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Friday, December 29, 2006

NASCAR Driver Preview: JJ Yeley

JJ Yeley Age 30
0 wins, 0 top 5’s, 3 top 10’s, 9 top 15’s
Avg start 21.2, avg finish 25.0
Points Rank: 29th Driver Rating: 66.5
#18 Interstate Batteries Chevy Crew Chief: Steve Addington

Why can’t you be more like your brothers? That must be how JJ Yeley feels when compared to his teammates. Yeley’s plight is similar to a younger sibling with two older brothers: a high school quarterback and a straight A student. Sure he struggled in his rookie year, but look who he is compared to. Denny Hamlin won two races and made the Chase in his rookie year. Tony Stewart has two Championships and won 5 races for the second straight year.

In other words, Yeley had an average rookie season, but is teammates with arguably the best driver in NASCAR, and the driver with one of the best rookie seasons ever. There is nothing wrong with being a normal rookie. Positives (three top 10's, nine top 15's) laced with negatives (7 DNF's) summarizes Yeley's season nicely. A further look shows Yeley’s point standing was 29th, but his composite driver rating was 25th. Like most drivers with ratings that outperform their points, the reason was wrecks. He had 17 total crashes, good for 7 DNF's and 16 sub-30 finishes. In a short time he has already acquired a reputation for wadding sheetmetal.

All rookies will find trouble with one or more veterans during a long year. For most of the season Yeley avoided this trouble. Unfortunately he made a rookie mistake at the worst possible time. During the October race at Charlotte, Yeley collided with Chase contender and popular veteran Mark Martin. The scary crash cost Martin a shot at his first title. Yeley took some heat over the incident, especially since it was his third straight DNF from a wreck. Despite all the frustrations and bad finishes, he still wasn't as bad as Jason Leffler.

Joking aside, Yeley has serious talent and a resume to match. His open wheel background is similar to Stewart’s. They are the only two drivers to win the USAC Triple Crown. Yeley also set a USAC record with 24 wins during the 2003 season, breaking AJ Foyt's record. Yeley obviously has talent and was personally recommended to Gibbs by Stewart.

There were several examples of Yeley's talent in 2006. He started 4th at California, ran in the top ten the entire day finishing 8th. It was also his highest rated race with a 91.9. In July he finished 10th, 12th and 11th in a three race span at Chicago, Loudon and Pocono respectively. Based on the season driver ratings, Yeley's average running position was 22nd. This was better than Reed Sorenson and right behind Martin Truex Jr and Clint Bowyer. He also finished fifth in the Busch series standings with nine top 5's and 22 top 10's.

Frequent crashes can make for a long season, but they aren't a barometer for a driver's career. Numerous young drivers have dealt with the same thing and grew out of it once experience caught up with talent. Kasey Kahne is the most recent example. Kahne has a similar sprint car background.

Yeley's biggest tool for improvement is seat time. For the second straight season, Yeley will run both full Cup and Busch schedules. This year he will drive in Busch in James Finch's #1 car. Any seat time is valuable for Yeley, but it could be beneficial in another way. Finch is not a top Busch team and it will require Yeley's skill and more importantly patience to succeed.

If you want an idea how Yeley might do, compare his rookie season to Brian Vickers'. Vickers showed speed at times, but also frequently crashed his top-flight equipment. He had four top tens compared to Yeley's three. Vickers settled down in his second year, had some good runs and showed overall improvement. For Yeley to get 7-9 top tens plus 1 or 2 top 5 finishes is reasonable.

Yeley is a very good qualifier. He had nine top ten starts in addition to three Busch poles. It wouldn't be surprising if Yeley won a Cup pole next year. Right now his best tracks are speedways like California, Texas and Chicago. Over time, places like Richmond, Loudon and Phoenix could fit his style well too.

At 30, Yeley is not a young gun like most of the 2006 rookies. Does that make 2007 more urgent? The good news is probably not. That is not Joe Gibbs' style. One of the strengths of Gibbs Racing is the continuity. Tony Stewart has had the same crew chief for almost a decade. Interstate Batteries is a part of that continuity and it's doubtful they will demand immediate results that other more high-profile sponsors might. That said, Yeley can't get too comfortable. Aric Almirola is driving for Gibbs in Busch in 2007. If things go well, he could be Cup-ready soon.

Progress will come on 2007, but accidents and mistakes will still temper the season. If Yeley smooths out the rough spots, he could jump up to the low 20's in points. Year three will be the real chance for Yeley to make a splash.

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

NASCAR Driver Preview: Robby Gordon

Robby Gordon Age: 38
0 Wins, 1 top 5’s, 3 to 10’s, 10 top 15’s
9 DNF’s
Avg Start: 27.5 Avg Finish: 25.3
#7 Menard's/Jim Beam Ford Crew Chief: Greg Erwin

Mention Robby Gordon and you’ll get an array of reactions. Some think he has no talent, others think he’s one of the finest drivers in the garage. Still other people consider him reckless and a cheater. With most things, the accurate picture is somewhere in the middle. Gordon will probably always be a lightning rod for fans.

Whatever your personal opinion of Gordon, the progress his one-car team has made in two seasons is impressive. Prior to 2005 Gordon announced bold plans to run his own Cup team. After failing to qualify for races, having fickle equipment and poor finishes in 2005, the critics appeared right. Gordon built upon that rough beginning and made significant progress in 2006.

The biggest immediate obstacle was making races. Gordon successfully qualified for the Daytona 500 and the next four races to secure a top 35 starting spot. Once safely inside, Gordon went about improving his finishes. His 30th place finish didn’t fully represent how he ran in many races. His 64.9 driver rating was 26th. Several races were spoiled by DNF’s. He had a Cup worst nine. He also completed a very low 86% of the possible laps. Some of these issues were out of his control, while others were self-inflicted wounds. He had 10 top fifteen finishes and 14 finishes worse than 30th. Consistency was not present in the #7 car.

In the early part of the season Gordon had several good runs ruined by late problems. At both Atlanta and Texas he ran inside the top ten only to get trapped under caution. His first top ten came at Talladega in the spring. He added a fourth at Watkins Glen and a 10th at the fall Atlanta race to his season.

The Atlanta finish also created controversy for Gordon. Late in the race Gordon was caught throwing a piece of debris in hopes of a caution. The caution did drop, allowing him to stay on the lead lap and ultimately close out a top ten. NASCAR’s hammer also dropped, costing Gordon 50 points and $15,000. That’s still an improvement compared to thrown helmets and cursing on national TV.

Robby Gordon Motorsports is primed for more improvement next year too. He is switching from Chevy to Ford. Joining Ford will lend better manufacturer support. Instead of fighting for scraps with Chevrolet, Gordon is now one of nine cars getting support from Ford. The Yates/Roush engine package will provide better reliability. Gordon used DEI engines in 2006. This was an improvement over Menard’s engines and was a large factor in Gordon qualifying for races in 2006, but Gordon still had 3 engine blowups.

