NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2009 Season Preview: Will The Big 4 Be Stopped?

After another long offseason, NASCAR is set to return to our lives with the 31st Annual Bud Shootout in less than two weeks! That means it’s time to get the blood racing and your mind fixated on another year of our sport. This week, we’ll get you thinking on six big questions facing NASCAR this year; as we try and find the answers, the staff you know and love will come at you with our usual blend of facts, opinion, and most of all… a sense of humor. After all, we’ll all need to laugh if these predictions blow up in our face come November…

Today’s Season Preview Topic: Last season, the 12 drivers that made the Chase were from just four teams (Hendrick, Gibbs, Childress and Roush). What other team has the best chance to break through and stop their Chase dominance, or are the advantages of the Big Four just too much?

Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief: (Mondays/Bowles-Eye View)

I actually just tackled this topic in Sports Illustrated, where I picked my five drivers most likely to sneak in and pull the upset: Brian Vickers, Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch. Of those, I think that Truex and Stewart have the best chance of breaking through – but each one comes with so many question marks. And when you consider there’s two more teams within the Big Four which significantly strengthened themselves this offseason (Mark Martin/Hendrick, David Ragan/Roush), you’ve got 14 teams within those organizations capable of fighting for 12 Chase spots. With no testing, it’s going to be harder than ever to close that gap; not impossible, but close.

Toni Montgomery, Senior Editor: (Fridays/Rick Crawford Driver Diary)

There are other teams? Kidding. It’s kind of a toss-up, because most of the other teams that are somewhat close to this level are having other issues with equipment or sponsors; the offseason has certainly been chaotic to some. But maybe that’s why Penske probably has the best shot with Busch; even though they’ve had equipment issues the last few years, there is a relative sea of tranquility around this team compared to the changes on other organizations.

Amy Henderson, Assistant Editor: (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)

It’s unlikely that anyone is going to break the stranglehold the Big Four have on the Chase, especially under the testing ban. It’s possible that Stewart-Haas or Richard Petty Motorsports could squeak a car in apiece – likely Stewart or Kahne – but even Stewart, in his first year with a team that is rebuilding from an underfunded shambles, is unlikely to make a serious run for the Cup come Homestead. The Big Four have Ragan already knocking on the Chase door as it is. Martin will contend, and Richard Childress could put Casey Mears in position as well – which means they could well be knocking just their own teammates out of the way for those positions come fall.

Cami Starr, Fantasy Racing Editor: (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans)

Other than Stewart-Haas Racing, which is a Hendrick spinoff, I don’t see any teams breaking through to put a driver in the Chase. Even though the second tier of organizations have some talented drivers, they have dropped off to the point where they would need help from those above them having awful luck to steal one of the coveted 12 positions.

Matt Taliaferro, Assistant Editor: (Thursdays/Fanning The Flames)

It’s going to be tough for anyone else to break the Big Four stranglehold, but it’s absolutely possible. Stewart, in his quasi-Hendrick Chevy, is the first to jump to mind. And if Kahne and his boys could find any semblance of consistency, they’ve proven capable of putting both wins and top fives on the board.

The other two that will make a splash or possibly walk – as they enter contract years in ’09 – are Kurt Busch and Vickers. The new Dodge powerplants will go a long way in determining Busch’s success, while Vickers and his Red Bull guys are getting really close to being contenders.

Bryan Davis Keith, Assistant Editor: (Sundays/Nationwide Series Breakdown)

Stewart-Haas Racing is the only team that will likely break into the Big Four’s hegemony. Chevrolet did not drop mountains of cash to have Stewart running 25th in an Impala… so the No. 14 team will be in the Chase.

Mike Lovecchio, Assistant Editor: (Mondays/10 Points To Ponder)

The Big Four will dominate, but drivers like Truex, Vickers and Kahne may make a push. Stewart and Ryan Newman are also possibilities, but how long will it take for Stewart-Haas Racing to get off the ground?

Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: (Mondays/Thinkin’ Out Loud)

Can I just say it won’t be Michael Waltrip Racing? Who is going to catch the Big Four? A better question is, can Richard Childress hang on in a high priced game of Snap the Whip with Chevys having anointed the Hendrick teams the anointed ones? Meanwhile, the Toyota folks back in the boardroom have got to be badly confused. They had their best year ever in NASCAR’s top-three divisions and their worst year in the U.S. automobile market. Toyota execs have proven to be mercurial types. They win the game, then take their ball and go home. My vision of the future involves two superteams, Hendrick and Roush, with their drivers racing in front of crowds and a TV audience a tenth the size of the current audience until someone finally mercifully pulls the plug on the whole unseemly mess. NASCAR racing has become so irrevocably flawed that the end is near inevitable. But don’t despair. The concept of stock car racing is so fundamentally sound another organization will step into the void and we’ll be treated to a less commercial, less expensive, more competitive racing series that will actually make it worthwhile to leave the Harley parked in the garage on sunny summer Sunday afternoons to catch the action.

