Trying to predict how the 2008 NASCAR season will finish after just three races – and with less than 10% of the full schedule accounted for – is just short of madness.
But NASCAR is nothing if not a brutally honest sport. Yes, you can be the victim of bad racing luck; witness Casey Mears at Fontana hitting a weeper and somehow missing absolutely everyone else except his teammate. Yet for the most part, the standings don’t lie; and after three races of this nascent season, we have a large enough sample size to start analyzing trends.
Potential points deductions notwithstanding, Carl Edwards has had almost a perfect start with a pair of wins (his eighth and ninth in Cup) following a ho-hum 19th in the 500. Ryan Newman is another who has started fast with his epic win in the 50th Great American Race, one that gave boss Roger Penske his first Daytona 500 crown after 30 years of trying. He’s followed that up with two solid finishes in California and Vegas to prove that victory wasn’t a fluke. Like Newman, Kyle Busch has also come flying out of the gate, with two fourth places and 156 of 717 total laps led – a mark which leads the series.
But aside from the No. 12, No. 18 and the No. 99, there are a number of other hidden gems that are already exceeding expectations along with several who would, no doubt, like a do-over. Accentuating the positive, let’s take a look at which of the 47 drivers who’ve taken the green flag in the Cup Series are already surpassing preseason predictions.
Kasey Kahne: I’m almost tempted to put the new Bud pitchman on this list just because of that ridiculous new Allstate commercial. In this iteration Kasey, sporting a firesuit covered in pink hearts, does what can best be described as gymnastic gyrating (dancing is a step too far). A brave move for the driver of the No. 9; but given his excellent start, perhaps he should even give the heart suit a try on race day. Last year, Kahne also finished seventh in the 500 to start the season; but unlike last year, he’s followed that up with a ninth- and a sixth-place effort to place fourth in the points. Starting with three solid top-10 runs is just what the doctor ordered, especially after a crushingly disappointing 2007; look for Kahne to keep up his early season form and be a possible contender for the Chase.
Elliott Sadler: Kahne’s GEM teammate has also had a solid start. The amiable nine-year veteran last won a Cup race in September 2004, a dry spell that stretches back 122 starts. But the signs this year point to he and his team getting back on track, with the Emporia native sitting pretty at ninth in points… a far cry from where he’s been these past few seasons. After qualifying for the first ever Chase in 2004, Sadler finished ninth overall in the standings – the peak of his career with the former Robert Yates Racing. In 2005, he just missed the cut with RYR and ended up 13th; and the downward trend continued in 2006, with a 22nd-place finish overall despite switching to GEM. In 2007, Sadler was 25th and for the most part looked like an also ran. At the outset of the season, many were questioning how competitive GEM would be – especially with the effervescent Evernham stepping away from day-to-day operations – but Sadler (and Kahne) seem to be addressing those doubts in the best possible fashion.
Brian Vickers: There must have been times last season when Vickers wondered about his decision to leave the organizational excellence of HMS for the rookie Red Bull operation. He opened 2007 with a blown tire in the Duels, missing the 500, and it was an uphill struggle from there. Vickers made four of the first 10 races and ended up missing 13 in total — just over a third of the season. But 2008 has been a different story. He ran strongly in the 500, finishing 12th, and then backed that up with an 11th and a 24th to leave him tied for 12th overall. Already 136 points ahead of the 35th-place cutoff, if Vickers can lock himself in after Bristol look for his confidence and results to increase exponentially.
Greg Biffle: By his own very high standards, Biffle has labored through two subpar years. Although it is still early, the signs of a Biffle/Roush renaissance are there; 10th in Daytona, 15th in Cali and a third-place finish in Vegas leaves the Biff sixth overall, just 64 points behind Edwards. I’ve always thought there was something just that little bit different about the Biff, so I was not surprised when one of my Formula 1 friends from back home – who’s watching NASCAR for the first time this year – announced that the No. 16 was the guy he is going to root for. Looks like perfect timing…
Michael Waltrip Racing: What a difference a year makes. After a brutal 2007 when the three MWR drivers made only 64 of 108 possible starts and endured a series of mishaps and disasters, 2008 has been solid if not spectacular, with David Reutimann, Dale Jarrett and Michael Waltrip appearing in each of the three races so far. More importantly, all three are currently in the Top 35 (30th, 32nd and 33rd, respectively) and as with Vickers, if they can leave Bristol safely ensconced in the Top 35, MWR may just have a year that builds firm roots for the future.
And to finish, here are three drivers already in need of a kickstart…
Denny Hamlin: Led 32 early laps at Daytona before a pit road snafu saw the No. 11 drop out of contention. A weeper took him out early at California, and he drove his socks off to come back from a lap down to nab a hard-fought ninth place in Vegas. Not the start Denny was looking for, given the relative success of his two teammates – right now, he’s just 20th in points.
Mears: Replicating his horrible start of 2007, Mears is not a man you want rolling the dice for you on the Vegas tables right now. As he did last year, look for Mears to bounce back; but at 34th in the points, the early hole he finds himself in puts added pressure on the six-year vet.
Kyle Petty: One commentator described the performance of the No. 45 car as looking as if it had an anchor attached to its back. Petty, who made his debut in Cup a full six years before Kyle Busch came kicking and screaming into the world, has looked woefully off the pace all year. Already 35 points behind the 35th spot, Petty desperately needs a couple of solid finishes in Atlanta and Bristol to keep from having to qualify on speed.