Crew Chief Greg Erwin found a speedy setup for the intermediate tracks. Now Gordon needs some luck to get his deserved finishes. He is always a favorite to win at the two road courses, and obliges when his equipment cooperates. He should also continue his strong runs at plate tracks (avg finish 13.25 in ’06). He has three career Cup wins at Sonoma, Watkins Glen and Loudon. His achilles heel is short tracks. In 13 races at Martinsville his average finish is 32.9 and has not scored a top ten. Excluding Loudon, all the 1-mile and shorter tracks (Martinsville, Phoenix, Richmond, Bristol, Dover) all give Gordon problems. That's over a quarter of the schedule to struggle at.

The key is smoothing out the erratic finishes. More reliable engines will help, but Gordon must also avoid crashes and not lose control of his emotions. When he runs well, ensuring a good finish is a must. If it's not a strong track, don't try too hard and end up in a wreck. In his three full seasons with Richard Childress Racing he scored finishes of 20th, 16th, and 23rd. In his third season of ownership, his equipment should gain consistency. Geting more even results should bring him closer to this type of points finish. He is not a Chase contender, but 20-25 in points is respectable and realistic. Considering where he started two years ago that would be quite impressive.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

NASCAR Driver Preview: Ken Schrader

Ken Schrader Age: 51
0 wins, 0 top 5's, 2 top 10's, 8 top 15's
Avg Start 25.6 Avg finish 26.2 8 DNF's
Pts Rank: 31st, Driver Rating: 57.2
#21 Little Debbie Ford
Crew Chief: Michael "Fatback" McSwain

Ken Schrader simply loves to drive cars. As if 704 Cup starts wasn't enough, Schrader also races in Busch, Truck and several dirt series. Not all the results shone in 2006, but a move to Wood Brothers produced several good runs. After moving from underfunded BAM racing to one of NASCAR's landmark teams, Schrader scored 2 top tens and 8 top fifteens.

Moving from Dodge to Ford, Schrader enjoyed Yates/Roush engines, one of the strongest in the sport. He took immediate advantage and finished ninth at the season opening Daytona 500. It was the 22nd top ten at Daytona in Schrader's career. Aside from two early mechanical failures, Schrader did what he does best: complete laps and stay out of trouble. He finished 16th at Texas, Phoenix and Talladega. Add a 15th at Richmond and his late spring was very successful. Sandwiched in the middle of his run was an unavoidable crash at Talladega. While the crash was out of his hands, it was still his third DNF in the first nine races. He ended up with 8 total DNF's on the year.

As successful as his spring was, June ushered in 7 finishes of 26th or worse out of eight races. This included two more crashes at Michigan and Sonoma. The summer swoon led to a key move by Wood Brothers. Crew Chief David Hyder was replaced by Fatback McSwain to prepare for 2007. He took over as crew chief in July and made an instant impact. Hyder had been Schrader's crew chief at both BAM and Wood Brothers. But McSwain is a proven difference maker and it was the right move. In the first two races, Schrader finished 15th at Pocono, and 14th at Indianapolis.

Solid runs continued up to his best race of the season. He scored a 7th at Richmond, running in the top ten all night (94.5 driver rating). Three more crashes during the Chase ended the year on a sour note. Still Schrader did have several good runs, especially after McSwain took over. This gives promise for next year.

Schrader's best two tracks, as shown in 2006, are Daytona and Richmond. Like most veterans he is strongest on tracks that require patience. Places like Martinsville, Darlington, and Bristol all give Schrader a chance at a top ten. Factor in McSwain's knowledge and it's realistic to think Schrader can improve on 2006. The biggest key is avoiding the eight DNF's. As long as Schrader is on track, he is capable of finishing in the top 25 regardless of the track or quality of car. Given a good car and Schrader can land a top fifteen finish. A weakness of Schrader is the newer intermediate tracks. At Kansas, Texas, Chicago, Fontana, Las Vegas and Homestead he has a single top ten. McSwain will try to find a good setup for this type of track.

A large unknown for all of NASCAR is the pending Car of Tomorrow. This should be less of a worry for the Wood Brothers. Ford is reportedly undertaking the research and design for the team's CofT. As a one car team, this greatly levels the playing field for the Woods. Given Schrader's experience in numerous racing series, including the similar Truck series, the new car won't pose a large problem. The races will also be at Schrader's stronger tracks like Richmond, Bristol and Martinsville. Certainly no panic from Wood Brothers and Schrader.

Despite staying with the Wood Brothers, 2007 will be a transition year. Schrader will split time with rookie Jon Wood. Schrader has driven a full schedule every year since his rookie year in 1984. It is not known how long Schrader will drive in Cup. He will turn 52 in May. Wood Brothers is intent on expanding to two Cup cars, however that might not include Schrader. With Wood already set to drive in 2007 and Marcos Ambrose working through the ranks, Schrader might be the odd man out.

In the age of young guns, it is more difficult than ever for a veteran like Schrader to stay in the sport. Schrader, who also owns a dirt track in Missouri, will no doubt drive as long as someone is willing. He is popular with sponsors, can drive any type of car and just loves to race. 2007 might indicate how long Schrader will or can continue.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Previewing the New Veterans:

After taking most of 2006 off, two popular veterans are returning to full-time Cup rides in 2007. Ward Burton and Ricky Rudd both return to Nascar’s top series. Both have decades ofexperience winning races and finishing in the top ten in points. The problem is that past experience won’t matter as much as one might think.

In two years the sport has changed quite a bit. A new aero-package, the innovation of coil-bound springs, newly paved tracks, the Car of Tomorrow and constantly evolving tire combinations all pose a steep challenge to any driver. It’s hard enough for full-time drivers to keep up with, let alone a driver on hiatus. Rudd and Burton are veterans, but they also are in new rides. Each is stepping into a different situation, and that will greatly effect how they do in 2006.

After a year off, Ricky Rudd joined Robert Yates Racing for the second time in his career. Rudd won three races in his first stint with Yates from 2000-2002.This time Rudd's signing helps Yates out of a dire situation. As recently as Homestead, there were rumors of Yates selling part of his team and the #88 car. Now the car has full funding from Snickers and the best available driver in Rudd to wheel it.

Rudd is still a threat to win races when given good cars. An outstanding road racer (six career wins), he nearly held off Tony Stewart at Sonoma in 2005 before finishing 2nd. His best tracks are Dover, Kansas, Texas and Bristol.

He last raced for Wood Bros, so he’s familiar with Ford’s operations. He also tested for a few teams in 2006, especially on the Car of Tomorrow. Rudd also subbed for an injured Stewart at Dover last May. No one has more experience than Rudd and the fact he stayed involved with testing during his time off will help. He easily maintain a top 35 spot and give a few good runs, probably 5-6 top tens.

Rudd’s biggest contributions may come outside of his car. One project is helping teammate David Gilliland mature. He will no doubt be available for the young driver to bounce ideas and strategy off. Yates Racing is beginning to dig out of a miserable 2006. If interested, Rudd could play a role in this reconstruction in the same way Jeff Burton did at RCR.

After getting released by Haas/CNC racing near the end of 2004, Ward Burton took nearly two full years off. He did some television work plus several wildlife conservation projects. Realizing he still wanted to race, in 2006 he began talking to different teams about returning. During the summer Burton was rumored to join several top teams including Yates. When the offers dried up, Burton joined Morgan-McClure. He raced three times at the end of 2006 and will drive full time in 2007.