Jeff Meyer, Senior Writer: (Thursdays/Voices From The Heartland)

OK, first of all, even if another team gets in the Chase, how does that “stop their Chase dominance?” The only ones that can stop their Chase dominance are the Big Four themselves. They would have to screw up royally.

Tommy Thompson, Senior Writer: (Wednesdays/Thompson In Turn 5)

If anything, the chasm between the haves and have nots has increased, as second-tier teams see their financial support drying up dramatically as the economy continues heading south. Perhaps Penske Racing, with its owner’s deep pockets and state-of-the-art shop, can sneak into the top 12; but with further cutbacks in aid from Dodge and the manufacturer’s poor performance last season, it isn’t likely. Instead, the best bet to pull the upset is Red Bull’s Vickers. He may be able to continue his ascent through the driver points standings and race his ever-improving Toyota team into a Chase spot.

Beth Lunkenheimer, Frontstretch Truck Series Expert: (Fridays/Tearing Apart The Trucks)

Despite the fact that they struggled week in and week out last season, I expect Penske Racing to break into the top 12 this year. Toward the end of the season, the team did show signs of improvement at the mile and a half tracks that make up a large part of the schedule. With David Stremme joining the team, he and Busch should have what it takes to get at least one, if not both, Penske cars into the Chase.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: (Wednesdays/Voice Of Vito)

The only two teams that really stand a chance at doing anything here are Penske Racing and Team Red Bull. Between the two, I would put my money on the Red Bull Racing No. 83 car of Vickers. A few poor performances at inopportune times (like there’s a good time to blow a motor…) kept him out of contending for the championship in the final 10 races. Penske Racing looks about as out of control as Sam Hornish Jr. on Nyquil, and the Dodge teams in general are echoing their corporate brand name with their performance on the track as in the showroom.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch NASCAR Rookie Expert: (Mondays/Rookie Report)

The two new teams that have the best shot of breaking into the top 12 are no strangers to the Chase. It is difficult to believe that Roger Penske, particularly with Busch, will have another season that was as awful as 2008. You can bet that Penske, one of the best business minds in racing, has been busy making the necessary changes in the offseason to help his team become competitive again. Furthermore, Busch – with crew chief Pat Tryson – have proven themselves as Chase material several times before, and look to do it again this year.

Meanwhile, Kahne, who enjoyed a surprising hot streak to start last summer only to endure a crippling slump heading into the fall – one which ultimately took him out of the Chase – should be a contender again this season. With the added resources from Petty Enterprises behind him, Kahne should have what it takes to get over the hump, and the newly formed Richard Petty Motorsports will make its debut “Chase style” in ’09.

Danny Peters, Senior Writer: (Tuesdays/Yellow Stripe)

I don’t think any other one team has a real chance to break the Big Four stranglehold on Chase spots, but there are drivers who stand a solid chance of making the field of 12. Vickers seems primed to make a sustained run at a Chase berth, while Truex will be keen to bounce back from missing out in 2008. Another driver to mention is Kahne, who showed in flashes he still knows how to wheel a car to the front.

Kurt Smith, Senior Writer: (Fridays/Happy Hour)

I’ve been impressed as of late by the runs from Red Bull. Vickers has led a few races and been in contention before something absurd happened – like a wheel falling off – and AJ Allmendinger made it into the All-Star Race. If you ask me to pick one of the non-Big Four, I think Red Bull is on the march – especially if they put the wheels on right. And Scott Speed will be good for them after doing well in both ARCA and the Truck Series. Maybe this year won’t be the year – but they aren’t far away.

In the meantime, there’s too much chaos going on at Richard Petty Motorsports, DEI-Ganassi or Yates to make me think any of them could stop the Big Four juggernauts. I’d hedge my bets on Penske, too… they seem to be slipping a bit. But I may get proven wrong on that.

The Big Four doesn’t have all that much of an advantage: Hendrick is maybe a half-second a lap faster than Childress, who in turn is a half-second a lap faster than DEI. There is more parity; maybe it’s the new car, who knows? But all of these teams can rise up and challenge if they make a commitment to. Just get the pretty boys out of the cars and put in someone who can race.

