And then there were five.
There are just 33 days left (and 14 races across all three series) in the 2008 NASCAR season, and we’re getting inexorably closer to the time of year the prizes are handed out. So, with a little over a month left in the season, let’s take a look at where things stand, post-Charlotte, in NASCAR’s top-three divisions.
I’ll take a look at the likely champions, the potential Rookies of the Year, the manufacturers’ battle, as well as a few other “races” of a different type to see who’s going to win, who still can win with a little help and, in some cases, who’s already thinking about 2009.
Let’s start with the “Big Dawg” Trophies:
The Series Champions
Sprint Cup: Jimmie Johnson (or Jeff Burton or Greg Biffle…)
Put a pin in it… the No. 48 ain’t losing. Johnson’s three-peat is so close at this point, Chad Knaus and crew can practically smell that silver polish off of the 2008 championship trophy. Yes, we’re all excited for Senator Burton and his no-tire gamble that propelled him to victory at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, but do you really see Burton, the consummate points racer, or Biffle making up 69 and 86 points in the last five races? Especially to a battle-tested team like the No. 48? Nah, didn’t think so either.
The only thing is maybe, just maybe, Johnson used up all his luck getting through that wreck at Talladega. Go back and look at the video one more time; it’s incredible, simply incredible, that he didn’t crash.
Nationwide Series: Clint Bowyer
Based on his unrelenting, unremitting consistency, it would be a cataclysmic shock to see Bowyer’s metronomic season collapse into failure. With four races to go in NASCAR’s second series, the amiable Emporia, Kansas native has an almost unassailable 196-point lead over a man that’s looking increasingly like 2008’s bridesmaid in more than one division: Carl Edwards.
A note here also concerning Brad Keselowski who’s in third place, some 286 points back: The kid has had a blinding season, and he’s got a long and successful Sprint Cup career ahead of him.
Craftsman Truck Series: Ron Hornaday Jr. or Johnny Benson
With four races to go in the CTS schedule, the momentum looks to have swung under the hood of Hornaday’s truck as he strives for back-to-back titles (and a record fourth overall). But as we’ve seen all year, anything can happen, and 39 points is a paltry lead – particularly in a series where we’ve seen some superb on-track action to go along with close finishes. This battle to the end will be fun to watch and should carry all the way to Homestead.
Rookies of the Year
Sprint Cup: Regan Smith or Sam Hornish Jr.
According to the points system employed by NASCAR, the Rookie of the Year battle is still a close race, with four drivers separated by only 19 points. However, we must now discount Patrick Carpentier and Michael McDowell, who sit in third and fourth, as they will not finish the season out.
Instead, we’ll focus on the two primary candidates in Smith and Hornish. Admittedly this is not much of a choice, as neither have exactly set the series aflame this year – Smith has scored only four top 20s, with Hornish right behind him with three. More troubling is how Hornish has seemed to regress as the season has gone on following an impressive 15th-place run in the Daytona 500. Just last week, he failed to qualify for the AMP Energy 500 at Talladega in a race some would argue was won by Smith. The DEI driver lost that protest, but it’s left him the odds on favorite to carry home the season-ending trophy.
Nationwide Series Rookie: Landon Cassill or Bryan Clauson
This one is still close, with the top-two drivers separated by a miserly point. Clauson (who currently sits second) has had a great rookie season, scoring top-10 results in three races and a pole at Daytona in July. That proves he has the wherewithal to make it, but with five finishes of 30th or worse in his last seven starts, Clauson’s season is starting to tail off.
Cassill, meanwhile, came up through the GM Racing Development program and looks set for a lengthy, successful career amongst NASCAR’s elite. With six finishes of 12th or better in only 17 starts and a pole of his own in Loudon, Cassill looks to be the slight favorite, although a lack of seat time down the stretch could hand the title to Clauson.
Craftsman Truck Series: Donny Lia or Colin Braun
It’s been a great first season for both of these Trucksters. Lia’s win in just his sixth race at Mansfield (regardless of the bump ‘n’ run tactic) was one of the great stories on the series this year. Three additional top-10 efforts in 17 starts driving in equipment that, at times, has been all over the board is commendable as well.
Braun is another driver who looks like he’s headed for success in the upper echelon of NASCAR. While he has no victories yet, Braun has driven his mighty Roush Fenway Fords to seven top-10 runs in 20 starts.
While the race is close, I’m giving the nod to Braun due to the stability a full-time Roush ride provides.
(On an unrelated note, Braun, at 18 years of age, is the youngest driver in history to stand on the podium following the 24 Hours of Le Mans after finishing second earlier this year.)
The Owners’ Championship
It appears that the winner of the drivers’ championships will also take the owner title as well for their team. All three divisions are tight contests, with the Cup Series witnessing the largest separation – the No. 48 Hendrick Chevrolet holds a 64-point advantage over Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota.
While Gibbs’s Toyotas have seemingly been dominant in the Nationwide Series, capturing 18 wins (and a 19th coming in a Braun Racing satellite car), it is Richard Childress Racing’s No. 2 Chevy that actually holds a slim one-point advantage thanks to the consistency of Nationwide Series points leader Bowyer.
In the Truck Series, Kevin Harvick’s No. 33 Chevy, manned by Hornaday, enjoys a 39-point advantage over Bill Davis Racing’s No. 23 machine of Benson.
The Manufacturers’ Title
While Toyota’s aforementioned propensity for visiting victory lane has been impressive in all three series this season (39 total wins across the board), they have yet to clinch a manufacturers’ title in any of the three big divisions.
Toyota leads Ford by five points and Chevy by a mere 11 in the Cup Series, ensuring what could be a photo finish as the Bowtie Brigade looks to hold on. It’s not so close elsewhere, as Toyota holds a 41-point lead over Chevy in the Nationwide Series standings and has a 12-point edge over Chevy in the Truck Series.
So, while it is very possible that Toyota gets shut out of the driver and/or owner titles, it could very well sweep all three series’ manufacturers’ championships in just its second season racing full-time in all three divisions.
Worst of the Best: Denny Hamlin
Riding a wave of momentum into race No. 1 of the Chase, Hamlin has endured a horrible first half, with the low point being the tire failure and subsequent hit at Talladega. He’ll miss out on New York for a second straight year, but is young and talented and will learn from this experience. Who knows, Hamlin may even rebound at Martinsville – he won there back in the spring.
Best of the Rest: David Ragan
Both Ragan and Kasey Kahne were legitimate Chase hopefuls as late as the Richmond transfer race, but now find themselves duking it out for the booby prize. The Roush youngster currently has an 86-point edge over the Bud pitchman; and thus, he is where my smart money is going.
The Top 35 Battle
Perhaps the most crucial race aside from the actual points championship, those teams who find themselves on the outside of the Top 35 after Homestead will have to get into the 2009 Daytona 500 the hard way – on pure speed and a lot of luck.
Right now Robby Gordon in the No. 7 “hot rod” finds himself 78 points up on the soon-to-be Scott Speed’s No. 84 Red Bull Toyota – holding down the bubble spot in 35th. Behind him is the No. 00 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, which will play the game of Musical Drivers through the rest of the season. The No. 00 is only 63 points in arrears, but with six drivers in the final six races, it appears to be the most likely to miss out on an offseason of peaceful sleep.
“Traditional” Points Champion
At the moment, the Chase-haters will have to swallow their complaints, as Johnson enjoys the lead in both the Chase and traditional point standings. Johnson would have a 64-point advantage over Busch were we still racing under the “old-style” format.
Still, as we’ve seen time and time again, things change pretty fast in NASCAR… and there’s time for a surprise or two yet.