Burton admitted the time off cost him. Getting reacquainted with the technology is the largest task during the offseason. Unfortunately that might be the least of his troubles. The #4 car hasn't been competitive for years. Since 2000, the team has two top tens. They failed to qualify for six races in 2006 and couldn't even net a top fifteen finish. One necessary upgrade is the engine program. Scott Wimmer suffered 3 failures during 2006 in the 4 car.

Like many one-car teams, they also struggled with full-time sponsorship. The immensely popular Burton should help in that area too. State Water Heaters is signed on for 2007.

On the track, Burton’s foremost challenge is making races. With no owner's points, he will be fighting to simply qualify for the field. Once there, he knows how to avoid trouble and get finishes. If Burton can make 30 races it will be a successful year. One possibility for Burton is using Morgan McClure as a bridge to a better ride. He spends this year getting familiar with the scene and then finds an open seat with a multi-car team. While it is nice to see one of NASCAR's good characters back in Cup action, Burton probably won't enjoy a dream season.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Merry Christmas

I thought today was a good time to take a break from the driver previews and see what else is going on. Ricky Rudd and Ward Burton will be waiting here Tuesday.

-Plenty of good blogs have covered Teresa Earnhardt calling out Dale Jr. I agree with the general thought that DEI may be the problem and not Junior. Since she is the boss at DEI however, it's her business if she doesn't think Junior is the right driver for their plans. The puzzling thing is why would she say this? It's very puzzling. At the very worst, Junior is a top fifteen driver, and that's very conservative. Realistically he's in a group of four or five that are right behind Stewart and Gordon. It would be hard to lure another driver with as much talent to DEI. That's not even considering the unmatched marketing potential, popularity, merchandise sales, and virtually unlimited sponsorships. Budweiser would follow Junior if he decided to drive Go-Karts. It's not simpy a top-ten driver that leaves, but the whole package leaves too. I think Junior will eventually re-sign with DEI, but the comments don't help.

-Kenny Wallace got a new crew chief this week. Jay Guy (not to be confused with former Raiders punter Ray Guy) takes over for Joe Garone. Here's hoping Guy has a great qualfiying setup.

-Annheuser Busch ends sponsorship with the Grand National Series after 2007. Nascar should be able to find another sponsor that will pay more money. People will still refer to it as the Busch series, although I thinkPoulan Weedeater should come aboard. Then all the Cup drivers could be Weedwhacker-whackers. Or would Cupsters be the weeds? Poulan Weedeater should have extra sponsorship money considering they no longer sponsor the Poulan-Weedeater Independence Bowl. That was always my favorite bowl name, along with the Weiser-Lock Copper Bowl.

-Marcos Ambrose will drive up to 10 Cup races next year. Right now the two road courses are certain, and the other eight races are dependent on funding and his success. Ambrose is an interesting prospect to me. He raced stock cars on Australia and figured out the trucks pretty quickly in 2006. He will drive a full Busch schedule next year and I think if he gets good cars he can surprise. If the Wood Brothers expand to two cars in 2008, Ambrose is in good shape for one of the rides.

-It's the last work day before Christmas and it might be the most stress-free Christmas I've had in a long time. This year we didn't do any gift exchanges or buy a lot of presents. Instead we took the money we'd normally spend on Christmas and donated it to charity. It was an idea our church had for this year's advent season. It's not that gifts are bad, but it can get so out of control. Plus, when you realize that many people in the US and the world can't afford rent, groceries, new clothes or even have safe drinking water it gives a little more perspective. Merry Christmas to everyone and be safe.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Kyle Petty
Age: 46
Crew Chief: Bill Wilburn
#45 Wells Fargo Dodge
(0 wins, 0 top 5's, 2 top 10s, 3 top 15's)
Pts: 32nd Rating 48.7

The 2006 season saw lots of ups and downs for Petty Enterprises, and Kyle Petty's year reflected this. Petty scored two top ten finishes, but also struggled with consistent sponsorship as well as maintaining a top 35 spot. After spending much of the year outside the top 35, Petty strung together several strong finishes during the Chase to secure a starting spot for next year. The late charge may have saved the #45 from an uncertain future in 2007.
During the offseason, Petty Enterprises created serious buzz by landing some of the top talent in NASCAR. Robbie Loomis, Todd Parrot and Bobby Labonte all joined the organization at around the same time. This brought added excitement and expectations to the Petty's organization, not only for Labonte's #43 car, but also for the #45.

The season started decently as Petty finished eighth at the spring Atlanta race, and also had 18th's at Bristol, Talladega and Darlington. The summer however, was rough for Petty. From July to the start of September, he went 11 races finishing worse than 27th, including six straight races finishing worse than 30th. This tailspin pushed him outside the top 35. For his part, he made every race on time.

Prior to the Chase, Petty hired Bill Wilburn as crew chief and slid Paul Andrews over to Labonte's car. Wilburn, who has worked for Hendrick, Penske and Yates among others, brought tangible improvement during the final ten races. It started with a 22nd at Charlotte. Not a great result, but considering how he had ran the second half of the year, it was improvement. The next week at Martinsville he scored his second top ten of the year. It was his best race of the season, his driver rating was a respectable 80.1. He stayed in the top fifteen practically the whole day before closing it out in tenth. Petty followed up with at 17th at Atlanta, an 11th Texas and a 25th at Phoenix, finishing on the lead lap. Meanwhile Sterling Marlin faltered in the same stretch, opening the door for Petty to rejoin the top 35.

Anytime a team is struggling to finish races, it is a rough year. When you look at where Petty and his team were for the last five years, it's easier to notice the progress. From 200-2004, Petty had two top tens total. Since 2005, he's scored four. It proves that not only are they getting closer equipment-wise, but Petty can still wheel a car.

Two of the biggest reasons for the rebound are personnel and engines. Loomis and Andrews both won Championships as crew chiefs. Wilburn also has over 20 years of Cup experience, and famously helped David Gilliland win a 2006 Busch race with less resources than Petty has. The talent level has improved over the past year.

The other big difference was Petty's decision to switch to Evernham engines before the 2005 season. The previous three seasons Petty used Mike Ege engines, but grew frustrated with the lack of performance. The switch has given an obvious boost in horspower and speed. Evernham engines are obviously strong, but they are susceptible to failures. Petty lost two engines and Bobby Labonte had three failures. The top engine builders averaged a 3% failure rate, Evernham had 5%.

Petty is no longer a threat to win or consistently run up front. Don't discount him as a skilled driver though. Over his career he has won at short tracks, road courses, intermediate and speedways. His strength remains his experience. His 785 Career starts places him 6th all time. After Texas, he was technically the active leader in starts until Ricky Rudd unretired.for 2007. Like most veterans, this experience shows up at the short tracks like Bristol and Martinsville.

One of the most encouraging parts of Petty’s season was his success on speedways. He finished tenth and 17th at Atlanta and an 11th at Texas. If PE can continue improvement at the 1.5 and 2 mile speedways the solid results should continue.

The biggest challenge for the team is the Car of Tomorrow. PE has limited resources compared to the larger teams. They can’t simply throw additional people and money at the new project. It's a large enough task keeping up with the three and four car teams in Cup, let alone building two different cars simultaneously. PE is also at a disadvantage by not having a Busch team for collecting data.

