2008 Bubble Review
The 2008 Sprint Cup tour is now officially in the books. And as with all sports, there were many surprises as well as disappointment throughout the year. So, as the holiday season descends upon us and the thundering of NASCAR’s engines fades away for another offseason, let’s take a moment and look back upon the past 10 months of racing, seeing who among the sport’s middle and bottom-tier teams exceeded everyone’s expectations — and who didn’t quite live up to them.
When I first learned I’d be doing this column, I figured there were a few drivers I’d be covering on a weekly basis; and therefore, would need to bone up on their stats. Three of those men were David Gilliland, Paul Menard and Travis Kvapil. What a waste of time that was, as all three drivers and their teams easily exceeded any and all expectations anyone had for them.
Kvapil entered 2008 with 70 career Cup starts and only two top 10s. He also came to his Yates Racing team with a lack of sponsorship – remember that Sponsoryates.com paint scheme at Texas back in the spring? But by the end of the year, that all was a distant memory. With four top 10s and a pole at the fall Talladega race, Kvapil became one of the pleasant surprises of the season. Not only did he also lead the No. 28 car to a 23rd-place finish in the owner standings, but by being the sixth highest finishing Ford, he earned a spot in next year’s Bud Shootout at Daytona.
Teammate Gilliland also led his No. 38 car to a mid-pack finish in the owner standings. The No. 38 Yates Racing Ford finished 28th, and never was in any real danger of ever falling out of the Top 35. Seven times, Gilliland brought home his Ford Fusion in the top 20, including a career-best second at Sonoma. Were it not for a late-season slump, young Gilliland would easily have finished in the top 25 along with his teammate Kvapil. And just when you think things couldn’t get any rosier for Team Yates, they do. Not only does another young talented driver in Paul Menard come over from Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, but he brings his sponsor along with him to beef up the rebuilding organization. Menard helped guide his team to a 27th-place finish in the owner standings, but his big moment came at the fall Talladega race, finishing second to Tony Stewart in what was one of the best finishes of 2008. Paul also qualified on the pole at Daytona in July and started in the top 15 seven times. These three men now give Robert Yates Racing a stable of young, talented drivers — all of which are locked in to the first five races of 2009 — with which to entice potential sponsors at a time when sponsors are suddenly difficult to come by.
While the year wasn’t a disaster for Michael Waltrip Racing, I’d say even Michael Waltrip himself would say it was disappointing as a whole. David Reutimann showed improvement, and will probably continue that upward trend in 2009 as he spends the whole year with one team rather than going through a season split with the now-retired Dale Jarrett. And MWR’s flagship team, the No. 55 NAPA Toyota, qualified for every race and did finish in the Top 35 in the owner standings. In addition to these improvements, MWR didn’t have a single team get caught with illegal rocket fuel in any of their cars, nor did any of their drivers leave the scene of a late-night rollover accident — fading signs of 2007’s horrifying start. However, Mikey still really struggled for most of the year, hovering around the 35th spot most of the season in his No. 55 car while posting just two top-10 finishes. Parked by NASCAR at the spring race in Richmond for rough driving, that was one in a string of embarrassing races for Waltrip, who finished 35th or worse in 10 of the 36 events this year — including back-to-back 43rd-place efforts in August at the Brickyard and Pocono.
MWR’s third team, the No. 00/47, placed outside the Top 35 in the owner standings, meaning that team will have to qualify on time for at least the first five races of 2009 — if there even is a third team. The driver that was to be the future of the organization, Michael McDowell, was released at the end of the season, leaving his most memorable moment a spectacular crash while attempting to qualify at Texas. And while Marcos Ambrose did a respectable job in his short stint with McDowell’s car, it wasn’t good enough to get a locked-in spot for 2009. There are also sponsor issues: NAPA is in for the long haul, but there are some serious question marks. Word has it MWR will keep the owner points but return the No. 44 to Petty Enterprises for 2009. This puts Reutimann in the No. 00, again, and that team only has a primary sponsor for half the season with UPS leaving and heading to Roush Fenway Racing. Add in the recent loss of crew chief Robin Pemberton to Team Red Bull, and things aren’t so rosy over in the Waltrip shop these days. The timing of this announcement was the most detrimental aspect of the move as it was made late in the going, leaving the team to scramble to find a suitable replacement. But with the money and resources behind MWR heading into 2008, the team’s overall performance certainly didn’t meet their own expectations.
One Final Note
At the end of the year. a merger was announced between DEI and Ganassi Racing. Apparently several people in each team felt that merging the two underachieving, underperforming teams would somehow result in a single winning organization. Let’s put it this way: I’ll believe it when I see it. This merger does, however, have an impact on the Top 35. The team will field four cars, phasing out the No. 01 and the No. 15 teams. So what will become of these team owner points, both of which are safely in the Top 35? One scenario has Richard Childress Racing buying one of the team’s points for their new No. 33 car. RCR already has an engine alliance with DEI. so this would make some sense. One would also imagine Robert Yates Racing would make a bid for the points Menard earned when he was driving the No. 15 for DEI. Or, with cash becoming hard to come by, they could just put them out for sale to the highest bidder. Either way, I would expect an announcement coming soon, as NASCAR has historically allowed the transfer of owner points during the offseason, but disallowed it once the season has started.
And so as they say in showbiz, that’s a wrap — which would make this a bubble wrap. (Yeah I’m guessing no one laughed at that). Thanks to everyone who reads the column and commented or contacted me during the year. I hope everyone has a safe and Happy Holiday season, and hope to have y’all back reading in 2009. So until next February, so long from the bubble.