Editor’s Note: Catch Vito on a new day this season – his column will appear each Wednesday throughout all of 2009.
Finally. After an offseason that seemed to last longer than it ever has in previous years – due in large part to a virtual ban on preseason testing and a harsh winter of Old Testament proportions (global warming, huh?) – the 2009 NASCAR season is finally set to kick off. Just as the NFL has wrapped up their season with arguably the greatest Super Bowl ever, the Sprint Cup Series is about set to launch 38 weeks of controlled chaos at the World Center of Racing down in Daytona Beach, Florida.
(Phew… feels good knockin’ the rust off. Kind of sounded a bit like Ken Squier just then!)
Over the last few months, the face of the racing landscape has changed as dramatically as that of our country. Did you ever think we’d be starting a NASCAR season knowing that Petty Enterprises no longer exists? Meanwhile, the car that was the face of the Cup Series for the better part of the decade is still up in the air over its driver and sponsor plans, as the former Dale Earnhardt Incorporated seems to be fulfilling Tony Stewart’s prophecy of being little more than a museum and memorabilia distributor now that its namesake has departed. Does it seem odd that the defending NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion team no longer will be at the track? How about the fact the series sponsor has been replaced? Tents replace torque wrenches and T-squares as Camping World comes along to save the day for NASCAR’s AAA farm system for racecars.
With that being said, as my first official act of the 2009 racing season, I will profile America’s Most Wanted: The Top-Five Drivers who will command your attention in 2009 – whether you like it or not.
As if it wasn’t enough for Johnson to tie Cale Yarborough’s record of three consecutive championships in 2008, Johnson and the Chad Knaus-led No. 48 team sit poised to make history again, trying to break that record on the 30th anniversary of the King’s final title in 1979. As improbable as it may seem, take a look around – and be honest with yourself as to who can really beat this guy. It isn’t like the team’s gotten any weaker in the offseason – what, with the absence of any tangible testing this year. The CoT has proven to be a science all its own, and you have the equivalent of Stephen Hawking with hair plugs sitting atop the Hendrick war wagon every Sunday.
Johnson is like a Glock; not exactly the most flamboyant or charismatic guy out there, but when it’s all on the line and it’s time to get down to business, it’s who you want to be pulling the trigger. The guy simply doesn’t bobble. As they have the previous three years in different styles of cars, the Lowe’s team will continue to wear the competition out over the course the year and put many a viewer into alpha wave on Sunday afternoon. It really is hard for me to imagine a scenario in which Johnson doesn’t win his fourth title this year.
2. Mark Martin
OK, maybe it’s not that hard. While some may consider this purely a selfish pick, it is also a perfectly rational one as well. The previous two years, Martin has been driving on a part-time schedule, with different crew chiefs, driving for teams that were either going out of business or the way of the Dodo bird. But despite his work-when-it’s-convenient schedule that put the focus on fun and not the manic obsession of performance that had been the hallmark of his career, Martin was still contending for wins and very easily could have qualified for Chase contention had he muddled through an entire season in either 2007 or 2008. He had competed for titles up through his final full-time season in 2006, when he was within 10 points of the title with a handful or races remaining. He may have very well won it in 2005, too, had he not been the victim of a Talladega junkyard triggered by his new aforementioned teammate. Not that we dwell on things here…
In 2007, Martin won the Daytona 500, but a last-lap rules change saw a nice consolation prize for not having won a title ripped from him – further validating his decision to race on his terms. Having gotten over all of that, and assured that son Matt does not want to follow in his footsteps, he’s gearing up for one more round. Just like Rocky Balboa, Martin is rested and ready – his buzzcut high and tight with even a few less wrinkles. Having had time to catch his breath, Martin has reevaluated his position in the sport and aligned with the best in the business for one last shot at the brass ring. As my buddy Justin who played baseball in college is fond of saying, “Swing hard, in case you hit it.”
