The last time we were in Florida for a race, Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team were basking in a sea of confetti after winning their second consecutive Sprint Cup title at Homestead-Miami Speedway. A lot has changed since that historic day in November; there’s been a powerful addition to the Toyota camp, and the sport’s most popular driver debuted with Johnson’s organization in convincing fashion during Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout. Those are just two of a number of storylines and questions heading into 2008 – some will have to wait to be answered, while some may be answered here.
For those of you who are new to this column, well… so am I. Moving over from the Bubble Breakdown, I’ll be replacing Cami Starr, who has done a wonderful job keeping you, the racing fan, updated on the trends of what’s happening in NASCAR’s premiere series over the past few years. With that said, here’s the first edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not for 2008. Use it for fantasy purposes, use it for an unbiased view of where your favorite driver ranks (not that you’d be biased in the first place, right?), or simply read it to kill some time. Either way, I’m glad to have you on board for the upcoming season.
Johnson: Nobody was hotter in the tail end of 2007 than the two-time defending champion. Johnson won four – that’s right, four – races in a row before finishing seventh in the season finale last year, and the No. 48 team remains the odds-on favorite to bring home the title again in ’08. He is already in historic company, becoming the 13th driver to win back-to-back championships – the first since his teammate Jeff Gordon did so in 1997 and 1998. However, Johnson has a chance this season to do one better, becoming only the second driver ever (along with Cale Yarborough: 1976-1978) to win three consecutive titles.
Gordon: Gordon won the most poles of 2007 (10), recorded the most top fives (21) and top 10s (30) and scored six wins during an exceptional season. His Chase wasn’t too shabby, either, with Gordon finishing outside the top 10 only once (11th at Dover); but, he was outdone by his teammate’s downright unbelievable final stretch of the season. Gordon also has a history of success at Daytona, so look for him to come out of the box strong.
Matt Kenseth: Over the final five races last year, Kenseth had the second-best average finish in the series (he trailed only Johnson). Kenseth never finished outside of the top five in any race over that stretch, and won the season-ending Ford 400. Finishing fourth in points in 2007, Kenseth should lead the Roush brigade again this year.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Let’s face it, that Shootout win Saturday night was no longshot by any means. Junior was arguably the top superspeedway driver of the pre-Hendrick era, and now that he’s joined forces with the series’ top team, Saturday night looked like a piece of cake for him. Earnhardt comes off his first full-time winless season last year, but is easily one of the favorites to win the 50th running of the Daytona 500. Honestly, nobody knows how strong Junior will be in 2008 until Daytona is in the mirror and the real season begins, but don’t be surprised if he has his best year since his six-win performance back in 2004.
Jeff Burton: Having finished outside the top 10 only once in the final six races last year, Burton also finished third in the ’07 Daytona 500. He, along with Richard Childress Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick, will be a Chase contender this year.
Kurt Busch: Had a car capable of winning the Daytona 500 before an accident relegated him to 41st last year. Another driver that had a strong end of the season in 2007, finishing second at Homestead after a 12th-place run at Phoenix and two eighth-place finishes at Texas and Atlanta.
Tony Stewart: This may be the closest you will see Stewart and Busch this entire week. The two fierce competitors have had their share of runs-ins in the past, and that spilled over into two wrecked cars on pit road following a Bud Shootout practice crash and an alleged punch thrown by Stewart. The bottom line is Busch shouldn’t have hit Stewart on pit road, Stewart shouldn’t have punched Busch (if the allegations are true)… and people should just leave it at that.
Anyways, Stewart moves over to Toyota this season, and his success relies solely on how quick the manufacturer recovers from a dismal 2007. If preseason testing and the Shootout is any indication, however, Stewart and Toyota are already in position to compete for a championship THIS season. Stewart had the second-best car Saturday night, and may have been able to win if the Hendrick boys didn’t team up on him on the outside.
Dave Blaney: The lone Toyota to finish inside the Top 35 in 2007, Blaney was quick in preseason testing and pushed a number of cars to the front before leading a handful of laps himself in the Shootout. Again, his success relies solely on the performance of Toyota, but he should be one of the top performers driving Camrys to go along with the Joe Gibbs Racing trio of Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.
Dario Franchitti: The defending Indy 500 champion has had a rough transition to stock cars this preseason. You can argue that Franchitti shouldn’t be on this list because he still has yet to run a Sprint Cup race, but he was 48th of 49 cars at testing in California and 31st fastest at Las Vegas. To make matters worse, Chip Ganassi Racing struggled in qualifying at Daytona, with Franchitti recording the fastest time for the team at a dismal 39th.
Sam Hornish Jr.: Hornish is in a similar situation as Franchitti. The rookie is locked in for the first five races of the year due to the transfer of owner points from Kurt Busch and the No. 2 team, and boy, does he ever need it. He finished 30th and 37th in the two races he ran last year, and was 41st in testing at California and 48th at Vegas. Hornish was also slower than both of his teammates in Daytona 500 qualifying, coming in a lowly 43rd.
Bill Elliott: Outside the top 40 in preseason testing sessions at Las Vegas and California, Elliott qualified 45th on Sunday in the immediate aftermath of wrecking his second car in two days during the Bud Shootout. Now third in line for a past champion’s provisional at Daytona, the No. 21 team finished 2007 outside the Top 35 in owner points – potentially forcing Elliott to race his way in on Thursday.
JJ Yeley: Yeley was replaced by Kyle Busch in the No. 18 car this season, but he remains affiliated with JGR as a satellite car for Hall of Fame Racing. Like JGR, Yeley will run Toyotas in 2008, but if testing has been any indication, he will struggle mightily early in the year. He was 46th at California, 45th at Las Vegas and qualified 51st of 53 cars in Daytona qualifying. Yeley is, however, locked in for the first five races of the season.
Motorsports’ biggest race is now less than one week away. While the winner of the 50th running of the Daytona 500 will undoubtedly be a part of history, the race itself tells us very little about the upcoming season. Coming full circle, I do expect the two biggest storylines of the offseason to both work out as the year progresses. Look for JGR to bring Toyota to victory lane much sooner than later, and Earnhardt Jr. should return not only to the winners’ circle, but to the Chase, as well.
Happy 2008 season to everyone!