This is my 50th column for Frontstretch, and with just three races to go in 2008 I’m fast approaching the end of my rookie year as a NASCAR columnist. I’m not sure the esteemed editors are quite ready to pull the Yellow Stripe off my back bumper (traditionally, the sign that denotes a first-year driver) but with the season to all intents and purposes done and dusted, and while we wait for the coronation of King Jimmie Kenneth Johnson for a third time, there isn’t much to get too excited about or indeed good topics to wax lyrical on.
With that in mind, I’m going to take a look back at my third column, 10 Wishes for NASCAR Heading Into 2008 to see how many wishes the NASCAR Genie granted me. I’ll list the initial wish first, then discuss how it either broke down or went swimmingly in 2008.
1. A much better year for Toyota
One of the most emphatic wishes granted on my list, as after a tough first season at the Sprint Cup level, the addition of Joe Gibbs Racing gave the Japanese automaker the kick-start it needed with Kyle Busch the living embodiment of the improvement.
It was actually Denny Hamlin who won the first – a Gatorade Duel at Daytona – but the all-important first win in a points-paying race followed shortly thereafter at Atlanta in just the fourth race of the season courtesy of Busch. This precluded a stretch in which Busch won seven of 14 races, while Hamlin added another at Martinsville in the spring.
For a while it looked as if no one would have anything for the wheelman of the No. 18, but despite the wins (Tony Stewart made it 10 for Toyota at Talladega) and the three Chase berths for the JGR trio, a challenge for the championship has not been forthcoming – and this will be the biggest disappointment of all for the Toyota execs. What started so well and shone with coruscating brightness in the middle part of the season has faded completely.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. runs well and wins races
NASCAR’s most popular driver has run relatively well in 2008, enjoying his superior Hendrick equipment that has equated to but one DNF. Let’s not forget the (fuel-mileage gamble) win at Michigan that quieted Junior Nation.
Many predicted that Junior would win four to six races, but it just hasn’t happened, as time and again the No. 88’s wheelman has seen his car go from strong at the start to almost unmanageable by the end of the race. Overall, it’s been a satisfactory first season with the best team in the business and something to build on, so I’ll peg this as a wish sorta granted. Junior, his legion of fans and the folks at HMS will be hoping, however, that this season is just a starter in what will be a championship-winning tenure. Time will tell.
3. The powers that be sort out the advertising problem
This is still a resounding no; a wish definitively not granted. To my mind, this is one of the single biggest off-track issues in NASCAR today and the worst thing is it could be solved with a bit of nous.
TNT’s All-In Coverage has shown the way forward and it remains a mystery to this writer as to why those in command can’t do something about it. Look, as a former ad guy, I understand clients want their lovely, shiny 30-second spots to run as much as possible, but you can’t help but feel a more creative solution would work best for fans and sponsors alike.
4. The wins get spread around… and some droughts end
To date, 12 drivers have shared the 33-race victories, with Busch still leading the way with eight wins. Carl Edwards has seven while the man who can’t be stopped, Johnson, has earned six. And for the first time since 2004, there haven’t been any first-time winners.
As far as droughts go, Stewart snapped a 43-race streak with his win at Talladega; Kasey Kahne broke a 52-race skid when he took the checkers in the Coke 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway and Junior (as mentioned) took 77 races to break a duck. For the most part, though, this is a wish the NASCAR genie certainly didn’t grant me.
5. And while we’re talking wins, fewer checkered flags for the No. 48
Johnson can’t equal his total of 10 race wins in 2007 even if he’s victorious in the last three races, but the reality is that he has shown, once again, why he’s the best Chase racer in the business. Sure, Jimmie J. has won “slightly” less this year, but he’s on an inexorable march to a back-to-back-to-back championship crown, so technically he’ll win less, but this one’s a wash – wish not granted. Like him or not, Jimmie’s a machine that for now just can’t be stopped.
6. Close finishes galore
Sadly, this is a no as well, as there has been a dearth of truly great finishes this year. The Daytona 500 was close but two of the remaining three restrictor-plate races finished under caution. In total, five of the 33 races were completed under yellow and, outside of Cousin Carl’s Banzai move at Kansas, there hasn’t been a ton of excitement in this regard. 10 races were also won by a margin of over a second (practically a lifetime in our great sport) so as I say, this was definitely a wish not granted.
7. Juan Pablo Montoya makes the Chase
Another resounding no, but this is not surprising given the struggles for all the Chip Ganassi wheelmen this season. Montoya has an average finish of 23.8 (compared to 22.7 in 2007), which is not going to get the job done as far as a Chase berth goes. Just two top-10 finishes all season long (second in the spring race at Talladega and fourth on the road course at Watkins Glen) tells the story of a miserable season. But given the challenges JPM has faced from a car, team and manufacturer point of view, it could’ve been a lot worse.
8. A genuine Nationwide Series championship race
I was ready to strike this down as yet another wish not granted, but with Edwards’s win on Saturday there is still hope, albeit just a glimmer. Carl won the title at a canter last season (618 points to the good) while in 2007 Kevin Harvick won by a whopping 824-markers. With three races to go, Edwards can still make up the 116-point deficit, but he’ll need current points leader Clint Bowyer to run badly to take his second straight crown in NASCAR’s second series.
Bowyer has one win, an additional 11 top fives and 25 top 10s (not to mention an average finish of 14.7) so Carl will have to hope the Kansas native slips up just enough to let him in.
At times in 2008, the race for the first Nationwide crown has been tight – even Brad Keselowski flirted with a challenge for the title early – but overall it’s been Bowyer’s to lose. Even still, it’s been a lot more of a battle than in the past two years and that can only be a good thing in an otherwise difficult and controversial season.
9. A Daytona 500 worthy of a 50th Anniversary
This one is a definite yes. There were just three cautions in the first 178 laps as the first 7/8ths of the race zipped by. Four yellow flags in the final 22 circuits did little to dent the mood as the excitement ratcheted up lap-by-lap. In the end, it was Ryan Newman (of all people) who took the checkered flag in the biggest race of them all courtesy of a perfect push from teammate Kurt Busch.
While the pre-race ceremonies were a little hit and miss, seeing the old Thunderbird wheel around the high banks was a treat and when all was said and done there were few complaints, if any, after the 50th running of the Great American Race (unless, of course, your name is Stewart, who finished third to the Penske duo).
10. Joey Logano lives up to the hype
It took “Sliced Bread” only three races to record his maiden win (at Kentucky Speedway) and, with the obvious superiority of his Nationwide Series equipment, has made the most of his time on the junior circuit.
Thus far, Logano has one win, three more top fives and 10 additional top 10s in 16 races – an average finish of 9.5. So yeah, he’s living up to the hype, but a 32nd-place effort in his first Cup race and a 39th-place showing at Kansas weren’t anything to write home about. When he slips behind the wheel of the No. 20 car next season, things might be a little different.