With so many new teams entering Cup next year Petty will again walk the owners' points tightrope. He can't afford to squander his guaranteed starting spot during the first five races. If he can stay on the track his equipment should allow him to finish in the top 25 most weeks. If bad luck or mechanical gremlins strike, disaster may follow.

When the Petty’s run well, everyone associated with NASCAR benefits. Petty can drive as long as he wants to. He has earned that right with his respected status in the garage and his incredible charity work. Kyle Petty and PE as a whole play a large role in NASCAR. Although the performance has slid, there are still few names bigger than Petty in NASCAR. Here's hoping Kyle Petty continues to have the chance to drive every week.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

NASCAR Driver Preview: David Stremme

David Stremme
Age: 29 Crew Chief: Steven Lane
#40 Coors Light/Lonestar Steakhouse Dodge
(0 wins, 0 top 5's, 0 top 10's, 4 top 15's)
Avg start 26.4 Avg finish 26.4
Pts: 34th, Driver Rating: 54.2
It's too bad David Stremme and the 40 car fell into a huge hole at the start of the season, because his late season progress went unnoticed. After a 28th place, lead-lap finish at the Daytona 500, it unraveled quickly for the Chip Ganassi rookie. Accidents and mechanical failures left Stremme finishing 33rd or worse in the next five races. After the Bristol race, Stremme was locked outside the top 35. Things were so dire, he was battling Brent Sherman in the standings. To Stremme's credit he qualified for every race he was entered.

From race #2 at California through the 14th race at Pocono, Stremme did not have a lead lap finish. Compounding the struggles was acrew chief switch, forcing Stremme to start over mid-season. After the seventh race at Texas, Stremme got a new crew chief. First-time crew chief Jeff Vandermoss was replaced by veteran Steven Lane. In the long run, the Stremme and Lane combination began working. In his next seven starts, he had six lead lap finishes. The only race he didn't finish on the lead lap, he finished one lap down at the July Pocono race.

While the finishes weren't eye-catching, there were signs of improvement. He qualified 4th at Darlington and 3rd at the July Daytona race. He finished a season high 11th at New Hampshire, his first top 15. He also had a highlight during an ARCA race at Michigan. Driving for Rusty Wallace, Stremme lapped the entire field en route to the win. That has to build confidence for a young driver. With some help from Scott Pruett at road courses, he rejoined the top 35 in August.

Stremme's finishes improved as the year progressed, especially during the Chase. While he couldn't score his first top ten, he did have three top fifteen finishes during the final ten races. Had another strong run at Atlanta ruined by a Kasey Kahne “
brain fade ”. His average finish for the Chase was 21.9. For context, Chaser Kyle Busch averaged a 22.6 finish.

Stremme stepped into a difficult position in 2006. The #40 car hadn't been a consistent threat for three years. His crew chief Vandermoss was brand new to Ganassi after moving from Matt Kenseth's team at Roush. Worse, his teammates were Reed Sorenson, a twenty -year old rookie and Casey Mears, entering his fourth year in Cup. There wasn't a veteran presence at Ganassi making it tough to lean on anyone for information. The equipment was also not on par with the elite teams in the sport. Adding to the pressure, his sponsor Coors Light competes against two high profile drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Kurt Busch. Coors will always be third to Budweiser and Miller Lite in Nascar. Not the ideal scenario to step into. Don’t feel too bad, he did win $3,422,254 in earnings.

Unfortunately, most of these issues remain in 2007. Mears left Ganassi for Hendrick Motorsports. He was replaced with Juan-Pablo Montoya. Montoya has loads of racing experience, but almost zero in a stock car. This means Stremme is the elder statesman of the team. The cars made strides on the technology side, but still are behind other multi-car teams.

The biggest key for Stremme depends on how Ganassi can improve their cars. Ernie Elliott provides reliable engines (2 blown engines all season), but not always known for pure horsepower. The organization hasn’t won a race since 2002. None of the cars have run consistently at the front over the last two years. It also hurts that Dodge is fourth among manufacturer support in NASCAR.

There is good news as well. Ganassi hired John Fernandez from Dodge to manage the racing operation. The addition of Montoya to Cup could also spur Ganassi to improve the fleet of cars. The Dodge Charger will also get a new nose, which the teams hope will solve some of the aerodynamic and balance issues from the past two years.

In the meantime, Stremme should continue to improve into a solid driver in his second season. Many of his best finishes in the Busch series came on short, flat tracks like Milwaukee and Memphis. His best finishes in Cup came on similar styled tracks like Martinsville and Loudon. These kind of tracks are less reliant on aerodnamics and more about handling and the driver. Stremme, the 2003 Busch Rookie of the Year, can at least have these tracks to fall back on while waiting for improvements at intermediate tracks. Barring another top-35 fallout, he should also get his first chances at the two road courses in Cup action. Stremme is still learning and the more seat time the better. Capturing his first top tens in Cup should happen this year and a top 30 finish in the points is likely.

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Earnhardt Newsflash

Tuscaloosa, AL-After an exhaustive search for their next head coach, the University of Alabama again went after a big name. Kerry Earnhardt will succeed Mike Shula as Crimson Tide football coach. The eldest son of the late Dale Earnhardt, he has spent the last eight years driving in NASCAR's Busch and Truck series. Lack of football experience was apparently not an issue for AD Mal Moore, "Alabama football is recognized as one of the biggest names in college sports. Likewise, the Earnhardt name is associated with success in the state of Alabama . It's a perfect fit."

Earnhardt and his siblings, Kelly Elledge and Dale Earnhardt Jr, also announced plans to begin construction on a racing complex in Alabama. The site will now be on the Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa.

When asked how important winning an SEC title would be, Earnhardt replied, "It don't mean sh**!. My daddy won here ten times."

The fan reaction was mixed. Some fans feel Earnhardt will be the best coach since Bear Bryant. Others feel Kerry got the job based on his name and doesn't have any real talent. Time will tell, although merchandise sales increased 133% following the announcement.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

NASCAR Driver Preview: Sterling Marlin

For more than 15 years Sterling Marlin was a consistent force on the Cup tour. From 1987-2002, he won eight races, including back to back Daytona 500’s. He averaged 5 top 5’s and 12 top tens per season during the decade and finished as high as third in the points. His best year, 2002, was cut short by an injury or he may have won his first Winston Cup. Since that year, injury related or otherwise, Marlin’s performance has slipped every year. 2006 marked the fourth straight season with a decline in top 10’s, points rank and laps led. Marlin had one top ten. He hadn’t scored less than four in a year since 1985 when he only ran eight races.

Marlin was essentially put out to pasture in 2005 by Chip Ganassi/Felix Sabates racing and landed with MB/2 motorsports. The year did not go well from the season opener at Daytona. Marlin finished worse than 32nd in the first four races and sunk any serious hopes for competing. By the end of the year Marlin was fighting to stay in the top 35 in owners’ points, a battle he lost.

Marlin had two patches of solid runs spread among the wrecks and poor finishes. In the spring Marlin finished 17th at Bristol, 14th at Martinsville, 12th at Phoenix and 9th at Richmond. The second run came in the fall when he had a 20th (Kansas), 11th (Charlotte), 21st (Martinsville), and 20th(Atlanta). Unfortunately poor finishes surrounded the rest of the year. Marlin had 18 races 30th or worse, and only 9 lead lap finishes.

