NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bowles-Eye View: NASCAR Sprint Cup in 2008 – Where Are We Now?

At the beginning of the year, Frontstretch asked our staff of nearly two dozen writers a handful of questions that we thought would develop into the major storylines within NASCAR in 2008. It was a potpourri of pressing stories, predicting anything from the future of the sport’s Most Popular Driver to the mindset of its most disillusioned fan.

Six months in – during the final off week of what’s shaping up to be a 17-race stretch to the final checkered flag at Homestead – I thought it’d be as good time as any to revisit those questions and where we stand at this point during the season. So, without further ado… let’s check in on the pulse of the sport:

Question 1: How Has Dale Earnhardt Jr. Done At Hendrick?
Quick Answer: Better than expected, but still hoping for more.

Analysis: Junior’s stint in the No. 88 car got off to a near-perfect start, winning the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona and following it up with a thrilling victory in his Gatorade Duel qualifying race. That made NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver the favorite to pull out his second 500 win; but when push came to shove that Sunday, Junior and Co. would make a crucial error that cost them a shot at the Great American Race. Failing to heed a call by Tony Eury Jr. to come down pit road for fresh rubber, the National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet stayed on track and simply got freight trained as the laps wound down.

Still, Junior finished ninth that day, beginning a pattern that’s made both himself and his fans reason to be optimistic: a total of 12 top-10 finishes in 19 starts equals his total from all of last season driving the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet. The best-performing Hendrick car in the points standings, Eury and Earnhardt have taken a team that didn’t make the Chase with Casey Mears and left it 262 behind Kyle Busch for the top spot. And for all their communication faux pas, it was a gutsy call by Eury to leave Junior out on fuel at Michigan that ended his winless streak in points-paying races at a gut-wrenching 76.

But despite all the positives – and Junior’s clearly had an above-average transition – there’s still more work to do at the No. 88. For every Michigan, there’s been three Daytonas where miscommunication between driver and crew chief has led to bad adjustments late in races – mistakes that leave Junior dropping from contention for the win a little too often these days. He also needs better support; for despite the team’s surprising consistency, Hendrick Motorsports as a whole seems a step behind Gibbs and perhaps even Roush Fenway when it comes to both Car of Tomorrow development and horsepower. And to top it all off, the man Earnhardt replaced, Busch, has been running roughshod over the rest of the circuit – including an ugly incident at Richmond in which contact left Junior hard in the wall while Busch chugged towards a second-place finish.

So, Junior has plenty of be proud of, but plenty of obstacles still ahead – and he’s still a longshot for the championship, despite a lock for his first Chase bid since 2006.

Question 2: Will Toyota Enter A Sophomore Sensation With Gibbs… Or Enter A Sophomore Slump?
Quick Answer: Sophomore Sensation.

Analysis: To say that Toyota’s rebounded in their second season on the Cup tour would be an understatement. With eight wins in 19 starts, the manufacturer has a healthy 19-point lead in the manufacturers’ championship, on track to unseat General Motors for the first time since 2002. If that holds, it would be the first time a “foreign” car has won top honors in NASCAR’s 60-year history – and with the economic struggles of Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge, it likely won’t be the last.

Of course, the manufacturer’s rise to prominence has come courtesy of a gifted 23-year-old Rowdy for revenge against his former team. Busch has turned his pink slip at HMS into a positive with Joe Gibbs Racing, winning seven times and making a mockery of the current championship standings. Teammate Denny Hamlin has also won once and has joined Tony Stewart on the fringes of Chase contention. If the playoffs started today, that would make JGR the only one of the Big Four super-teams to have all their cars in the field – a statement thought all but impossible to make at this time back in January when the team was still busy turning Chevys into Camrys at breakneck pace.

But along with Toyota’s dominance, there’s cause for concern. The manufacturer’s success in the Nationwide Series – 14 wins in 21 attempts – has left some griping those teams have as much as a 20-horsepower advantage over Ford, Chevy and Dodge engines. Gibbs’s Nationwide program has certainly been breathtaking, with wins coming from no less than four different drivers – Hamlin, Busch, Stewart and newcomer Joey Logano. Whether restrictions come from the powers that be to stop their firepower will be something to watch, and could also be an indicator of whether NASCAR will do anything on the Cup side to help the Big Three prior to September’s Chase for the Championship.

Question 3: Is There Another Juan Pablo Montoya In This Year’s Rookie Class?
Quick Answer: Not even close.

