2008 was not a particularly bad year for Michael Waltrip, as his on-track performance improved greatly in respect to his maiden season as a Toyota owner/driver. Even though the two-time Daytona 500 winner did set the bar pretty low after a miserable 2007, improvement within his own organization was notable in a year where many thought his three-car team would wind up waving the white flag of surrender. Instead, Waltrip competed in his 1,000th NASCAR race (top-three series combined) at Atlanta in October to move into second on the all-time starts list – trailing only “King” Richard Petty – while cementing his team’s status on the Sprint Cup level for the foreseeable future.
Coming into 2008, the Hall of Fame Racing team talked the talk and smiled the smile. The one-horse stable kept up their spirits, connecting an offseason driver change with dreams of a better year and top-10 finishes. Besides, Yeley always looked good on camera with his sunny disposition and clean-cut, family man image. Unfortunately, a not-so-sunny reputation earned on the racetrack – far too many wrecks in years past, continued poor performance in the present – resulted in removal from his ride just before the Watkins Glen race in August.
The vast improvement in performance by Brian Vickers singlehandedly brought legitimacy and respect to Red Bull Racing. He performed solidly behind the wheel, highlighted by a hard–fought second at Pocono in June that was the team’s best ever finish. By the end of the season, he’d collected six top 10s, and Vickers took the “Bull” to the front of the field for 232 laps during the season. The North Carolinian took pretty good care of his equipment as well, only getting involved in three race-ending accidents. Despite scoring no wins and falling out of Chase eligibility late in the summer, Vickers not only met but exceeded team expectations for 2008. 19 races in, Vickers found himself leaving Chicago 14th in driver points and still in the hunt for a top-12 ranking – only 95 points short of the 12th and final Chase-eligible position to be set following race No. 26 at Richmond.
Truex was the standard bearer for DEI in 2008 – but that wasn’t saying much. Instead, a season filled with promise that the four-car organization would contend ultimately saw the majority of their employees released as the operation merged with Chip Ganassi Racing. In the midst of those struggles, the garage was filled with rumors about Truex’s future. Despite eventually signing a contract extension to quiet the first wave of gossip in late summer, stories continued to circulate that he might still be able to get out of his commitment to DEI if they could not field enough cars in 2009.
Speed was a busy man in 2008, racing in the ARCA Re/Max Series, Craftsman Truck Series and the Sprint Cup Series. In the CTS, he ran 16 events and scored his first victory by conquering the Monster Mile at Dover. In ARCA, he drove the No. 2 Eddie Sharp Racing entry to four wins and battled for the championship, until poor finishes in the final two races dropped him to fifth in the final standings. In the final event of that season, he crashed out after being tapped by fellow championship contender Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – a move that caused Speed to use on-track retaliation to ensure neither driver would take home the trophy. That type of aggression made it clear this open-wheel convert didn’t come to stock cars to play around. For while the rookie found those experiences helpful, Speed’s eye is on the big prize of the Sprint Cup Series. After a rough start, in the final race of the year he showed that he does have the potential to find success in the series – and he certainly has a style that will keep the sponsors coming.
As mentioned, Sorenson’s year started off incredibly – before teetering off the edge of a cliff and plummeting flat into a deep canyon. Following Daytona, he had just four top-25 finishes until a sixth-place performance at race number 17 in New Hampshire. A 12th at Richmond was the only other respectable run during that stretch. The remaining 19 races of the season saw Sorenson finish only five more times in the top 25, including ending 2008 and his tenure at Ganassi with five consecutive finishes outside the top 30.
After a slow start to the season, Smith finished 14th at Martinsville in the spring to kickstart his rookie campaign. He followed that with six top-25 finishes over the next 15 events, and capped it off with another 14th-place finish in the summer race at Bristol, tying his best finish of ’08. Smith had five more top 25s in the last third of the season, including the controversial 18th-place run at Talladega, as he gained valuable experience in his transition into the Sprint Cup Series. Although he had no top fives or top 10s, Smith was running at the end of every race, becoming the first rookie in history running a full schedule to accomplish the feat. His performance was good enough to earn the honor of being awarded the 2008 Rookie of the Year.
Mike Skinner served as a fill-in driver for three different teams this season. After making two attempts to qualify and only one start in the No. 27 Bill Davis Racing Toyota – replacing Jacques Villeneuve – the Ontario, Calif. native stepped into the No. 84 Red Bull Toyota to give young driver AJ Allmendinger some pointers from early March to mid-April. While becoming a mentor in advancing the open-wheel convert’s transition to stock cars, Skinner’s strong qualifying runs kept the team in position to eventually come back and make a run at the Top 35 in owner points.
Schrader’s season was marked by seat time for four different teams. He began the year by reuniting with BAM Racing, a team he drove for in 2003-05 with modest success. But after sponsorship left to run with Michael Waltrip Racing, the organization suspended operations – forcing him to look for other rides. From that point on, Schrader was a “super sub” for Cup teams in need. He ran the first Talladega race for Haas CNC, then attempted but failed to make the spring Richmond race for Ganassi. Schrader then ran the Coca-Cola 600 for Richard Childress Racing, then was shut out for the summer before finally landing at Hall of Fame Racing to finish out the year. Schrader ran 10 races for the No. 96, failing to qualify for an 11th for Hall of Fame.
After being dumped from the No. 70 Chevrolet at the end of 2007, Sauter was out of options at the Sprint Cup level. As a result, he hoped to regroup with a full-time Nationwide Series ride instead in 2008, driving for James Finch. But the chemistry never worked out, and after just five races Sauter had left that ride and was on the outside looking in on NASCAR’s top-three series. An ill-timed Cup start with the Wood Brothers (mentioned above) put Sauter in sorry shape heading into late spring; it seemed like his NASCAR career was suddenly stuck in neutral. But then, there came an opportunity. In April, Jeremy Mayfield parted ways with Haas CNC, and Sauter’s old team came crawling back to ask if he’d fill in for a substitute role. It was a chance to rekindle the magic that led to two top-10 finishes in 2007; but to the chagrin of everyone involved, it turns out the chemistry left the building once Sauter was fired last November. Despite driving for the team at races where he had the strongest finishes in ’07, Sauter struggled mightily in the car, scoring just one top-30 finish in eight starts while failing to qualify at Darlington in May.
All-in-all, 2008 was a continuation of the bad fortune and bad finishes Sadler has experienced since moving to GEM midway through the 2006 season. While he and his race team showed promise several times throughout the year, it seemed like something was always shutting them down. 12 times, Sadler qualified in the top 10, including a second at Phoenix. However, it seemed he and the team were never able to continue that momentum through the actual race itself. Seeing as all three of the GEM teams struggled throughout the season, one has to wonder if the changes that occurred in ownership during the middle of 2007 – a shift that coincided with Ray Evernham’s slow but steady departure from the organization – affected everyone’s performance.
The 2008 racing season showed Scott Riggs is clearly capable of being a solid driver – despite having less than a solid team around him. For the most part, he went quietly about his racing in the midst of internal chaos at Haas CNC. Starting and finishing around the 25th position, not ruffling a lot of feathers with other drivers, and not complaining about his team or any other varying circumstances surrounding him was a consistent marker of Riggs’s season. Still, he took a slightly below average team on his shoulders, and kept it in the Top 35 until the big penalty in May. Then, he stepped up and drove his way back into the Top 35 after their appeal was denied, meaning the 2009 driver replacing him would have a guaranteed starting spot for the first five races of this upcoming season. And his thanks for all this was – nothing. No contract offer for 2009 from this or any other team.