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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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