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2008 Season Preview: Which Driver’s on the Hot Seat This Year?

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines! Hard to believe that command to start the 2008 Sprint Cup season is just nine 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 are previewing the upcoming year ahead, providing a look into the good, the bad and the ugly expected to face the sport in the next nine months. Over the next few days, we’ll get you thinking on six different questions we’ve been wondering about ourselves; and 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 understanding enough to realize we could wind up completely wrong?

So, without further ado, here’s Part 4 of our preview… and if you missed the first three parts, click the links below to catch up.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Today’s Season Preview Topic: As always, 2008 will be a year when several driver contracts are on the verge of expiring. So, which driver starts the season on the “hottest seat,” and why?

Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief (Mondays/Bowles-Eye View)

I’m going to go a little unconventional on this one… it’s Michael Waltrip. I know, I know, he owns his team, but just hear me out and you’ll understand why. Waltrip desperately still wants to drive; he thinks he’s got a few more years left in him, and with the right equipment and the right circumstances he can still win races.

Here’s the problem; with so many quality teams outside the Top 35 in owner points, Waltrip will spend the first five races struggling to just qualify (he doesn’t have an exemption) – and that’s clearly not his strong suit. And should he get off to the same slow start… let me put it this way, I think NAPA is at the end of their rope. It won’t take much for them to either pull sponsorship altogether; or, tell Michael he needs to step out and put a young driver in the seat in order to keep the money coming his way.

Honorable mention here is Petty Enterprises; after moving the team to Mooresville and turning down a merger with GEM, the pressure is on for them to bring their “A” game to the table; otherwise, driver Bobby Labonte will be someone else’s ace come 2009. I’d say Reed Sorenson‘s in this category, too, but there really is no pressure for him; in my mind, he’s already been replaced by Dan Wheldon, as the way Chip Ganassi has been flooding the series with open wheelers I don’t think he stands a chance.

Kim DeHaven, Senior Editor (Tuesdays/Numbers Game)

Greg Biffle has the “hottest seat” on the circuit; not because he is in danger of losing his ride, but because there won’t be a shortage of drivers petitioning to take over the seat of the No. 16 Roush Fenway Ford when he voluntarily moves on to another team for 2009.

Cami Starr, Fantasy Racing Editor (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans)

Of the three top drivers who have contracts up at the end of this year – Biffle, Labonte and Ryan Newman – I think the onus is on the team more than the drivers to perform. Each of these three would be hot on the free-agent market, and their current teams are going to have to help ensure they have a successful season to want to stay around and sign on the dotted line.

One driver on the hot seat that has his contract up in 2009 is Jamie McMurray. With Roush Fenway needing to trim down on the number of teams they have, McMurray needs to step up his game in order to make sure he isn’t the expendable driver when it comes time to whittle down the number of teams.

Toni Montgomery, Senior Editor (Fridays/Rick Crawford Driver Diary Coordinator)

The first driver to my mind as one who needs to step it up a notch is Sorenson. Yes, he’s still very young, but sponsor Target has shown impatience in the past – in fact, they dropped Casey Mears in favor of Sorenson, and that followed dumping Jimmy Spencer for Mears after just one season. The funny thing is, Mears performed as well as, if not better than, Sorenson; so you have to wonder how long they’re willing to wait for the finishes to improve.

Amy Henderson, Assistant Editor (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)

Ditto what Toni said – Sorenson is the man on the hot seat. That’s especially considering not just Target, but the way Ganassi has removed his stock car veterans for open wheel talent in recent years.

Matt Taliaferro, Assistant Editor (Thursdays/Fanning The Flames)

Although McMurray’s contract does not expire until 2009, I think he has to be on a boiling-hot seat. Yes, the Daytona win last July was impressive – but it was also long overdue. Following a messy departure from Chip Ganassi Racing at the end of 2005, McMurray has recorded all of six top fives in two full seasons with Roush Racing. And this is what all the hubbub was about?

Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer (Mondays/Thinkin’ Out Loud)

It pains me to say so, but my guess is that the first drivers out of a ride this year will be David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil. That won’t be because of any success or failure of their own, but because I don’t see Yates Racing – the one-time powerhouse that once enjoyed such success with Davey Allison, Dale Jarrett and Ernie Irvan – lasting out this season. Weeks before the Daytona 500, there are no firm sponsorship plans for either team, and they have resorted to starting a website in hopes of finding some sort of sponsorship (sponsoryates.com). That’s usually a pretty clear indicator that a team is about to go under.

