Technically speaking, we’ll be at the quarter pole mark following the conclusion of the rollercoaster ride at Talladega this Sunday; but, with a brief pause in the relentless slog that is the Sprint Cup schedule, it’s a good time to put out eight thoughts and questions with eight races of the 2008 season in the books.
1. We had a 50th Daytona 500 to be proud of…
It is often the case in sport that the “big” occasion doesn’t live up to the pre-event propaganda, but the 50th running of the Great American Race was not one of those instances. Now, it’s fair to say this finish wasn’t an instant classic; but it was far from a damp squib. Yes, the finish, while undeniably exciting, was not as dramatic or spectacular as 2007, nor did it contain cars crossing the finish line upside down and on fire.
But as the lap counter ticked down in the 2008 edition, the tension ratcheted up notch-by-notch in the last 25 circuits. With three laps to go, Tony Stewart looked set to break his Daytona 500 0-fer; but in the end, it was Ryan Newman, courtesy of the an answered prayer in the form of a push from teammate and erstwhile “Smoke” nemesis Kurt Busch, who took the honors in the most prestigious of all NASCAR races.
2. The cookie-cutter tracks might be snooze-fests all season long…
Judging by the fiasco that was Fontana, the relative lack of excitement at Atlanta (a track that traditionally produces good racing) and a Texas race that was so dull it could have cured insomnia, it looks like we could be in for some dreary afternoons when the circuit hits the 1.5-2 mile tracks.
The decision to schedule an extra testing date at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in early May will hopefully prove to be a prescient one, providing some answers for the many teams still scratching their heads. And if not, with a ton of cookie-cutter tracks still to run, we could be in for afternoons when the only way to keep yourself awake is to prop your eyelids up with matchsticks or tape them open Ricky Rudd-style.
3. Toyota is for real…
At the start of the season in my “Wishes for 2008” column, I wrote that I hoped Toyota would do well – or at the very least, better than last year. I opined that while they would win races, making the Chase the Championship was a step too far. Well, after eight races, that prediction is looking shaky to say the least. The Joe Gibbs Racing triumvirate of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Stewart are all very genuine threats to be sitting at the head table at the Waldorf Astoria come December.
But it’s not just JGR that was having issues, either. Brian Vickers has more than surpassed expectations, recording top-20 finishes (with a high of ninth) in every race so far. Michael Waltrip Racing has all three drivers locked in the Top 35 while Mike Skinner is making short shrift of the early season deficit in that department created by AJ Allmendinger. Only Dave Blaney has struggled in this arena, but he is five points off the precious 35th slot.
So, is Toyota for real? You bet they are.
4. Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. ever win another race?
Of the 18 articles I’ve written for Frontstretch so far, no column provoked more debate like my piece on Junior. In the end, it turned into a war between the posters in the comments section – completely off topic to what I was expecting – so just for kicks, that why I’ve entitled this point in the way I have. And in answer to my own question – before I get unwarranted hate mail – I’ll say yes, Junior will win again. But will he win as many as the six races some were predicting preseason? I’m not sure. But win he will this year.
More importantly, though, he’s putting together a solid first season with HMS, and at this stage, he is their most consistent driver (with Jimmie Johnson fast catching up). Ultimately, though, it should be the big picture that Junior’s fans are most concerned about because he has the equipment, the speed and the desire to win it all this year. As for the first race trophy, Talladega’s as good a place as any for Little E to break the winless streak.
5. The inside walls needs safer barriers (like yesterday)…
While there can be no doubt NASCAR has made tremendous strides in the field of safety – changes that have without a doubt saved lives and prevented serious injury – there is still one gaping hole in the plan, specifically the inside walls. The ferocity of Jeff Gordon‘s crash at Vegas and his barbed post-race comments just highlight the need to address this issue once again. There are significant costs involved in the process; but working with NASCAR, surely a way can be found. Driver safety is paramount, and installing SAFER barriers on the inside walls needs to happen sooner rather than later before something terrible happens.
6. The Rookie Class of 2008 looks distinctly average…
Or, if you prefer, the rookie class is horrible. Sam Hornish Jr. is the highest placed of them all right now, sitting in a lofty 33rd; but were it not for the points swap with Busch the elder and a commendable 15th-place effort at Daytona, he’d be way outside the Top 35. Regan Smith picked up a 14th place at Martinsville, but other than that the efforts of those who bear the name of this column (The Yellow Stripe) on their rear bumper have been mediocre to say the least.
It’s still early, but you get the impression that the Raybestos Rookie of the Year will be more a process of attrition with one driver ending up the winner, than a case of one of the current crop of candidates making a sustained charge for the prize.
7. Marquee names have massive sponsor woes…
In any economic downturn, one of the first areas where a business looks to trim costs is in their advertising and sponsorship budgets. The dollar figures required to decal a Cup car for a full season are astronomical as it is, and they look downright stratospheric when your driver is running 30th every week and barely rates a mention. Even teams with big-name drivers have to creatively piece together the sponsorship puzzle with multiple primary sponsors.
The nature of the economy will always be boom or bust… and so it goes with NASCAR. The fact is, by comparison, the sport punches well above its weight with longterm commitments from more Fortune 500 companies than any other sport. But with Petty Enterprises losing General Mills and Yates forced to try ridiculous but brilliant marketing ploys (for me, the 11 million paint scheme was genius) the sponsor problems seem more magnified than ever before.
8. Dale Jarrett will be missed on the track, but is a welcome permanent addition to the ESPN crew…
The calm and dignified exit from Sprint Cup points racing of Jarrett told you everything you needed to know about the NASCAR Hall of Famer. A fitting tribute at Bristol, as a 37th-place finish sealed the deal for DJ in the Cup Series full-time. After the race, he slipped out of the UPS Camry and seamlessly into the Nationwide Series broadcast team. His wisdom and insight provides something different in the booth; and it can only be hoped he has a great car on the night of the All-Star race when he runs his final (final) race. A win at Lowe’s Motor Speedway would be a fitting end to a storied career for Jarrett.
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