8 DNF’s were the major reason for Marlin falling outside the top 35. The last three races Marlin suffered two crashes and a blown engine. Marlin had three engine failures during the year, surprisingly high for Hendrick motors. By comparison, the four Hendrick teams lost four engines total.

Despite the frustrations on the track, some good things did happen in 2006. Marlin passed the $40 million mark in career earnings. He also made his 700th Cup start, moving to ninth all-time. The biggest plus was Bobby Ginn purchasing the team. Ginn began the year with partial sponsorship of the #14 car. This only whetted his appetite for NASCAR. Like the old Remington shaver commercials, Ginn liked it so much he bought the company. Ginn made an immediate difference. MB/2 had struggled to fund 2 full-time teams and was considering merging with DEI. Once Ginn bought the company, not only were both cars fully sponsored, the team will expand to three cars in 2007.

Journeyman Slugger Labbe is Marlin’s crew chief. Labbe has not lasted a full season with one team since 2003. He left DEI and Michael Waltrip in 2004 and moved to Evernham in 2005. He helped Jeremy Mayfield make the Chase, but was fired before the year was out. Labbe surfaced at Robert Yates and worked with Dale Jarrett. After a four-race suspension for rules infractions, Labbe was eventually released from Yates mid-season. So Labbe is now on his fourth team in three years, and no one should be shocked if he didn’t last the whole season at Ginn either.

Looking forward, 2007 may be Marlin's final full season. He turns 50 in June and his future might depend on how next year goes. The first five races require Marlin to qualify on speed. With so much competition for seven spots, Marlin faces a tough challenge. Marlin averaged a 23.9 starting position in 2006. Hendrick motors will help in his qualifying quest, although it could cost him practice time in race trim.

Ginn’s money should inject new hope for the operation. The team is now able to afford newer technologies necessary to stay competitive. Expanding to three full-time teams means additional data to share. Marlin can still drive, especially at short tracks. His average finish at the six short track races was 20.5. Richmond was his only top ten finish all year. He also has five career wins at plate tracks and knows how to work in the draft. The team has run well at plate tracks, which bodes well for the start of the year. Marlin’s career has declined, but at choice tracks he is still capable of a strong run. With renewed support and excitement from Ginn, Marlin is capable of entering the top 35 in points. This would go a long towards securing sponsorship for the car. It might also be motivation for Marlin to return in 2008.

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NASCAR Driver Preview: Tony Raines

Tony Raines
Age: 42
#96 DLP Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Brandon Thomas
Nextel Cup Stats
Starts Wins Top 5's Top 10's Top 15's
Poles Avg Start Avg Finish Points Rank Driver Rating
0 31.8
Laps Led DNF Earnings
28 11
Want an idea of how the new Toyota teams will fare in 2007? Look to Hall of Fame racing for an example. The way their season went might be the absolute best scenario for how to form a Cup team. The #96 car quietly and uneventfully worked their way into the top 35. Once there they began building a foundation for the next year. With a combination of Terry Labonte and Tony Raines, the car was simultaneously avoiding trouble and the spotlight. The two combined for 1 DNF all season.

Crashes are a season killer. This is especially true for an upstart, one car team. Raines had an exceptional season in this context. Toyota teams should aim to mirror the #96’s smooth entry to the Cup series. Staying inside the Top 35, finishing races and avoiding crashes are the three big keys to success for a rookie team. Hall of Fame accomplished all three.

The team had a lot of other factors to help avoid many of the growing pains of a new team. Labonte and his Champion provisional started the first five races for a guaranteed starting spot. He finished every race to firmly secure the #96 team inside the top 35. This alleviated pressure once Tony Raines assumed the wheel at Martinsville. Joe Gibbs Racing also provided engines, cars and technical support. HoF was able to piggyback off of Gibbs’ experience starting a new car, which they endured in 2005.

After several years of scraping together rides in the various NASCAR series, Tony Raines finally landed a ride with a reliable, funded team. He made the most of his chance in 2006. Raines is the type of driver that will not generate attention or incite on-track drama. He simply drives hard, completes laps and finishes as well as possible. Despite running only 29 races, he still finished 35th in points. He bested Travis Kvapil and Michael Waltrip despite fewer starts.

Think about all the potential problems a race team faces every race. Now consider that Raines had one DNF and you realize how impressive his record was last year. Obviously some luck is involved, but the driver and crew also need skill. It's deciding when to pit when he hears a vibration, avoiding cars on pit road, and not squeezing into a small hole on lap 40. The crew also deserves credit for ensuring every part from the $45,000 engine to the $1.99 plugs are tested and working.

Raines finest night was the fall race at Lowe's. In that race he led 28 laps (the only laps led of the year) on his way to a 7th place finish. It was also his highest driver rating of the season with a 97.0. This was the key piece of a solid run down the stretch. In the final seven races, Raines' average finish was 19.2. The strong finish coincided with a crew chief change. Phillipe Lopez was promoted to competition director, opening the door for Brandon Thomas to call the shots for Raines. Thomas was last a crew chief with Bobby Labonte at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2004.

Raines can't get comfortable with his solid 2006. His sponsor DLP Texas Instruments was ranked in the top ten for greatest visibility. This basically means that Texas Instruments has a lot invested in the team. Now that the team has progressed past the infant stage, improved results will also be expected. Raines was brought back for 2007, but nothing is certain long term. Is he the driver to elevate HoF to an elite team? He needs to continue improving his results throughout the season. He has run well in other series, including four wins in the Truck Series. His strength is the intermediate speedways. Fortunately the 2006 notes from these tracks will still be relevant in 2007. Raines should have comfort heading to the type of track that comprises 40% of the schedule.

Long term, the team is working towards a second team. This is the only way to stay current in NASCAR. Multiple cars to share notes and date is the only way to keep up. The alternative is winding up like Morgan-McClure or worse, PPI Racing. This expansion will be Lopez' main focus as competition director. His other project is the Car of Tomorrow. Like every team next year, crews must have two track minds. One for the normal speedway cars and another focusing on the CoT. Hall of Fame will again be able to tap into Gibbs' resources and support to ensure this goes smoothly. As long as they have this connection with Gibbs, they will always have top equipment that the team can grow into.

The outlook for Raines is a top 25 finish in the points with 2 or 3 top tens. Avoiding trouble is again a large key in how he finishes. The Chase isn't a realistic goal this year. The points neighborhood consists of veteran drivers like Dale Jarrett, Jeff Green and Joe Nemechek, and Raines can compete with all of them.

Previous Previews:

AJ Allmendinger

Michael Waltrip

Jeremy Mayfield

David Gilliland

Kenny Wallace

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Friday, December 15, 2006

NASCAR Driver Preview: AJ Allmendinger

AJ Allmendinger
Age: 25
Crew Chief: Rick Viers

Of the seven rookies scheduled to appear in 2007, the greatest unknown is AJ Allmendinger. Maybe unknown isn't the right word, how about greenest rookie in stock cars? Every rookie is a wildcard to some degree. Juan-Pablo Montoya comes from an open-wheel background with very little stock car experience. At least Montoya is with an established team that is inside the top 35. David Reutimann will drive for
Toyota and will have no owner’s points. At least Reutimann has 107 combined starts among the three NASCAR series. Allmendinger begins with two strikes. He has little stock car experience and will drive for Team Red Bull, a team yet to run a NASCAR race. A brand new driver to stock cars hired by a brand new team. It will be a rough season all around. It is difficult to know exactly how the year will play out because there is not a lot known about Team Red Bull.