Analysis: Montoya has regressed in his sophomore season on the Cup circuit, but he’s still light years ahead of any of the new open-wheel converts. It took just one race for former Formula 1 champion Jacques Villeneuve to lose his ride – he missed the 500 and was promptly dropped by Bill Davis Racing – and none of his compatriots have fared much better. In fact, this rookie class could be the first in the modern era to go without a top-10 finish from any driver competing for the award.

Of the three remaining open-wheel converts, Patrick Carpentier appears to have shown the most promise. A qualifying ace, he’s made 14 straight races on time and even captured a pole at New Hampshire the end of June. If GEM could get its race setups better across the board, he might be a longshot to contend with fellow open-wheeler Sam Hornish Jr. for the rookie title.

But as for Hornish himself, his future on the Cup circuit is in question beyond this season despite his lead in the rookie standings. And Dario Franchitti is even more likely to take off, as he doesn’t even have a Cup ride at this point – his No. 40 team recently closed up shop without a sponsor and shows no signs of reappearing anytime soon. With neither finishing better than 13th in Cup, the allure of the IRL-Champ Car merger have both considering jumping back towards the other side of the fence; and now, the new question is whether anyone else will even make the jump in the future. With open-wheel stars Helio Castroneves and Dan Wheldon both turning down stock car deals in recent weeks, it seems the trend to go from Indy cars to stock cars may be ending as quickly as it began.

Question 4: Who Is This Year’s Chase Surprise?
Quick Answer: Kasey Kahne – if that counts.

This season, we’ve certainly had our share of underdogs staking their claim to a spot in the top 12 – Brian Vickers and David Ragan immediately come to mind. But if the season ended today, neither one would make the playoffs – and the 12 drivers going in their place would be awfully familiar. That’s because every driver on the current playoff list has at least one Chase berth since the 2005 season, with 11 of those drivers employed by the sport’s Big Four teams (HMS, Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and JGR).

With those types of statistics, Kahne’s the only one you could call a bit of a surprise. After a disappointing 2007 with Gillett Evernham Motorsports in which he went winless and barely cracked the top 20 in points, the team caught fire in May once fan voting gave Kahne a surprise slot in the All-Star Race. The popular driver used that momentum as a springboard to win the main event, and then followed that up with wins in the Coca-Cola 600 and at Pocono to solidify his claim as a Chase contender. However, inconsistency continues to be a bugaboo for the No. 9 Dodge; and should 13th-place Clint Bowyer make it back around Kahne, there will be no such thing as a Chase “Cinderella” this year.

Question 5: How Can NASCAR Stop The Bleeding?
Quick Answer: It’s still not sure how.

Back in January, CEO Brian France had a revealing discussion with the media in which he revealed the sport’s making an effort to reconnect with its roots. But the man responsible for leading the sport never revealed an exact method for doing that; and up until this point, that’s led to a mixed bag of results so far this season.

Let’s start with the good. No question about it, there’s been more political “incorrectness” shown in 2008 than at any time in recent history. The Kurt Busch – Stewart fracas at Daytona started the season off with an emotional charge, and the Kyle Busch and Montoya escapades in various races stand out as a major personality injection. NASCAR’s also been reluctant to penalize for aggressive behavior unless it’s been so egregious they have no choice but to act – Montoya’s spinout of Kyle Busch in New Hampshire has been one such example.

But for every step forward the sport has taken, they’ve also jumped a step back. Criticism of the CoT has been so pointed, the sport held a private meeting with its drivers in Michigan this June in which Big Brother NASCAR told them negativity was no longer acceptable. It was the ultimate contradiction in terms for the sport: they’re willing to let their own drivers risk reputations by losing their “cookie-cutter” sponsor-driven personalities, but refuse to let their own image be tarnished by their political incorrectness.

And it’s that type of weird dichotomy that threatens the series moving forward. Television ratings are up – showcasing optimism the sport’s growth rate has returned – but poor attendance at several races seems to leave that a major question mark. Sponsors continue to flock to the multi-car superteams, but the poor economy has shut two full-time Cup operations down and left a handful of others in jeopardy for 2009. And in just the last two months, new African-American owners (Randy Moss, Brad Daugherty) have been overshadowed by a $225 million racial discrimination lawsuit that threatens to rock NASCAR to its core.

And so it goes… perhaps the best answer here is that while NASCAR’s gotten busy addressing some open wounds, new cuts have appeared somewhere else.

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