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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: 2008 Questions & Surprises

Only five races into the 2008 Cup season, it’s still premature to draw too many conclusions as to how various drivers and teams will fare this year. Things could change radically in the next five events and, like those disclaimers concerning mutual funds state, past performance is no guarantee of future success. But what is inarguable at this juncture of the season is that with the Cup Series taking the Easter weekend off, there just isn’t much to write about. So, let’s take a look back at some of the questions we had heading into 2008 and see whether they’ve been answered yet; and while we’re at it, check out what surprises have popped up along the way.

It seemed that during the entire offseason, a majority of media attention was focused on Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s move to the Rick Hendrick organization and how he would fare as part of stock car racing’s “super team.” To date, Earnhardt has done just fine, thank you; he’s currently sitting fifth in the points with top-five finishes in the last three events.

But it is worth noting that Earnhardt’s high-profile teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have gotten off to a relatively slow start. In the last three races, they have combined to score a single top-five finish between them, putting them on the outside looking in at the Chase. Gordon has already failed to finish two races this season – twice the number of DNFs he suffered in all of 2007 – and he’s combined with Johnson to lead just 184 laps this year, roughly half of points leader Kyle Busch‘s total. It’s way too early to write off the Dynamic Duo just yet, though. Over the last five years, Martinsville has become all but a Hendrick Motorsports benefit, with either Gordon or Johnson winning eight of the last 10 Cup races run at Martinsville.

Another big question mark heading into 2008 involved Joe Gibbs Racing’s manufacturer switch to Toyota. There was much speculation as to how long it would take the Gibbs crew and drivers to get up to speed in their Camrys, or even if they’d ever find the speed they enjoyed last year in their Chevys. As it turns out, the learning curve hasn’t been that steep. Kyle Busch is atop the points standings and scored Toyota’s first Cup win at Atlanta, giving the No. 18 team its first victory since 2003. Combined, Busch, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin have led 755 laps, almost half the total laps completed in points races this season. To put that in perspective versus last year’s superteam, Earnhardt, Johnson and Gordon have led 275 laps combined in 2008. Jack Roush’s top-three drivers – Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards – have also led 275 laps to date this year.

But the “Rising Tide” that was supposed to lift all Toyota’s ships to a level of respectability has failed to do so just yet. While Brian Vickers is off to a much better start than last year for Team Red Bull, the three Michael Waltrip Racing teams continue flailing hopelessly about, with none of them registering a top-10 finish to date. One concept that is rising, though, is Toyota’s new pattern of saying what’s on their minds. A big story to date this year has been Stewart’s tirade – complaining about Goodyear tires after the Atlanta race. Stewart was clearly furious despite finishing second. He wasn’t afraid to speak up then; nor was Lee White, who accused Jack Roush of intentionally circumventing the rules with Edwards’s No. 99 at Las Vegas.

NEFF: ROUSH CONTINUES GRUDGE MATCH WITH TOYOTA

Speaking of Edwards, he had an off year last season despite winning three races and ending up ninth in the points. Not so in 2008; he’s already taken home two trophies this season, but despite winning 40% of the Cup races run so far, he’s currently ranked 16th in the standings. It’s not just the rules penalty at Las Vegas which hurt this team; that mechanical DNF at Atlanta looms large, even this early in the season. Prior to that meltdown, it seemed Edwards was headed to his third consecutive win, but they pay points based on how you finish a race… not how well you run during it.

While their finishes haven’t been as flashy as those of the Gibbs, Roush or Hendrick entries, Richard Childress Racing is the only organization with three drivers in the top 12 in points right now. Roush, Gibbs and Penske have two drivers in, while Gillett Evernham, Hendrick and DEI each have one. Roush, Hendrick and Gibbs are the only three teams to have at least one driver finish in the top 10 in each of this season’s first five races.

How important is it to get off to a good start this early in a Cup season? Very. Of the top-12 drivers after the first Bristol race last year, 10 went on to make the Chase. Only Mark Martin (running a part-time schedule) and David Stremme left Bristol in the spring of ’07 in a Chase spot they ended up giving away. The two drivers outside the top 12 after Bristol last year who eventually made the cut were Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. Busch was 20th in the standings after five races last year, while Truex was 25th at this juncture. So, while it’s too early for those in the top 12 in the standings to start reserving tuxedos, it’s likely a majority of them are going to be in New York come the first Friday in December later this year.

On the flip side, some drivers are already under intense pressure to turn their seasons around. Despite driving for super teams that have combined to win four of the last five Cup championships, Jamie McMurray (Roush) is currently 36th in the standings while Casey Mears (HMS) is 33rd. Neither of these drivers has managed a top-10 finish to date in 2008; Mears, in particular, needs to step up to the plate or start searching the Help Wanted ads. Stewart is making noise about wanting to be back in a Chevy next year, and as far-fetched as it might seem to guess he’d wind up the fourth diamond in the Hendrick crown, it seemed equally far-fetched last year Earnhardt Jr. would be driving for Rick Hendrick this year.

It hasn’t been the greatest year for freshmen. Of the five declared Rookie of the Year candidates for 2008, Sam Hornish Jr. is highest in the standings… way back there in 35th in the points. Jacques Villenueve may have won a Formula 1 title and the Indy 500, but his Cup career was over after his qualifying race at Daytona.

A lot has happened already five races into the 2008 Cup season and a lot could change over the next five races; Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix, Talladega and Richmond. I’ll go out on a limb here and predict that Earnhardt Jr. and either Gordon or Johnson will win a race in the upcoming stretch, Kyle Busch will win another one of those events and Stewart another. But my guess is when we reach that juncture 10 races deep into the season, at least nine of the top-12 drivers heading into Martinsville will still be atop the standings.

Drivers to Watch This Weekend

Gordon and Johnson: As noted above, these drivers have combined to win eight of the last 10 Cup races held at Martinsville.

Kyle Busch: Busch finished fourth in both Martinsville events last year, and continues to be on a roll in 2008.

Hamlin: Hamlin has posted top-10 finishes in the last three Martinsville Cup races and in four of his five Martinsville Cup starts to date.

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