Last week we talked about the new series sponsor, “buschwhacking,” and the future of the series. This week, we examine the champ, the contenders and the 2008 rookie class.
If last season’s Busch Series championship had been a boxing match, the bout would have been stopped by the referee in about the fourth round and awarded to Carl Edwards, driver of the No. 60 Ford Fusion, by way of technical knockout. Up more than 400 points by mid-April, and over 700 to the good by mid-June, the 2007 championship was essentially one long coronation. His final winning margin was a whopping 618 points – still 206 points fewer than Kevin Harvick bested the field by the season before. Edwards plans to run the entire schedule again this year; he’d like to add the first ever Nationwide Series championship trophy to his mantle beside the last ever Busch Series championship trophy. He’ll be tough to bet against.
If the man from Missouri can’t take two titles in a row, then who might wrestle away his crown? Clint Bowyer is running the full season in the No. 2 Chevy and has to be considered a legitimate threat. Likewise are the two Davids – Ragan and Reutimann. Ragan, the 2007 Busch Series Rookie of the Year, has Mike Kelley back atop the pit box. Together they will be looking to improve on his solid debut season. The ever affable Reutimann will also be looking to step up performance this year and, like Ragan, with a full season under his belt, the MWR driver should do just that. Dario Franchitti will also drive the majority of the races, but I don’t think the Scottish IRL champ will make a serious bid for the title.
Outside the Cup ranks, there are actually some full time Nationwide-only drivers. Kenny and Mike Wallace both return for their 19th seasons in NASCAR. Johnny Sauter will drive the No. 1 car for James Finch/Phoenix Racing. With horsepower supplied by Hendrick, Sauter projects to be competitive, and judging by the preseason interviews, appears bullish and ready to go. Sauter has what it takes; expect him to run well and enjoy life a little bit more in 2008. As the best non-Cup regular last season, Jason Leffler will return looking to improve on his 2007 stats. The Iron Man, Jason Keller will also attempt to run the full schedule provided he can secure sponsorship.
After an impressive rookie season, Marcos Ambrose will drive a full schedule in the No. 59. The canny Aussie will also run as many as 12 Cup races. A huge hero in his native Australia, Ambrose is swiftly endearing himself among the NASCAR faithful with solid driving skills and a laid-back demeanor off the track. Another driver looking to avoid a sophomore slump is Brad Keselowski. Driving the No. 88 JR Motorsports Chevy, Keselowski will have Tony Eury Sr. fulfilling crew chief duties. The blend of youthful exuberance and years of accumulated wisdom could prove to be a potent mix. And speaking of potent mixes, Brad Coleman is back with his old ARCA crew chief, Shawn Parker, and will be behind the wheel of the No. 27 Baker-Curb Chevy. Owner Gary Baker will ensure they have what they need to be competitive; look for Coleman to finish respectably week after week.
There are 15 teams planning to run multiple Cup drivers in their Nationwide cars for the full schedule. The question remains as to how many “second-tier specialists” can win a race? The odds are heavily stacked against them, with Cup drivers responsible for 66 wins in the last 70 races. With the likes of Kyle Busch (22-26 races), Harvick (22 races), Bobby Labonte (15 races) and Jeff Burton (12 races), not to mention 2-5 race cameo appearances by Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., don’t expect that stat to change much this season.
The most intriguing aspect of the 2008 Nationwide Series might just be the rookie class. Discounting nominal rookie Franchitti, there are a number of up and coming drivers that will be looking to show they belong. Landon Cassill will run 19 races with National Guard sponsorship in the No. 5 Hendrick car, while the aptly named Chase Austin will run 15 races in Rusty Wallace’s No. 64. Bryan Clauson will also run a limited schedule for Ganassi in the No. 41, and could possibly race the full year if sponsorship is secured. All three youngsters have shown great promise, and with a bit of luck and the right breaks, could take important developmental steps toward an eventual Cup ride.
The major hype will, however, be reserved for the kid born in Middletown, Conn. Touted as the “next great star” in NASCAR, Joey Logano will assume duties behind the wheel of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 at Dover on May 31, just six days after he turns 18. How he reacts to the competitiveness of the Nationwide Series will be compelling to watch. After all the bluster, you suspect no one will be more pleased than Logano to finally get a shot behind the wheel of a Nationwide car.
Another new driver I want to mention comes with a famous last name. Jeffrey Earnhardt, son of Kerry, is slated to compete in seven races with DEI. The stories, and his results, suggest he might just be the real deal. Despite all the negative stories about the series being in “crisis,” who’s to say we won’t look back at the first season under the Nationwide banner as being the season in which two great talents ran their fledgling laps in NASCAR?
So to finish up, it is fearless prediction time. On the eve of a new season, I can only look stupid or brilliant, right? I’m bravely predicting Edwards to repeat as the Series champion, followed by Reutimann, Bowyer, Ragan and Mike Wallace. Logano is my pick for Rookie of the Year, but it will be a close, hard fought battle with Cassill. And I think four Nationwide-only drivers, Mike Wallace, Sauter, Leffler and Keselowski, will win races in 2008.