NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2008 Season Preview: Who Is This Year’s Chase Surprise?

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines! Hard to believe that command to start the 2008 Sprint Cup season is just 8 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 2008 season, providing a look into the good, the bad, and the ugly expected to face the sport throughout 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 5 of our preview… and if you missed the first four parts, click the links below to catch up.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Today’s Season Preview Topic: Which driver is going to be the biggest surprise in the Chase this season?

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

I have a couple, but to me none of them are major shocks. I think Kasey Kahne will respond to the pressure of the Budweiser sponsorship and fight his way back within the top 12; the way that team was performing towards the end of the year seemed to indicate their early 2007 slump had passed them by. Ditto for Ryan Newman, who – if not for a litany of engine failures overshadowed by DEI’s engine room incompetence – would have easily made the Chase last season. In a contract year, I expect Newman to step it up a notch, if only to increase his value on the pending free agent market. The same goes for Greg Biffle, whose team will benefit from having Robbie Reiser as the new Roush Fenway Racing General Manager the most – No. 16 crew chief Greg Erwin is still new, and could use a little guidance from above.

Kim DeHaven, Senior Editor (Tuesdays/Numbers Game)

Biffle. After a mid-to-late season surge last year, I look for Biffle to carry that momentum over into top-five and top-10 finishes in 2008. Even after he announces his 2009 plans and is officially a “lame-duck” driver at Roush Fenway Racing, I look for him to rack up a few wins to solidly secure a place in the Chase.

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

After a two-year absence from the Chase, I believe we’ll see Newman back in the playoffs in 2008. Even with all of Penske’s troubles with the new Dodge, Newman and the No. 12 team started to really turn things up a notch with new crew chief Mike Nelson, finally putting themselves in position to break their winless streak late last season. During the last five races of the year, Newman’s average finish was highest among the drivers not in the Chase; if he can just parlay that momentum into a strong ’08 start, he’ll be in great shape. The key for Newman will be if the team can overcome the engine problems that plagued them last year, issues which accounted for four of the team’s nine DNFs.

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

Why are we talking about the Chase at all in February? I’m not comfortable making that kind of call before I’ve even had a chance to see a car on the track, and preseason testing does not count. And before you wonder, there’s a difference between asking for championship predictions and which driver is going to be the biggest surprise. It won’t be any driver I name as a prediction, because I’d be giving the ones most likely to make it and therefore, not at all a surprise. The driver that does end up being the biggest surprise needs to be just that someone I would not name on January 31st – otherwise, it’s no surprise at all.

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

Casey Mears may well be the man to put all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers on the map in 2008. Mears moves up to the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet – a team which has made the Chase cut the last two years – and that means he’s in position to put himself squarely on everybody’s radar screen this year.

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

I’m not sure if this is considered a huge surprise, but I look for Biffle to qualify this season. He’s such a fierce competitor and a helluva wheelman, how that group went from six wins in 2005 to where it is now just baffles me. Seems Roush should have hired Doug Richert back when he had the chance and told Biffle to deal with it – but that’s in the past now, and new crew chief Greg Erwin has fixed things up with the No. 16.

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

Tony Stewart, because I don’t think he’s going to make the cut – and I doubt that will set very well with His Impetuousness…

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

Stewart – for completely different reasons than Matt. I believe Tony will drive his new NASCAR spec car – which happens to have a “Camry” decal on it – right to the front and be a serious contender for the championship. Of course, I’d really love to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. whoop the snot out of teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson – especially Johnson.

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

There isn’t going to be a surprise in the Chase this year. The closest thing you’ll have will be if Kahne is able to get a GEM car back in it; but other than that, you’re going to have three Hendrick cars, three Childress cars, two Roush Fenway cars, three Gibbs cars and a DEI, GEM or Penske car. No surprises there.

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)

This one is like picking the proverbial needle in a haystack. When Richmond comes and goes, we’ll look back on this and laugh at how silly we sound when the driver we pick finds himself well out of the Chase… and part of me doesn’t want to make that prediction at all. But since I have to… Juan Pablo Montoya has the potential to make the playoffs this season. In his rookie year, he managed a win at Infineon and finished as runner-up in the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. On top of that, he ended up 20th in points; add a little more consistency and a little less arrogance, and you have the recipe for making the Chase.

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

Kyle Busch. I still believe this to be one of the most underrated moves of this season, and I look for Kyle to do big things at Joe Gibbs Racing. No longer in the shadows of the Eyebrow Twins at HMS, Busch is on more equal footing in his new arrangement, and that should lead to him taking a big step forward on the track. With Joe Gibbs retiring from coaching duties, he very well may be able to lend a helping hand in molding his youngest driver, much in the way he was able to get through to Stewart during his growing pains – well, as much as that could be done, anyways.

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

If Hendrick can continue its dominance from 2007, it is certainly possible for Mears to have a Chase-caliber season. Mears quietly finished in the top 15 last year, winding up just 97 points away from ending the year 13th – and that’s after struggling to stay within the Top 35 for the first three months of ’07. For 2008, Mears gets behind the wheel of the No. 5 that Kyle Busch piloted last year, and that means he could very well have a similar type of season, making the Chase with ease and challenging his Hendrick teammates up front.

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

Similar to the 2003 season for his older brother, I think Bobby Labonte undergoes a resurgence in 2008. With Petty Enterprises relocating closer to the action in Charlotte and signing new talent such as crew chief Jeff Meendering, look for the 2000 champion to show the racing world that he is not ready for the NASCAR retirement home just yet. I certainly don’t expect this team to light the world on fire, but a win paired with consistent finishes is not out of the question, just enough to allow the No. 43 Dodge to sneak into the Chase over some of the other powerhouse teams.

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

We all know that Biffle can drive, but last year there was something missing. I don’t know if it was lack of support from Roush, if something was missing in that all-important “chemistry,” or what it was, but Biffle’s 2007 season seemed almost unbelievable considering his past record. I think Biffle is the kind of guy who will look at last year’s performance and it will fire him up. Plus, he was married in the offseason, and maybe it will have the same effect on him as it seemed to have on Gordon (if so, he and Nicole better start thinking of adding to their family fast). With his resume, it should be a surprise, but I don’t think a lot of people outside of that team are expecting Biffle to do much in 2008. He has the talent, and if he can get the right team around him (and eliminate so many mechanical failures), I think he is going to be a championship contender.

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

Montoya. Based on his 2007 performance, it doesn’t appear he would belong there… but I think he’ll sneak in.

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