3. Matt Kenseth
Haven’t heard that name in awhile, have you? Well, it’s probably because your most recent memories of him are of his car getting blown apart by an IED posing as a Goodyear Eagle at Indy, a drunk guy running up to his car at Watkins Glen to get his hat signed, or him being mean-mugged by teammate Carl Edwards at Martinsville a couple of years ago.
The heir to the Roush empire has fallen on hard times of late, mainly due to the only crew chief he’s ever really known, Robbie Reiser, taking a management position within the Roush Fenway organization. While the common colloquialism is, “a rising tide floats all ships,” the DeWalt barge has been taking on water – and fast. To help rectify the situation, crew chief Chip Bolin has been replaced after just one year by probably the best-kept secret in the garage area – Drew Blickensderfer.
A longtime crew member for the No. 6 car, Blickensderfer was elevated to Nationwide Series crew chief for 2006, paired with who appeared to be the second coming of Buddy Baker – Danny O’Quinn Jr. Under the direction of Blickensderfer, O’Quinn would win the 2006 Rookie of the Year title despite limited sponsorship support. In 2008, Blickensderfer replaced Pierre Kuettel as Edwards’s crew chief midway through the year, turning around a struggling No. 60 team to charge within 21 points of a second straight championship. In the final 19 races, he propelled Edwards to seven wins – including three of the last four. Can he make that sort of impact with Kenseth’s long-suffering No. 17 Sprint Cup program? I would bank on it.
4. Carl Edwards
If there is one car that could keep pace with the No. 48 down the stretch in 2008, it was the No. 99 of Edwards. 2009 brings a new paint scheme, a ring on that finger, and a renewed commitment to follow up on a season that saw him come within 69 points – or an electrical problem at Lowe’s (irony…) Motor Speedway of a Sprint Cup championship. Winning three of the last four races, as well as posting a second-place finish and three thirds would have been enough to win the Cup pretty much any other year. Under the traditional points format, Edwards would have won the title by a scant 16 points over Johnson in the final race at Homestead.
The intermediate tracks have always been the domain of the Roush machines. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but be it Martin, Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle, Kenseth, Kurt Busch or Edwards, they always fly on banked tracks one mile or more in length. Whether it’s superior downforce, balance, a well-sorted chassis or a broad Ford torque curve, there is some magic in the Roush Fenway garage, and Edwards’s No. 99 team with Bob Osborne returning to run the show is prepared to make good on last year’s strong finish that was nothing less than championship caliber. The No. 48 Lowe’s team is still the one to beat; but if there is one group that can knock them from the top of the mountain, it is Eddie Haskell in a Nomex firesuit. I mean that in a nice way, Carl. Don’t hit me…
Fearless prediction? He will crash a lot and leave to go back to Indy cars. That’s not an indictment of Hornish – he’s a nice enough guy and is making the effort to learn after accepting the challenge of leaving a series in which he was a proven commodity, having captured 19 wins, three IRL championships and the 2006 Indianapolis 500. What is it about fenders that makes him lose his marbles and turn right a lot? Penske Racing continues to go even farther in another direction – south – despite having won the 2008 Daytona 500 with former driver Ryan Newman and the Loudon race in June when it started raining for Busch. The Captain’s attention seems to be directed in another direction – possibly towards his dancing driver’s income tax woes – and with Dodge seemingly showing up for posterity lately, Hornish’s exit could be hastened by Helio Castroneves’s impending IRS proceedings. April 15th, people – come on. My mom’s birthday. Mark it down.
While the state of the racing union is anything but sound, the show must go on – and on it will. Some may bemoan the sad state of affairs of the economy and the horrors it has ravaged upon the racing world, but the bottom line is there is still going to be stock car racing nearly every weekend, it’s going to continue to be on television, and I am going to offer my unsolicited opinion on it through this website and hopefully some others. If that isn’t enough to have you lamenting and gnashing your teeth already, then I look forward to writing and reading your responses this season.
It’s great to be back.