S.D. Grady, Newsletter Contributor & Fan Columnist: (Tuesdays/Fan View)

None of the offseason merger insanity resulted in a merging of racing genius. The Big Four have it happening…and that is the show for the Chase. Unless… Stewart-Haas Racing breaks out onto the scene in a big way. An intriguing and exciting idea…

Phil Allaway, Website Contributor: (Tuesdays/Talking NASCAR TV)

It’s not likely that the Big Four can be usurped this season. They have been able to either stay put or get even stronger in the offseason, while most of the rest of the field has weakened significantly. The teams most likely to challenge them for Chase spots are the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota team and the No. 9 for RPM.

Doug Turnbull, Website Contributor: (Tuesdays/Who’s Hot & Who’s Not)

Honestly, another team making its way into the Chase is going to be quite difficult this season. RPM has the best shot, because Kahne came fairly close to guiding the No. 9 in that direction last season. If Kahne cannot make the Chase, Stewart might have an outside shot of getting his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy in the top 12 – if he wastes no time building chemistry with his new team.

John Potts, Website Contributor: (Fridays/Driven To The Past)

If any team has a chance to break into the Chase, it’s going to be Stewart-Haas. Nobody will try any harder.

Mike Ravesi, Website Contributor: (Mondays/Bubble Breakdown)

As far as making the Chase, you have to think Stewart is gonna make it. I, for one, certainly wouldn’t want to bet against him. He has ownership experience already, so his transition shouldn’t be as rocky as some other drivers turned owners. Others having an outside shot would include Truex – or maybe even Juan Pablo Montoya.

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Bryan Davis Keith

I know Stewart is a talented driver, but I don’t see him being a success as a team owner. He has had so many run-ins in the past that I don’t see him as being able to develop the chemistry with a group of personnel to run a team the way some other drivers could. I don’t understand this because he seems like the kind of driver who would want to just drive and not deal with the nuances of building a team, connections, and so on, which would distract from driving.

Secondly, he’s buying a really bad team. Yes, he’s getting Darian Grubb and Hendrick engines and he has talent, but I still think the equipment will be somewhat subpar. Teams don’t improve that quickly. The owner-drivers who have had relative success (Kulwicki, G. Bodine, Rudd, D. Waltrip) started a team from scratch or bought a GOOD one. Stewart is buying a bad team. And while it might be pretty good equipment, it won’t be equal to the four Hendrick cars or what he’s used to at Gibbs. He’s already fallen back a bit the past couple seasons, going winless this year, and I really don’t think he’ll come close to making the chase next year or winning (except maybe on a plate track). Stewart-Haas = the new MB2.

The team that looks promising to me is Earnhardt-Ganassi. Chip was obviously looking for a way to leave Dodge and hook up with Chevy because Dodge is so far behind Chevy. Teresa was probably looking for a hands-on leader to run the day-to-day operations of the team. Given Chip’s massive success in CART/IRL/Grand-Am, he knows how to set up well-engineered operations with good chemistry, something DEI hasn’t really had the past few years with Teresa not as active. I see this as a win-win, with each benefitting from the others’ strengths. I remember that when Ganassi switched SABCO from Chevy to Dodge in 2001, Marlin finished third in points after several years of mediocrity and contended for the 2002 title. That implies Ganassi did once have what it took to compete seriously in Cup, but lost it as Dodge’s fortunes fell. I expect either Montoya or Truex in the chase before Stewart. The #2, #9, and #83 are also possibilities to compete with the “big four”, although I think Dodge will remain too weak for the #2 or #9.

Bryan Davis Keith

Sean, check the records. He didn’t go winless this year. As far as the future, not many owner-drivers now win a lot of races, but I think Tony can build good teams. He has done it in other types of racing.

As far as DEI, lets see, Max is gone. DEI may actually do something for a change. Major problem corrected.

Look for Johnson and Co to win another. Kyle Busch will be a small sidebar story.

Bryan Davis Keith

I’m not counting Regan Smith’s win at Talladega as a win for Stewart. I don’t blame Stewart for being scored as the winner. I blame NASCAR officiating, but I’m still not going to count it as a win for Stewart.

Bryan Davis Keith

Sean, you make a good point in your first post about Stewart having run ins in the past.He might have temper tantrums like A J Foyet did in his last years as driver/owner. The one thing I think made Tony move from Gibbs is Gibbs went Toyota. Had Gibbs stayed Chevy Tony would have reuped his contract until retirement.I have never been a Stewart Fan because of the problems he had with reporters and such in his earlier years but I wish him well this year as a driver/owner.Only Joe Gibbs could handle Stewart when he went off the deep end in his rough and rowdy years.Any one else would have fired him. As far as Gibbs, I think it was a slap in the face to all his fans when the went Toyota. I lost some respect for him because of that.

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