So what do we know about Allmendinger? He spent the last three years in the Champ Car World Series. After four second place finishes in 2005, he enjoyed a breakout year in 2006. He won five races, including three straight, and finished third in points. He was one of three Americans to race in the CCWS in 2006, and the only one with more than one start.

During his off weeks in 2006, Allmendinger began testing a truck for Bill Davis Racing. He drove in three Craftsman Truck races, and stoking an interest in stock car racing for Allmendinger. His NASCAR debut was at the New Hampshire truck race. He qualified 33rd and grinded out a 13th place finish. That was followed by a fifth at Talladega. For his first two races in a top stock car series, it was impressive. His final race of the year was at Atlanta. After qualifying on the outside front row, he crashed on the fifth lap. He also attempted to qualify for the Atlanta and Texas Cup events. Cup qualifying was rained out and he was too slow at Texas.

At this point Allmendinger’s stock car resume is three truck races and two failed Cup races. If you are keeping score, that’s 307 truck laps, 2 qualifying laps at Texas and 26 practice laps at Texas. No driver in recent memory has landed a full-time Cup with such little experience. By comparison Montoya raced in 7 races among ARCA, Busch and Cup.

Further, Allmendinger has little oval experience compared to an open wheel driver transitioning from the IRL. The only ovals he raced at in ChampCar were Milwaukee and Las Vegas. Vegas is the only track that has a Cup event. Drivers like Montoya and Sam Hornish are much more familiar with many of the Nextel Cup's oval tracks.

Allmendinger is only 25, and is certainly a top prospect in any racing series. This doesn't mean he won't succeed in NASCAR. It only points out the enormous hurdles he faces compared to other rookies and young drivers in the ranks.

In a whirlwind season, the two tracks that will lend comfort are Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Road racing obviously shouldn’t be a problem. Sonoma is too soon in the year to expect great success, Allmendinger will still be getting comfortable to the heavier, less precise stock cars. Watkins Glen should be circled on the schedule. By August, he should be ready to make a serious run at a top ten or top five.

So what do we know about Team Red Bull? Not as much as other teams. While Michael Waltrip Racing seems to have frequent releases and announcements, Red Bull tends to keep a lower profile. Aside from deep pockets, Team Red Bull does not assume any competitive advantages to help their 2007 campaign. No owners points or champion provisional, zero NASCAR races started which also means very few notes from 2006. Their key hires have come from top organizations like Evernham, Ford Racing and especially luring Doug Richert from Roush Racing.

Crew Chief Rick Viers will be the largest key to Allmendinger's progress. Viers worked last year for Bill Davis Racing, helping in the Truck Series as well as Bill Lester's two Cup races. He also was crew chief during Allmendinger's three Truck races. Job number one is finding a fast qualfying setup. Once they make some races the goals must be to get laps, avoid too many crashes and start compiling a good notebook. Finding a Busch ride for more seat time would help too.

Allmendinger is obviously talented and plenty of open wheel drivers have succeeded in Cup. Unfortunately, 2007 might be the most competitive season ever. Making the field every week will be challenging for the 10-15 teams outside the magical 35 window. The good news is that Red Bull and Toyota are prepared to struggle next year, and Allmendinger should get plenty of leniency. Once he does figure it out, Red Bull might reap the rewards for thinking outside the box.

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I was all ready to finish today's preview after work last night. That was the plan before a huge storm hit Portland (now that's trouble in river city) and knocked the power out for four and a half hours. Apparently the computers and the internet are completely reliant on power, so the posting didn't get done. I know, poor excuse right? Well, I'll buy a generator tonight to ensure my seven-reader supported blog continues humming in future catastrophes.

I should be able to finish it today. It's on A.J. Allmendinger, which is quite tasty on rice. Stay dry!

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

NASCAR Driver Preview: Michael Waltrip

Michael Waltrip Age: 43
#55 NAPA Toyota Crew Chief: David Hyder
Nextel Cup Stats
Top 5's
Top 10's
Top 15's
Avg Start
Avg Finish
Driver Rating

For the first time since 1986 Michael Waltrip did not score a top ten finish. 1986 was also the last time
Waltrip did not start a Cup race. In fact, he missed three plus a fourth race where he purchased his entry. On the track 2006 was a disaster for Waltrip.

How bad was it? He had one finish (14th at Talladega) inside the top fifteen. He had a mere 5 lead lap finishes compared to 7 DNF's. It's never a good sign when you have more DNF's than lead lap finishes. Beyond his the DNF's he had 15 "bottom 10's". To ensure he made the first five races, he purchased owners points from Doug Bawel and the defunct #77 Penske team. This luxury was quickly squandered by poor finishes. By the ninth race, Waltrip was outside the top 35 for good. Things only swirled further down the drain from there. Waltrip did not qualify
for the Coca Cola 600, but purchased Derrick Cope’s ride to satisfy his sponsor, Napa
. It’s unclear whether Napa
was satisfied with Waltrip’s 41st place finish at Charlotte
. Waltrip also missed the second largest race, the Brickyard 400 plus Richmond and Homestead.

After several great runs in 2005 while showing some serious skill, 2006 seemed like a wasted year on track. After an 18th at the Daytona 500, the year took an immediate dive. Blown engines, faulty brakes and crashes explained some of the problems. Sometimes Waltrip made problems for himself. At the spring Bristol race, he misunderstood his spotter and plowed into two crashed cars, half a lap after the original wreck. Mechanical failures or plain bad luck is one thing; every driver endures both. Adding poor judgment to the problems really compounds matters. The one relatively bright spot was his Busch Series efforts. A second place at the fall Charlotte race highlighted 3 top tens in 21 starts.

Sure his on-track record was dreadful, but his off track activities were very successful. Toyota appointed him to be the flagship team for their 2007 entry to Cup. He secured enough sponsorship for three cars and hired Dale Jarrett and David Reutimann to drive. He also hired a lot of organizational talent: Ty Norris, Matt Borland, Larry Carter and David Hyder among others. Don’t let his goofy, sponsor-pitching personality fool you; he has a definite plan for his company. Sponsors obviously love him and that is a big part of any organization. When he announced he was leaving DEI for Bill Davis Racing, it was a puzzling move. Of course that was before he was granted the task of starting a new organization from scratch. While it essentially cost him his 2006 season, his long range plans remain on course.

Waltrip probably won’t see great improvement in 2007. Plate tracks will again be his strength. Even in an under-supported Charger, Waltrip had his strongest races at Daytona and Talladega
. His experience in the draft is a huge asset, especially when the strength of his cars is unknown. Making the Daytona 500 shouldn’t be a problem and would get his team off to a solid start.

It might be surprising that based on average finish, Waltrip’s best track is Sonoma
(avg finish 15.9, 7 top tens in 15 races). Aside from plate tracks, he has also been historically solid at Charlotte and Bristol. Waltrip has 675 career starts, fourth most among drivers with a 2007 ride. Waltrip must rely on his vast experience to regain his pre-2006 form.

