With the 2008 season right around the corner at this point here, in no particular order, are my top 10 wishes for NASCAR this year. You won’t agree with all of them, I’m sure, so feel free to write me with your own 10.
1. A much better year for Toyota
In their Sprint Cup debut, Toyota got their proverbial posteriors handed to them last season. The Michael Waltrip Racing jet-fuel debacle at Daytona was the first and biggest black eye of the season; and while things got better, they never fully healed. Just one driver in the Toyota stable finished the year in the Top 35, and as a group, they scored just nine top 10s.
But with Joe Gibbs Racing now in the fold, 2008 should be a very different year for Toyota. The triumvirate of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart will be looking to win from the drop of the green flag; and from the looks of preseason testing and the early portion of Speedweeks, they’ve already made an impact – the car already doesn’t seem like the joke it once was. A Cup championship might still be a step too far for the Camry; but poles, wins and places in the Chase shouldn’t be.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. runs well and wins races
After the DNF-plagued 2007, the highly publicized divorce from DEI and subsequent move to Hendrick Motorsports, all eyes will be on Junior in 2008. He will certainly have the equipment capable of sustaining a title tilt; now, the question is without the distractions and problems that plagued him at DEI, can he get the job done?
With his ardent fanbase roaring behind him, don’t be surprised if the No. 88 starts the new year with some impressive performances (after winning Saturday night’s Bud Shootout, he’s already taken care of Victory Lane). A successful Junior – one that wins multiple races and makes the Chase – can only be good for NASCAR and those all important TV numbers. But can he win it all? Possibly. One thing is for sure, though; watching the No. 88 will be one of the truly compelling storylines of 2008.
3. The powers that be sort out the advertising problem
Commercial breaks in races are one of the biggest issues facing NASCAR. Yes, I get that sponsors drive the sport – but I refuse to believe there isn’t a creative way to solve this problem. The length and frequency of the breaks can literally suck the life out of races; but the real question here is whether or not the powers that be are willing to even discuss alternatives.
TNT’s Wide Open coverage of the Pepsi 400, while far from perfect, at least showed different options are possible. I’m almost certain the TV numbers would see a significant uptick if one of the networks tried something new; there has to be a way to make both sides happy, but unless sponsors are prepared to talk about options other than 30-second ad buys, nothing is going to change… and at the end of the day, fans will suffer.
4. The wins get spread around… and some droughts end
In a season where two drivers, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, accounted for nearly half of the wins in 2007, it was nice to see four drivers earn their first career victories last season – and the emotion it invoked. Witness the unconfined joy of Casey Mears in Victory Lane at LMS or Juan Pablo Montoya‘s sheer relief that he’d not run out of fuel at Infineon and you can see what victory means. The same could be said for Martin Truex Jr. when he won on a Monday at his home track, or Clint Bowyer proving that he did indeed belong in the Chase with his win at Loudon.
So for 2008, I wish the wins will get liberally spread around, and I hope some or all of the following drivers wind up breaking their long winless streaks: Elliott Sadler (119 races, California 9/04), Ryan Newman (81 races, New Hampshire 9/05), Bobby Labonte (144 races, Homestead 11/03) and Mark Martin (66 races, Kansas 10/05).
5. And while we’re talking wins, fewer checkered flags for the No. 48
Of the 84 points-paying races run since I came to NASCAR, the reigning back-to-back champ has won a grand total of 17 races. That’s one in every five races I’ve seen. Now, I’m not a Johnson hater by any stretch of the imagination; to be honest with you, I like the guy. I’m just a little bored of seeing the Lowe’s Chevy wheel into Victory Lane week after week after week.
6. Close finishes galore
Is there anything better than a close finish? Seeing two cars barreling out of turn 4, both drivers absolutely focused on getting the win, is hard to top. Last year, we saw some classic finishes, and not just on the superspeedways. There was Gordon beating all hell out of Jimmie’s back bumper at Martinsville, Jeff Burton taking the last-lap lead in the spring race in Texas and Matt Kenseth going wheel-to-wheel lap after lap with Johnson in November’s race at the same track. Many of the CoT races had close finishes last year, too; let’s hope that this trend continues this year.
7. Montoya makes the Chase
I realize this is probably an unpopular opinion in some quarters, but I like the way Montoya’s approached the sport; and hey, who didn’t win and ruffle a few feathers along the way? After the cosseted world of Formula 1, the Colombian has shown he is a racer in the true sense of the word – witness him running the high line at Atlanta in just his fifth Cup race, and his willingness to mix it up with Kevin Harvick at Watkins Glen. Watching his eighth-place run in the second race at Martinsville last year shows that JPM will learn and adapt to the new tracks quicker than most.
8. A genuine Nationwide Series championship race
After the blowouts of the two previous years, if ever there was a series in need of a close championship race, it is NASCAR’s second-tier group. With Carl Edwards planning on running a full schedule again and keen to becoming the first-ever Nationwide Series champion, don’t be surprised if this remains just a wish, though. Stopping full-time Cup drivers from accumulating points toward the title would be a great change to make in 2009 in order to give this series its own identity.
9. A Daytona 500 worthy of a 50th Anniversary
Simply put, NASCAR needs the Daytona 500 to be worthy of the hype. I’m not convinced “the most anticipated event in racing history” is the best way to market it, but with the eyes of the world on the big race (in many cases for the only time this year) on February 17th, the last thing NASCAR needs is a damp squib. That said, it will be tough to top last year’s photo finish, which went along with Bowyer’s upside-down, flaming cameo role in the proceedings.
10. Joey Logano lives up to the hype
“I am high on Logano because I am absolutely, 100% positive, without a doubt (convinced) that he can be one of the greatest that ever raced in NASCAR. I’m positive. There’s no doubt in my mind.” – Mark Martin on 15-year old Joey Logano
If that’s not pressure, what is? The promising youngster showed his mettle when he led 87 laps and won the 2007 Toyota All-Star Showdown. Expect all manner of ridiculous hype prior to his likely Nationwide Series debut at the Monster Mile on May 31st… but don’t be surprised if the kid shows he has what it takes right from the start.