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The Yellow Stripe: 18 Storylines After 18 Races – The Cup Series at Halfway

With the conclusion of the high-banked, 200-mph, 400-mile drama-fest at Daytona, we’re at the halfway point of the 2008 season. And while each week usually unfolds into its own unique episode in the 10-month epic of a soap opera NASCAR has become, there are always certain storylines that resonate across each season, from track to track and month to month. So here, in no particular order, are my 18 top storylines to date as we head into Sprint Cup’s second half:

1. Oh Deary (Dario) Me…
Ganassi’s struggles have been an open secret this year, but I figured the Indy 500 and IRL Champ might have gotten a little more leeway than most. No dice; Chip Ganassi shut down Dario Franchitti‘s Cup team last week after no sponsorship could be found for the reigning IRL champ. But look for the canny Scot to rebound next year after more seasoning in the Nationwide Series.

2. Go Yates!
You have to like how the Nos. 28 and 38 have run this year. Starting out the season in the perilous netherworld of all-white-and-number paint schemes, the future looked awful bleak for the famous old firm. But David Gilliland and the marvelously named Travis Kvapil have performed with distinction, accumulating one top five and five top 10s between them. Here’s hoping one of the two makes an unlikely trip to Victory Lane before the season’s done.

3. No wins for Smoke
It’s been a bizarre year for Tony Stewart, and I’m not even mentioning the words “Haas,” “Chevy” or “part ownership.” Fences the length and breadth of NASCAR nation have breathed a sigh of relief, as Stewart has gone 0 for 18 thus far this season for one of the longest winless streaks of his career. It’s not for lack of trying, either; Lady Luck has simply spent her time shining brightly on someone else. No doubt a win will come for Smoke, though, and likely when it matters most… perhaps a track like Indianapolis?

4. Silly Season might be absurd
With the Biff and the Clint signed, the options are slightly lessened, but a number of drivers will still be on the move this offseason (and possibly before). It should be fascinating to see how it all plays out and who is left without a seat when the music stops playing. Among those left in the game: Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman, Jeremy Mayfield, and David Reutimann.

5. The new car is having growing pains
When NASCAR called a driver and owner meeting to tell the drivers to quit whining, a good proportion of fans applauded the move – including this reporter. “Shut up and drive boys” is right on the money, especially when many of your loyal fans can’t afford to pony up the massive outlays required to see a race. No, the new car isn’t perfect but you know… neither are most people’s jobs. At least these guys enjoy what they do.

6. The Kyle Busch Factor – You ain’t won nothing yet, kiddo
Six wins on five different types of tracks for a new manufacturer and a new team is an incredible effort from Busch the Younger. We knew Kyle was good, but I wonder if even he is a smidge surprised by how well he’s run so far. Still, a note of caution: Jeff Gordon was miles ahead this time last year until Jimmie Johnson’s metronomic and relentless finishes in the Chase relegated the No. 24 to what was ultimately a disappointing second-place points finish.

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7. Gentlemen, Jeff Burton has been the definition of consistency
Is it possible that Senator Burton could schmooze his way to the title for his outgoing mobile phone company sponsor? In 2005, he held a slender 45-point lead after five Chase races heading into Martinsville. But a blown engine cost him the lead at the half-mile paperclip, and the No. 31 team faded fast from view after that. Could it be the 16th time is the charm for this veteran? It would certainly be a brilliant story.

8. Where the heck did the No. 9 come from? Execs at Dodge probably don’t care…
For a stretch of some 45 races, Kasey Kahne and Gillett Evernham Motorsports as a whole looked lost – way off the pace and out in the racing hinterland. But after being voted into the All-Star Race, Kahne has restored some luster to his tarnished reputation with three wins and a climb into the all-important top 12.

9. How bad does the No. 24 look?
There have been times this season when Gordon’s car has run so bad, he’s looked absolutely delighted with a 10th- or 15th-place finish. Even when the No. 24 has a great car and contends up front, Gordon’s wound up wrecking out (Las Vegas) or getting wrecked trying (Daytona). That said, the Rainbow Warrior has seven top fives to offset that pesky winless streak, and he’s comfortably in the top 12 at halfway. Maybe this is the year Gordon gets it right in the Chase to make up for those two titles the traditionalists say he missed out on.

10. They might not like the boxcar, but they sure like the fact it’s safe…
I still can’t get over the Michael McDowell crash at Texas Motor Speedway. That he walked away is a testament to the unparalleled safety of the Car of Tomorrow and a tribute to the fine work by Brett Bodine and crew. Label the car as you will, but the one thing you can’t say is that it’s not infinitely safer for the participants in the weekly super-fast parade.

11. The Lawsuit
Will the biggest ramification of the 2008 season be the outcome of a lawsuit brought out by former NASCAR employee Mauricia “Mo” Grant? For the sport’s sake, I hope not – but this story will run and run (and run some more) before it’s done.

12. Roush Fenway Racing purring once again
You can’t keep a Cat in a Hat bagged for long. Roush Fenway – with the honorable exception of Jamie McMurray, Esq. – has looked strong this year (especially compared to last) with Back Flip Boy safely ensconced in the Chase. After an early slump, Matt Kenseth is up to ninth in the points standings, Greg Biffle is 11th, and David Ragan is a mere 98 points back in 15th. Its problems with the CoT are long gone but it will take a Herculean effort, you sense, for an RFR wheelman to wrestle the title away from a Gibbs or Hendrick driver.

13. Bad news: Race attendance is down
A downtown in the advertising industry is usually one of key indicators of an oncoming recession (marketing budgets are always the first to be cut – how many ads on SPEED Channel do you really need?). With this in mind, given the ever-spiraling costs of attending races and filling up the gas tank, it’s not surprising the attendance numbers are down from last year. On a race-to-race basis, the numbers are still mighty impressive compared to other sports… but there’s obviously cause for concern.

14. Good news: TV ratings are up
This is a simple case of cause and effect. If point 13 is true, then ergo 14 follows – albeit by a reasonable margin of error of plus or minus 5%, given the arcane ways in which TV ratings are calculated in this modern digital era of ours.

15. Sliced Bread is the Real Deal
Four races, one win, two top 10s and 175 laps led for Joey Logano in the Nationwide Series so far. This kid is absolutely and completely for real, and he’ll win a Cup championship before he’s old enough to drink at this rate.

16. Sponsor woes on every level
It’s an unmistakable sign of the dire financial times when rumors surround even the title sponsor of the sport’s premier division. Indeed, sponsorship at every level in NASCAR’s touring series is an issue, and only five drivers have full-time rides with a single primary sponsor.

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17. One Last Hurrah!
The Raisin Man, aka Mark Martin, will make one last heroic quest to win it all at the ripe old age of what will be 50 years young when he steps into Rick Hendrick’s No. 5 Chevy full-time next season. A title seems improbable, but if it actually happened, it would be one of the all-time great NASCAR stories.

18. Will Boston Ventures bring some Boston sports luck?
The question that remains to be answered is whether the Petty Enterprises dance with the Boston financiers is the long-term future of the company, or the beginning of the end of one of the most venerable, storied teams in the sport. For their sake, let’s hope it’s the former.

And to finish with one storyline that I am glad is finally over: Dale Earnhardt Jr. won a race. At last… the world can sleep easy.

Here’s to a great second half.

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