Qualifying isn’t a great strength, although he did capture the pole at Pocono in 2005. It was his first pole since George H Bush was in office. His best effort last year was 19th and his average start was 31.9.

While Waltrip is capable of putting together strong runs at any track, he has never finished in the top ten in points. Even in his best years at DEI, Waltrip struggled with weekly consistency. He can’t afford to start the year erratically. David Hyder will be the crew chief in 2007. He worked with Ken Schrader for the last two years as crew chief first at BAM racing and last year at Wood Brothers. Creating immediate chemistry between the two will be vital for the season.

Overall, the Toyota cars will struggle initially. Many people have predicted dominance from Toyota, but that will not be in 2007. The biggest challenge will be the intermediate tracks. These tracks are the most aerodynamically intense and require the most R&D help. Perhaps the one program where MWR and Toyota are on an even playing is the Car of Tomorrow. Other established teams already have an inventory of 2006 cars and the associated technology, but everyone is starting at the ground floor with the new CoT.

Returning to the top 35 is definitely attainable. He is capable of collecting a few top tens, although improving on his 2 top 15 finishes is a more immediate goal. Like the other Toyota
teams, simply making races to lay the groundwork for future seasons is priority one. After having his feet in two camps last year, Waltrip can finally focus all of his efforts in one place in 2007. That doesn’t mean he will be less busy, but probably more focused in one place.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Nascar Driver Preview: Jeremy Mayfield

Jeremy Mayfield
Age: 37
#36 OTC 360 Toyota
Crew Chief: Tommy Baldwin
Nextel Cup Stats
Starts Wins Top 5's Top 10's Top 15's
Poles Avg Start Avg Finish Points Rank Driver Rating
0 24.3
Running at Finish Lead Lap Finish Laps Led DNF Earnings
19 9

At least Mayfield has an appropriate sponsor for 2007. OTC 360 can help relieve the heartburn that was his ’06 season. Without dwelling too much on the tabloid-esque drama, here’s a quick summary. Prior to 2006, Ray Evernham moved Mayfield’s team director Kenny Francis to Kasey Kahne’s team. Mayfield struggled so badly that he fell out of the top 35 in owner’s points. After the Brickyard in August he was replaced by Bill Elliott, which led to Mayfield filing a lawsuit against Evernham. He was eventually replaced by Elliott Sadler. Meanwhile Mayfield signed with Bill Davis Racing to drive a new second car in 2007. There were other, less important details that came out on both sides of the Mayfield-Evernham squabble that didn’t relate to his on-track performance. They only made things ugly for both parties and left Mayfield without a ride for the rest of the season.

Whatever story you believe, you can’t deny Mayfield’s ugly results in 2006. He was one of seven drivers to qualify for the Chase in 2004 and 2005. In 2006 he struggled to stay in the top 35 in owner’s points.

In 2005 he made the Chase on the strength of finishing races on the lead lap. If he wasn’t racking up top fives, at least he was consistently staying out of trouble. There was a lot of talk about how the Dodge teams struggled with the new Charger, so the fact that Mayfield rarely ran up front was excused.

This past year, it was more obvious that something with Mayfield’s driving style didn’t work with what Evernham’s program. The team figured out some key elements with the Charger. Kasey Kahne won three of the first 12 races. Scott Riggs had three top tens and one pole in the same span. Riggs also had several other races where he ran in the top ten the majority of the race. Meanwhile Mayfield struggled from the start.

It wasn’t even a case of bad luck or getting caught up in other’s wrecks. He had two DNF’s all year. It was more a case of Mayfield flat out struggling. He only had four top twenty finishes all year and zero top tens. Mayfield also had a 53.6 driver rating for the season, placing him with the back markers and field fillers.

The relative high point was a two race stretch in the spring. He qualified 2nd at both Charlotte and Dover before finishing 15th and 18th respectively. Mayfield had his best race at Dover. He led 14 laps and ran in the top 20 all day. It was also his highest driver rating, 82.5. For context, an 82.5 is about a 15th place car. Unfortunately, he would not have another finish better than 22nd.

It’s hard to believe Mayfield’s claims that Evernham didn’t provide enough support for the 19 car. Mayfield’s entire fleet of top 15 caliber cars moved with Francis to Kahne’s team. Meanwhile Mayfield’s team built all new cars. Whatever technological advances Evernham discovered during the off-season would have been applied to the new batch of cars. Further, Sadler jumped in and finished tenth in his first race.

Moving forward, Mayfield is certainly better than his 2006 season. He is also not an elite driver. He is sandwiched somewhere in the middle. Given the right equipment he can compete for the occasional win but is not going to lead a lot of laps or threaten for a top ten every week.

For 2007, it turns out falling out of the top 35 was good practice for Mayfield. Qualifying will be the biggest hurdle for all the Toyota teams initially. Making the first five races for Mayfield is paramount. If he doesn’t, his season could slide very quickly.

Former Evernham crew chief Tommy Baldwin will call the shots for Mayfield this year. Ironically Baldwin began 2006 as Sadler’s crew chief at RYR before being released to join Bill Davis Racing. Before Mayfield signed, Baldwin stepped in as Michael Waltrip’s crew chief to finish the year.

Mayfield’s best tracks on tour are Dover, Darlington and Pocono. He has two wins, four top 5’s and nine top 10’s at the triangular Pocono.

While 2007 might be a disjointed year for Mayfield, the long term future is solid for BDR and Toyota. Bill Davis is a powerhouse in the truck series and with Toyota’s support will now turn its focus to Cup. For the first time in four years Davis will have manufacturer support for his Cup teams. Davis will have two fully sponsored Cup cars for the first time since 2003.

When setting goals for Mayfield and the #36 car, it’s important to remember that this is a brand new team with a brand new manufacturer. To qualify for at least 90% of the races (32+), get inside the top 35 in points, and capture one or two top tens. If all of these things happen it sets a nice foundation for 2008. If Mayfield struggles to qualify or can’t run well enough to stay inside the top 35, things could get frustrating. Mayfield can’t get caught up in short term success in ’07, when the team won’t be ready to really compete until 2008.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

NASCAR Driver Preview: David Gilliland

David Gilliland Age: 30
#38 M&M"s Ford Crew Chief: Todd Parrott
Nextel Cup Stats
Top 5's
Top 10's
Top 15's
Avg Start
Avg Finish
Driver Rating

Raise your hand if you knew who David Gilliland was before 2006? Put your hand down, liar. Prior to June 17th, very few had heard of the 30 year old from California who got his start in the Southwest Series, one of NASCAR's regional series. He started the year with a partial Busch schedule with underfunded Clay Andrews Racing. After struggling to qualify for races, Gilliland not only qualified, but started 4th at Kentucky in June. He went on to win in the biggest surprise of the year. It's possibly one of the biggest surprises in NASCAR history.

What may have been more impressive happened the following week at Sonoma. In another testament to his talent he qualified an equally underfunded #72 car for the Sonoma Cup race. It didn't garner as much attention as his Busch win, but it was an amazing feat. Consider that it was Gilliland's Nextel Cup debut on a road course and was driving against road course experts like Ron Fellows, Boris Said, Scott Pruett, P.J. Jones and Brian Simo. He qualified 31st (Simo failed to qualify) and finished two laps down in 32nd.

