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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

10 Points to Ponder… After the 2008 Ford 400 at Homestead

1. It’s Still The Thought That Counts – NASCAR drivers Geoffrey Bodine and Scott Wimmer will join the National Hot Rod Association’s Hillary Will and Arie Luyendyk Jr. of the Indy Racing League in a tour of U.S. military bases in Iraq and Kuwait. Billed as “The Racing Heroes 2008 Goodwill Tour,” the four racecar drivers will tour for 11 days, bringing some much-needed relief to our military personnel stationed so far from home. The foursome will visit hospital patients as well as interface with our troops in “meet and greets” and autograph sessions.

Kudos to these men and women for taking time to thank the troops! But wouldn’t it be nice if some of the higher-profile drivers – some of whom have benefited from military sponsorships – took time during the offseason to also lift soldier’s spirits where they are most needed?

2. Circling The Wagons – Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Inc. announced last week that they will merge their operations for the 2009 Sprint Cup Series, creating an organization known as Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. The newly formed team is expected to field four cars. Presently, Ganassi has Target on board next season for his No. 41 team, with a driver yet to be named for next season. Additionally, Juan Pablo Montoya will have Wrigley’s back in ’09 for select races, but still is looking for sponsorship for the remainder of the year. DEI has Bass Pro Shops returning to the No. 1 Chevy driven by Martin Truex Jr. and no primary sponsorship to date for the No. 8 assumed to be driven by Aric Almirola. Rumors abound that Montoya may actually drive the Target car, with Almirola inheriting the sponsorship from Wrigley’s for his own team.

So, as things stand now, EGRFS will have 2 ½ full sponsorships for a four-car operation. One would have to wonder if this is a move to strengthen the two companies – or a desperate last stand by the two cash-strapped operations.

3. Very MatureDale Earnhardt Jr., who attempted to wrestle control of DEI from his stepmother last season, was asked what he thought his legendary father and founder of DEI, Dale Earnhardt Sr. would think of the merger and the news this past week that at least 116 DEI employees would lose their jobs. “I don’t know,” Junior said. “Your guess is as good as mine. Sorry, I really don’t know. He would’ve had better luck at securing the sponsorships than they currently do with the state that they are in. When my Daddy died, all of that changed. Everything about everything changed. If he was here, he would be sad, but he is not and everybody has to go do their own thing and make their own way. Everybody has got to take care of themselves. He ain’t here to take care of everybody, so you have to do your own thing, take care of yourself. Gotta do what they gotta do and that said and I ain’t got nothin’ to do with it and I don’t really have an opinion about it. I want them to succeed, I want them to be happy. I want it to work. But I can’t exhaust any of my emotion over it because of what I got going on myself. I have to get my own thing going, I got to do better. I got things I could do better.”

Boy, did Junior pass up a great opportunity to gloat… or what?

4. A Survivor – Curiously, Jim Beam has announced that it will return as the primary sponsor for owner/driver Robby Gordon in 2009. Previously, Gordon had announced that Menards likewise would be returning to sponsor his No. 7 Robby Gordon Motorsports entry next year. Gordon’s one car team finished out the year with a 26th-place finish in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, securing 34th place in owner championship points and 33rd in driver championship points for the 2008 Sprint Cup Series season.

Amid predictions from NASCAR insiders that nobody, including Gordon, could survive as a team owner/driver in today’s ultra-competitive NASCAR, Gordon began going it alone in 2005. Since that time, any number of owners have shut down, decreased teams, merged or taken on partners. Yet, with Jim Beam on board and Menards previously announcing it will sponsor a limited number of races, Gordon is set to compete in his fifth season as the sport’s only one car owner/driver guaranteed to start the Daytona 500 in February of 2009!

5. The Forgotten? – In the closest championship points battle of the top-three NASCAR divisions heading into the race weekend at HMS, Johnny Benson Jr. edged out three-time Craftsman Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday Jr. to win the 2008 series championship. 2006 CTS champion Todd Bodine took the win in the Ford 200, but Benson finished seventh, one position ahead of Hornaday in eighth. The final margin in the championship fight is a miniscule seven points, the second closest in the history of the series. The 45-year-old Benson, who has let it be known that he will not be driving the No. 23 Toyota for Bill Davis Racing next season, was the 1995 Nationwide (then Busch) Series champion, making him the only driver besides Greg Biffle to win titles in both the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck divisions of the sport.

LUNKENHEIMER: TRACKING THE TRUCKS AFTER HOMESTEAD

What more do guys like Benson, Bodine, and Hornaday have to do to get another shot at the Cup series?

6. Too Little… Too LateCarl Edwards won the Ford 300 Saturday at Homestead-Miami; however, his effort was not enough to overcome the 56-point lead that Clint Bowyer, who finished fifth, had over the Roush Fenway driver heading into the season finale for the Nationwide Series. Edwards, who was the defending series champion, ended the day 21 points behind his rival despite closing the season with nine consecutive top-five finishes.

But really, isn’t Brad Keselowski, the JR Motorsports driver who is the first non-Sprint Cup driver in the standings, the true Nationwide Series champ? He finished third in points, 338 behind Cup regulars Bowyer and Edwards.

7. Winning Battles and Losing Wars – It was quite a weekend for Edwards, not only dominating and winning the Nationwide Series Ford 300 on Saturday but also the Sprint Cup Series Ford 400 on Sunday. In the Cup race, Edwards did everything he possibly could do in hopes of overcoming Jimmie Johnson’s 141-point advantage going to Homestead-Miami. However, not even winning the race and collecting bonus points for leading the most laps was enough. Johnson, by virtue of a 15th place run, still won the 2008 Sprint Cup championship by the largest cushion of any of the newly crowned champions in NASCAR’s top three series.

Poor Carl. He was not only the bridesmaid once, but twice in the same weekend!

8. Short But Sweet Career… So Far – With Johnson claiming his third championship in as many years, he is only the second driver in the 60 years of NASCAR Cup history to accomplish the three-peat (Hall of Fame driver Cale Yarborough won successive championships in 1976, 1977 and 1978). Additionally, the El Cajon, Calif. native has never finished a year outside of the top five in the final rankings in seven full seasons in Cup. Besides taking the last three championships, the 33-year-old Johnson has finished second twice and fifth twice.

So… when is it appropriate to consider Johnson when discussing NASCAR’s all-time greatest?

9. 2038 – Yarborough’s string of three consecutive championships stood for 30 years until equaled Sunday night at HMS by Johnson. Throughout the buildup to tying this impressive feat, Yarborough has remained mostly indifferent to the assault on his record, pointing out on numerous occasions that Johnson is tying his mark… not surpassing it. “…Jimmie’s going to tie my record. All good things must come to an end,” said the South Carolina legend shortly before the Ford 400 began.

Wow, 30 years. What will NASCAR look like in another 30 years?

10. Exclusive Company – Congratulations to Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Sprint Cup team, Bowyer and the No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Nationwide team, and Benson and his No. 23 BDR CTS team!

Being a NASCAR champion. Can it get any sweeter?

Note: While Bowyer won the driver’s championship, the No. 20 team of Joe Gibbs Racing won the owners’ championship with drivers Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.

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