 2008 because of it.
Mike Neff, Senior Writer (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans)
Earnhardt Jr. will have more success this year than he did last – there is no question about that. Had it not been for the reliability issues at DEI, in my opinion he would have been solidly in the Chase and in the top five in points by the end of the year.
Seeing as it is his first year with a new team in 2008, Junior probably won’t have a shot at the championship with Hendrick, but he will win more than one race and be in the Chase.
Tommy Thompson, Senior Writer (Wednesdays/Thompson In Turn 5)
Popular writer Tommy Thompson couldn’t look into the crystal ball this year – he was too busy having a ball of his own getting married! Congratulations on your marriage, Tommy, from all the Frontstretch staff… to the fans, Tommy sends his regards and looks forward to returning to the fold next week!
Beth Lunkenheimer, Frontstretch Truck Series Expert (Fridays/Tearing Apart The Trucks)
I thought a lot of Earnhardt Jr. for making the decision to leave DEI, and I wasn’t that surprised to see him land at HMS despite owner Rick Hendrick’s insistence there was no room in the stable. Every team change comes with some sort of adjustment period; however, there’s no doubt in my mind that period will be shorter since time won’t have to be spent building the crew chief/driver relationship Earnhardt and Eury Jr. already have. While expectations for this season are high, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Junior win a couple of races and solidly make the chase, but I don’t see him making a strong run at the championship… yet.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer (Tuesdays/Voice Of Vito)
I look at this a little differently; the way I see it, Rick Hendrick has no choice but to ensure that Earnhardt Jr. is successful, particularly early on – and I think he will be. NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver combined with NASCAR’s most successful racing organization will need to post results that their sponsors and fans expect to see immediately. Because of that, gone will be two “chosen” teams labeled Nos. 24 and 48, once combined with two cars that often appeared to be little more than R&D machines working by themselves. While Gordon and Johnson adjust, things should fall into place for Junior, as the infighting and behind the scenes drama of working with a reclusive, absentee owner is over for him. Meanwhile, Eury Jr. has been overwhelmed with the new resources he has at his disposal at HMS – all of which gives Junior the ammunition he needs to be strong right out of the box.
Mike Lovecchio, Senior Writer (Tuesdays/Who’s Hot And Who’s Not)
The main thing that Earnhardt Jr. brings to HMS is the intangible of adding another mature, veteran driver to that mix. Unlike the man he replaced, Kyle Busch, Junior won’t throw anybody under the bus and will be more of a teammate then Busch ever was – all while finding the same level of success on the track. I don’t expect Junior to come in and instantly compete at the level of Johnson and Gordon, but I do see him making the Chase and winning three or four races – solid numbers for his first season with the team.
Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch NASCAR Rookie Expert (Mondays/Rookie Report)
While I expect good things from this new combination, remember that the Junior and Junior crew chief/driver duo is taking over the lone Hendrick team that was constantly out to lunch over the past 15 years or so (the old No. 25 car). So, you can expect vast improvement… but not a miracle. I think the new No. 88 team gets two wins, a Chase berth, and about an eighth-place finish… really not bad for what’s supposed to be a year of “transition.”
Nikki Krone, Senior Writer (Fridays/David Starr Driver Diary)
As so many have said, I don’t know if it’s how much better HMS is with Earnhardt Jr. as much as it is how much better he is with them. Before Junior, it was Kyle Busch, who was no slouch and had a few great seasons with the organization. I’m sure I’ll hear it from the Junior fans, but in recent years, I really haven’t seen that he’s a better driver than Busch – so it remains to be seen if he will be more successful than Busch was at Hendrick.
Obviously, HMS can only make more money off of the popularity of Junior – something he most definitely has more of than Kyle Busch – and with his presence, I think there may be a much better chemistry between all the teammates. Junior most definitely can and will make the most of this opportunity to be successful, I just don’t know if he, performance-wise, can outdo teammates Gordon and Johnson. They have the benefit of being much more comfortable at HMS – having been there so long – and probably will always be the “favorite sons” of Hendrick.
S.D. Grady, Newsletter Contributor & Fan Columnist (Tuesdays/Fan’s View)
We’ll see some success for Dale Jr., but I don’t think we’ll see as much as the Junior Faithful would like, though… keep in mind, this is still a new team.
Will Junior visit Victory Lane in 2008? Yes. Will he make the Chase? Probably. Will he be competing for the Cup? No. In 2009? Quite possibly. Again, time is what’s needed for the No. 88 crew to get settled and prepare for a run at the championship.