By August Gilliland was hired by Robert Yates Racing to replace Elliott Sadler. In less than a season, he had gone from scraping together money and attempting Busch races to a guaranteed ride in Nextel Cup. It was too unbelievable for a Disney movie.

After a rocky start filled with flat tires and several crashes, Gilliland and Parrott began to mesh. Even in the short span of fourteen races, the progress was noticeable.The first six starts his average finish was 34.8. The last eight starts had an average finish of 22.9, including two top fifteens (Talladega, Atlanta). He also ran in the top ten for the majority of the finale at Homestead before a crash.

Gilliland also showed his strength in qualifying, by starting in the top ten on three occasions. He won his first pole at Talladega in October. It was the third straight Talladega pole for the 38 car. Once the race started, Gilliland stayed out of the way and finished a season high 15th.

Yates has done a great job of surrounding Gilliland with tools to succeed. Todd Parrott is one of the best crew chiefs in the sport. He made an instant impact at Petty Enterprises last year. For all the problems RYR has had, they are still in better shape than Petty. Gilliland was a crew chief for his fatherButch, early in his career. It's a unique skill among drivers and no doubt has helped his communication with Parrott.

It was the right decision to insert Gilliland in the #38 car as soon as possible. Running for Rookie of the Year might have been nice, but it can't make up for the extra eight races Gilliland was able to run in '06. Gilliland had never raced at several of the Cup tracks, so every one of his 4,163 laps was invaluable experience. It was the same plan that accelerated Carl Edwards' path in 2004 when he debuted at the August Michigan race. Obviously Edwards entered with a dominant team, but the theory remains the same. Spending time building chemistry with Parrott puts them ahead of the rookies that take over at Daytona.

Another help in Gilliland's learning curve arrives in his new teammate, Ricky Rudd. Pairing Gilliland with a veteran, especially someone as experienced as Rudd is ideal for the young driver. Having a sounding board in Dale Jarrett and now Rudd, is a huge luxury for Gilliland and his progress. While Yates' situation looked dire this summer, they never hit rock bottom. A similar slide happened at Richard Childress Racing, resulting in significant changes. 2006 may have been that wakeup call for Yates.

The other big key to accelerating Gilliland's progress is running a part-time Busch schedule with Team Rensi Motorsports. Additional seat time, especially at unfamiliar tracks will help immensely. While Rensi isn't a Busch series power, that obvioulsy won't faze Gilliland.

Gilliland's Talladega pole qualified him for the 2007 Bud Shootout. It's a perfect way to start the season, with an exhibition race to gain more comfort. The strongest part of Yates' program is unquestionably restrictor plate races. He will certainly have a top ten car come Daytona. Yates should have a pretty good gauge on the seaon in the next three races at California, Las Vegas and Atlanta.

Looking towards next year, 20-25th in the points wouldn't be out of the question. Jarrett finished 23rd last year and it seems reasonable that Gilliland can match that. Gilliland's 53.4 driver rating was very close to Jarrett's 57.4. There is no reason why Gilliland can't improve on that. His strength figures to be speedways, especially the west coast races where he has lots of experience. Bristol and Martinsville will be educational. There will be mistakes, frustrating crashes and failures, but there is also great hope for Yates and Gilliland. Four to six top ten finishes is a realistic goal. Of course Gilliland has always exceeded expectations before, so you never know.

Past Previews:
Kenny Wallace

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Driver Preview: Kenny Wallace

Kenny Wallace
Age: 43
#78 Furniture Row Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Joe Garone
Nextel Cup Stats
Starts Wins Top 5's Top 10's Top 15's
17 0
Poles Avg Start Avg Finish Points Rank Driver Rating
0 34.8
RAF Lead Lap Finish Laps Led DNF Earnings
14 1 1 3 $1,336,150

2006 was a busy year for Kenny Wallace. Aside from his full-time Busch series schedule, he also drove in 17 Cup races for upstart Furniture Row Racing. He also has his broadcasting duties for the Speed Channel to keep him at the track. Returning to Cup racing, even in a sub par ride, was a plus for Wallace, who hadn’t made more than five Cup starts since 2003. The downside was his Busch year. It was the first time in Wallace’s career that he finished outside the top ten in points when running a full Busch schedule.

Although it was a down year by Wallace’s standards, he did have four top tens and 12 top fifteens. True to form, his best finishes came at tough short tracks like Bristol, Gateway and Milwaukee. He was also strong again at Nashville. An eleventh place finish in the Busch series doesn’t appear great on first glance. The Series was tougher than ever, and Wallace’s finish was third among Busch regulars.

The highlight of Wallace’s Cup year was making the field for the Brickyard 400. Not only did he qualify 28th, he finished on the lead lap in 32nd. Over 17 races, Wallace earned $1,336,150 in winnings to go along with $906,764 for his Busch efforts. Wallace’s money breakdown shows the huge disparity in purses between the two series.

Last year Wallace’s first priority was his full-time Busch ride with PPC racing. After losing sponsorship, Wallace signed a two-year deal to drive exclusively for Furniture Row in Cup. That means he will turn his focus to making races on Sundays, with occasional starts in the Furniture Row Busch car at companion events.

Pick one word to describe Wallace and reliable comes to mind. He only had five total DNF’s in 52 combined starts. He only missed 70 laps all year in Busch, second best in the series. He may not get to drive top tier equipment, but he does stay on the track and finish races. He goes about his job without incident. Rarely is he involved in disputes or problems with other drivers. Most people know Wallace for his goofy personality on TV, but Wallace is very serious about his driving career. Look at last fall when Roush Racing dismissed Kurt Busch before the Phoenix race. Wallace jumped into the car prepared specifically for Busch yet still finished 17th. It wasn’t flashy just very solid. When in decent to good cars, Wallace is able to show his skill.

Wallace and Furniture Row have a daunting task next year in the Cup series. To begin with, the headquarters is in Denver, two time zones away from the heart of NASCAR. This severely limits their talent pool. Running Chevrolets allows them to buy engines from Richard Childress Racing. This definitely helps with reliability and horsepower, especially concerning qualifying. The downside is this relegates the team to the bottom of the Chevy food chain. This equals very little technical help from the manufacturer.

This is the obstacle course an upstart team like Furniture Row must negotiate. To pile on, the team is not in the top 35 in owners’ points. Just like last year Wallace will have to Qualifying on speed. The team only made 19 races last year because of qualifying shortcomings. This year there are at least nine new teams that are better funded, all fighting for the final eight starting spots in each race. Most races will have 50 or more cars on the entry list, and 90% will have more resources than Furniture Row.

One of the best chances to qualify is actually at Daytona. The Twin 150’s give him the chance to drive his way to a starting spot, and Wallace has a decent record on plate tracks in his career. He has 8 top tens at Daytona in his Busch career and 10 top tens at Talladega combined in Busch and Cup. Wallace is also traditionally strong on the short tracks and flat one milers, this will have to be a point of emphasis for the team.

While the odds are against Furniture Row, there are a few positives to cling to. The team and crew will have more experience in their second season in Cup. Wallace will also focus his full attention to the team instead of splitting time between the two series. Wallace will need all of his skill and experience to improve on 2006. While it’s hard not to pull for Wallace to succeed, realistically it will be tough to make more than ten races in 2007. Once in the race, Wallace will see that the car is running at the finish.

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