One of the best and, at the same time, most terrifying aspects of being a regular columnist here on Frontstretch is that, within reason, I have carte blanche to write about anything in the NASCAR universe. With that in mind, I’m going to try something a little different and take a stab at imagining how the impending 2009 season might play out – from the high banks of Daytona this Sunday right through to championship weekend at Homestead.
If, as you read this column, you’re thinking, “That’s it, he’s gone mad,” well… let me remind you that truth is almost always stranger than fiction. And NASCAR, more than many sports, shows us that week in and week out.
So, to those who believe I typically write works of fiction for this fine site; well, in this case, you’d be exactly right.
Let the dream season begin…
Jeff Gordon puts his 0-for-41 winless streak firmly in the rear-view mirror with a win at the Daytona 500 – his fourth in the biggest race of all. Gordon’s so overcome with emotion that, for the first time in living memory, he screws up the sponsor roll call in victory lane. However, Gordon makes up for it by mentioning the omitted sponsor with cheerful relentlessness on the post-race media tour. Tony Stewart finishes a creditable third in the first ride for his new team, while last year’s champion Ryan Newman finishes dead last – wrecking on just the 10th lap.
A week later, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins at Fontana, avoiding the weeper-induced fate of the previous year. Expectations of Junior Nation hit the stratosphere – but the No. 88 doesn’t record another top five until ‘Dega.
Carl Edwards wins his first race of the season at Las Vegas, beating Jimmie Johnson by a full three seconds. Later on, Kasey Kahne takes the checkers at Bristol, prompting much media coverage that he’s on his way back to the Chase. It’s Kahne’s lone win of the season, though, and to the disappointment of his legion of female admirers, he again fails to make the final field of 12. Thankfully, though, Kahne’s pink hearts firesuit dancing ad was a one off… so fans are not subjected to any more excruciating pseudo-dancing efforts.
Johnson shows he means business in effortless style, winning at Phoenix for the second year in a row. But the No. 48 fails post-race inspection, and an unrepentant Chad Knaus is suspended for a stunning 12 races. The following week, Michael Waltrip records his own team’s first ever Sprint Cup victory – and just his fifth in six million starts on the high, unforgiving banks of Talladega. Afterwards, Mikey apes his older brother’s terrible Daytona 500-winning dance, causing FOX execs to turn off DW’s microphone for a full minute to allow the veteran to recover sufficient composure. But that’s pocket change compared to the obsequious, fawning excuse for a 30-second ad the driver of the No. 55 produces in the week following his triumph – one that tops even his very own high standards of pushing sponsors to the point of puking. Mikey’s so happy to win, though, he effortlessly absorbs all the barbs and arrows the presenters on NASCAR Now, This Week in NASCAR and Trackside Live can throw at him.
Mark Martin, who sits comfortably in the top 12 in the standings, wins his first Sprint Cup race since Kansas in October 2005 on a gutsy two-tire call by crew chief Alan Gustafson at Richmond. The raisin man’s joyous victory lane celebrations – for the 36th time in a quarter of a century career – are a pleasure to behold. Junior then makes it two in two weeks for Hendrick Motorsports at Darlington with a bump-and-run move on a dominant Joey Logano, who is finding his niche at the sport’s top level following an uncertain start. Fellow Rookie of the Year candidate Scott Speed is not too far behind, with three top-10 finishes already in the bank.
Heading to the All-Star Race, Kenny Wallace hires a Manhattan PR firm to conduct his “All-Star Vote In” campaign – causing him to win by a landslide after jumping in a junk car for a one-race deal. He then runs a “Thank You Fans” paint scheme all the way to a dead last finish in the big show. Reed Sorenson finishes out the month with a maiden victory at the Coke 600, cashing in on a Casey Mears-inspired fuel-mileage gamble. The No. 43’s return to victory lane is one of the picture-perfect iconic images of the entire year.
June is indisputably the month of Kyle Busch; fueled by an unconvincing start to the season and the crushing disappointment of not winning in the first four months, the No. 18 rips off four wins in five races. His sarcastic bow after a third straight win at Michigan, where he leads all but six laps, gets more cheers than ever before. Busch “Junior” goes on to wear the largest documented shades by a NASCAR driver in victory lane and at one point needs the help of his assistant to keep the bulky glasses from slipping off his nose.
