JJ Yeley’s spirits in an otherwise lackluster year had to soar after a second-place run at the Coca-Cola 600 this May. That bridesmaid’s finish in 54 Nextel Cup races driving for the respected Joe Gibbs Racing organization was Yeley’s career best to date, coming days after an ultimatum by Team President JD Gibbs for the sophomore to step up his performance behind the wheel. Though aided greatly by a successful fuel strategy call by the No. 18 team, Yeley was able to nurse the car home to the checkered flag after running well for all 600 miles. Just three weeks later, he won his first pole position at Michigan, punctuating his ability to compete in stock car’s most prestigious series.
Surprisingly enough, the second half of the season saw Michael Waltrip’s team begin to capture a small bit of momentum. In a 10-race stretch from August to November, he failed to qualify just twice, earning three top-15 finishes in the nine races he actually qualified for. One of those happened to be Talladega, always a strong point for Waltrip; and in that fall race, he didn’t disappoint fans by putting together a lap strong enough to get him on the pole.
Several drivers waited with baited breath after the Nextel Open to find out who would win the coveted fan vote and transfer into the Nextel All-Star Challenge. However, the hopes of many other would-be contenders were dashed when the NASCAR directive came over the radio: send the No. 78 Furniture Row car to tech inspection. Wallace – the 2006 Busch Series Most Popular Driver – trounced the competition to take the slot among Nextel Cup’s best and brightest. Completing every one of the race’s 80 laps, Wallace came home in 16th place – giving his underdog team some excellent exposure in the process.
Despite missing two of the first five races of the season – immediately putting himself behind the eight-ball – Brian Vickers ran well in the races that he did qualify for in 2007. Being outside of the Top 35 in owner points was a difficult task for any driver in that position, but in the 23 races that the No. 83 team did make, Vickers averaged a 25th-place finish with five top 10s. His best run came at the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend, where a number of Toyotas ran strong – Vickers led several laps and finished fifth, his lone top five of the season.
Surrounded by stands packed with his hometown fans, there was no more suitable place for Martin Truex Jr. to make a statement about his future in the top echelon of racing than the Monster Mile. Raised in nearby southern New Jersey, Truex followed his father into regional racing series, making a name for himself in short order. While fans throughout the Northeast call Martin one of their own, those that populate Dover consider the Truex family next of kin. As a result, the normally reticent Truex had a hard time peeling the grin off his face while he celebrated in Victory Lane.
Early on in 2007, it was Stremme, not Clint Bowyer, who looked like he’d be the series’ breakout sophomore. A litany of solid early season runs peaked with a solid 10th-place finish at Texas; finishing on the lead lap, it was the driver’s highest career finish to date. That left Stremme 12th in points, the most unlikely of Chase contenders; two weeks later, he scored an eighth-place run at Talladega, leading a lap while establishing himself as a driver to be reckoned with.
Reed Sorenson’s second season in Cup came packaged with a pair of fantastic firsts. At Indianapolis in July, Sorenson tamed the 2.5-miler with a speed of 184.207 mph to earn his first career pole on the oldest speedway in America. Just two days later, he backed up his qualifying run with a fifth-place finish in the race, proving he wasn’t a one-lap wonder – and putting together a performance that, in hindsight, may have earned himself another season with the No. 41 team. His future no longer in question, Sorenson then pushed forward to his first top-three finish in Cup; a series of late-race wrecks bumped the 21-year-old to a third-place finish at Atlanta, putting him on the mythical “podium” at the native Georgian’s hometown track this October.
Tony Stewart typically uses the summer to heat up his season – and this year was no exception. During a four-race stretch in July and August, he won three races and finished sixth in the other, emerging as the most serious challenger to Hendrick Motorsports for the title. Among those wins was a second Brickyard 400 triumph; and with Stewart a native Hoosier, finishing first at Indianapolis will always be the highest point in his season.
Trying to find a high point for Ken Schrader last season was a major challenge. While he did lead two laps at Darlington, his No. 21 Ford was taken out in a crash and finished 41st – typical of his run with the Wood Brothers throughout 2007. Frankly, the only finish worth mentioning in that car was a 19th-place finish at Martinsville; not only was that Schrader’s best run with the team in 12 starts, it was the only time he finished on the lead lap all season. Also notable was his lone race driving with a group of old friends – the No. 49 BAM Racing Dodge Schrader drove during the 2004-05 seasons. Pressed into service during a one-race deal for Indianapolis, the 52-year-old not only qualified the underdog team on speed, he brought the car home 25th, the car’s fourth-best finish during all of 2007.
Johnny Sauter’s fifth-place finish at the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond was the best finish of his career, and it also wound up being his sole top five of the season for Haas CNC Racing. While Sauter was experiencing a rather mediocre year on the track, though, his personal life was far from mediocre. Sauter and his girlfriend of two years, Paul Menard’s PR rep Cortney Owen, got engaged during the 2007 season – keeping any on-track struggles well in perspective.