As for drivers who need to step it up to the next notch or find a new ride for 2009, my nominee is Mears. In the Rick Hendrick Fab Four, he’s clearly Ringo.

Jeff Meyer, Senior Writer (Thursdays/Voices From The Heartland)

I’m going with Newman on this one. While Ryan is a good driver, I don’t think he has lived up to his full potential – especially the last couple of years. On one hand, Ryan may desire a position with a stronger team than Penske; and on the other hand, Penske is dumb enough to let him go.

Mike Neff, Senior Writer (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans)

Even though his contract does not expire until 2009, McMurray has to be on a very hot seat. Hyped beyond belief as such a budding superstar, he’s done almost nothing to live up to any of the hype. If he doesn’t come out of the box and get himself firmly near the top 12 in the first quarter of the season, he could be looking for a job by the end of the year.

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)

Of the contracts that are set to expire at the end of the 2008 season, Newman just might be in the hottest seat. Newman has had his ups and downs, but he has failed to make the Chase the last two seasons; with nine DNFs and an average finish of 18.6, the driver of the No. 12 Dodge has plenty to prove coming into the 2008 season.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer (Tuesdays/Voice Of Vito)

JJ Yeley. He didn’t really do much besides wad up a ton of No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolets in his short stint with Joe Gibbs Racing. While he’s a nice enough guy with the credentials and demeanor to be a star in the sport, Yeley now starts 2008 off with Hall of Fame Racing. It’s a small team that is reminiscent of MB2/Ginn Racing; and considering they didn’t give Tony Raines much time to develop – despite doing pretty good considering what he was given to work with – what will they do if Yeley wrecks a bunch of equipment out of the box?

Mike Lovecchio, Senior Writer (Tuesdays/Who’s Hot And Who’s Not)

The driver on the hottest seat is a driver whose contract doesn’t expire until 2009 – and that’s AJ Allmendinger. Allmendinger struggled in his rookie campaign, and was outperformed by Red Bull Racing teammate Brian Vickers throughout the season. With Toyota turning its program around, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a veteran Toyota driver from either the Nationwide Series or the Truck Series in the No. 84 by the end of the year.

Besides Allmendinger, he one driver in a contract year that should be looking over his shoulder is Biffle. With NASCAR limiting each team’s car count, and a number of young Roush Racing developmental drivers waiting for an opportunity, Biffle may finish out the year this year, but will not be in a Roush car in 2009.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch NASCAR Rookie Expert (Mondays/Rookie Report)

Although his contract doesn’t expire until 2009, McMurray has got to feel the heat on his rear end this year. While he did capture his first win with Roush Fenway in 2007, the rest of the season yielded lackluster results, resulting in a dismal 17th final points position, the worst of the non-rookie drivers in that stable. If this team does not make the Chase this year, it could make Jack Roush’s decision a lot easier as to which team he should cut to meet NASCAR’s four-team restriction.

Nikki Krone, Senior Writer (Fridays/David Starr Driver Diary Coordinator)

I got blasted a couple of years ago when I suggested that even though he had made the Chase for two straight years, Jeremy Mayfield needed to pick it up or Evernham was going to get rid of him. Turns out I was right. However, I don’t think I will make such a “bold” prediction this time. While his contract may not be set to expire soon, I think Vickers is at least one of the drivers who needs to step it up. Vickers is a veteran in the series now, has won a Busch Series championship and has won a Cup race. In turn, Toyota now has a year behind them, and will probably start expecting more out of their teams – especially if JGR turns out to be real successful. I think Vickers has tons of talent and will probably challenge a lot this year because of the changes; but, I think he may need to challenge in a big way to keep his ride. I would say Allmendinger, too, could be on the hot seat, but Red Bull pulled him over from CART with a lot of confidence, and I don’t think they are ready to give up on him. As far as those whose contracts are on the verge of expiring, I think this season is a huge one for Newman. If things don’t turn around quick, I think Newman may be the one telling Penske to take a hike.

S.D. Grady, Newsletter Contributor & Fan Columnist (Tuesdays/Fan’s View)

While Allmendinger would appear to be sitting on the edge, I believe that Red Bull Racing will extend a kind hand, hoping that the influx of Gibbs knowledge will flow into their Toyota program.

McMurray, now he has something to worry about. Even though he brought his car to Victory Lane last year, his overall performance during the past two years has not measured up to the Roush standard. When looking for success this year, the Cat in the Hat will be turning to Jamie to step it up… or step on out.

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