Juan Pablo Montoya becomes the only driver to break Busch’s string, winning Infineon after spinning out Kevin Harvick with two laps to go. Harvick wastes no time catching up with Montoya at practice the following week, giving the Colombian a black eye that Mike Tyson in his prime would have been proud of. No pictures of the punch are ever published – but the evidence is clear to see on Montoya’s face for the next few weeks.
Sporadic tire failures dot, but don’t destroy, the Brickyard race, allowing Harvick to hold off a hard-charging Stewart in a reversal of the 2007 race. For Stewart, it’s just his third top five since Daytona as he painfully adjusts to the role of driver and owner. Meanwhile, Jamie McMurray’s lackluster season prompts Jack Roush to call time early on the No. 26 car. But not to worry, fans; McMurray and a similarly out-of-work Elliott Sadler team up to film a movie about two washed up race drivers in need of new rides. It’s gripping, straight-to-DVD bargain bin stuff.
Robby Gordon continues the 2009 theme of unlikely winners, pulling out all the stops to take the checkers at Watkins Glen. Gordon restarted in third behind the two Busch brothers with just seven laps to go, but the maverick punts both Las Vegas natives on his way to an unexpected and emotional win. Kurt Busch and Kyle both come to pit road to confront Robby, but back off quickly after the Dakar Rally veteran threatens to beat both of them senseless on national TV. It’s good, old-fashioned stuff, and NASCAR chooses to turn a blind eye and let it happen. For the next few days, fans crash several popular websites with messages of tribute to the inimitable owner/driver.
The Atlanta and Richmond races are both thrillers, as the Chase contenders look to firm up their spots in the final field of 12. All four HMS drivers make it, as do the remaining four Roush Racers. Jeff Burton and Harvick make the field for Richard Childress, with Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch racing their way in on the final evening at Richmond – recording a clean sweep of Chase places for the Big Four organizations. Brian Vickers, Stewart and Montoya lead the group who narrowly miss out.
As the playoffs begin, Johnson finishes 41st at New Hampshire, then pulls a ho-hum 17th-place effort at the Monster Mile that leaves him 200 points in the hole. But no one makes the mistake of thinking the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy wheelman is out of it quite yet.
Almost as if it were scripted, Jimmie storms back, finishing third at Kansas before winning three on the bounce at Fontana, Lowe’s, and Martinsville. Exiting the circuit’s smallest track, Johnson is just five points behind Gordon, who is looking more nervous by the week. Junior, Edwards and Martin are all within 60 points of the top spot as they head to Talladega, Alabama. Much is made of the “wild-card” nature of the upcoming race, as Chase drivers talk in hushed tones of the Big One wrecking their chances. Edwards, after last year’s snafu in the same race, is particularly contrite – vowing to run up front all day.
Kyle Busch proves revenge is not necessarily a dish best served cold, as he takes out Robby Gordon at Talladega in response to the summer incident at The Glen. NASCAR parks the younger Busch, and he finishes the race a distant 38th. As Kyle leaves the track, he scuffles with a cameraman, a security guard and his publicist – then pronounces his title chances well and truly Done with a capital D.
None of the other serious Chase contenders get into any big trouble in Alabama, though, and with three races to go, it’s any one of five who can win it. Edwards wins at Texas and Martin takes the checkers at Phoenix, setting up a five-way showdown for the title in Miami.
At Homestead, Junior hits the wall hard on lap 2 and finishes three laps down, knocking him out of contention early. Carl runs into trouble before the halfway point, while with 50 laps to go, Gordon’s engine blows – leaving Martin and Johnson in a straight up shootout for the title. With five laps to go, Martin has a healthy lead over Jimmie, but a caution for debris sets up a green-white-checkered finish to the entire season. Then, on the final lap, Jimmie tries the Edwards banzai move (last seen at Kansas in 2008); remarkably, it works, and he comes off the wall to edge Martin at the line for his record fourth straight title. In victory lane, Johnson pays tribute to the guts and fortitude of his Hendrick teammate. But while Martin gives a thousand interviews and does his best not to express his supreme disappointment, as he leaves the track, he tells the security guard that he’s quit once and for all.
Who knows how much of this will actually happen (well, Johnson will probably win it all). But that’s the fun of starting the year off fresh… because you never know whose dreams will come true.