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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Carl Edwards

Carl Edwards Age: 27
0 wins, 10 top 5's, 20 top 10's, 24 top 15's,
Avg Start: 19.3 Avg finish 15.2
Points Standing: 12th Driver Rating:87.6
#99 Office Depot Ford Crew Chief: Bob Osborne

Carl Edwards surprised everyone by winning four races and nearly winning the Chase in 2005. It was nearly as shocking that he had zero wins and missed the Chase in 2006. That means 2007 is a rubber-year of sorts. Will the real Carl Edwards please stand up or at least backflip?

It's not that Edwards' 2006 was a complete failure. Expectations were a little too lofty for a driver with only 49 Cup starts prior to 2006. He didn't win any races and never really threatened to make the Chase. The season had an inconsistent start due to bad luck (crash at Daytona, engine at Darlington), pit problems (Atlanta) and impatience (crash at Texas). 4 sub-35 finishes in the first 11 races dug Edwards a large hole. After the Texas race, Jack Roush moved crew chief Bob Osborne to Jamie McMurray's team hoping to get the new #26 team some traction. Edwards got engineer Wally Brown as his new pit boss. The change was intended to help McMurray's team and Roush said it did not reflect on Edwards' performance. Edwards was still unhappy with the change, although the results did improve for the #99.

Edwards had three straight top ten starts and finishes after the change. Although he had several solid finishes during the summer, there were too many poor finishes mixed in. He finished 25th at the June Pocono race, a race he won last year. He had another crash at Daytona (39th) and struggled at Chicago (20th). One race that really hurt his Chase chances was the July Pocono race. Edwards was collected in an incident between Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer. Realizing how the crash hurt his Chase outlook, Edwards retaliated against Stewart, spinning him while entering the pits. He was fined and placed on probation by NASCAR. Edwards' frustration continued to mount.

During the Michigan Busch race in August, things boiled over. Edwards was bumped and wrecked on the last lap of the race by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt was declared the winner and during his victory lap Edwards returned to the track to bump him. He also confronted Earnhardt in victory lane, causing more embarassment than reaching resolution. In both incidents, Edwards was the innocent party. His mistake was escalating things. Later in the year he proved he learned from his lessons. Another wreck not of his doing, this time with Casey Mears was shrugged off by a patient Edwards.

Although he didn't pull any backflips on the Cup side, Edwards did score 4 Busch wins during a 2nd place points finish. He proved he can win at different types of tracks and he should return to winning on the Cup side very soon.His best tracks are 1.5 and 2 mile tracks, California, Michigan, Atlanta and Texas. In two-plus years he has also added short tracks and 1 mile tracks to his repertoire. He also scored top tens at both road courses.

Roush Racing is very different than 2005 when they put all five cars in the Chase. Only one team has the same driver and crew chief from last season. Mark Martin is gone, replaced by inexperienced rookie David Ragan. Their vaunted intermediate program is also not the same. There were times in 2005 when Roush drivers were literally taking turns leading races. That didn't happen very much last year. Matt Kenseth was strong all season until the Chase. Edwards and Biffle had good runs, but not always at the same time. McMurray never found consistency at the intermediate tracks.

With two races left in 2006, Brown announced he would not return to Roush Racing. The opened the door for Roush to hit undo and switch Osborne back to Edwards' team. The return of Osborne is a good sign, but it is only a part of the solution for the #99 team. It is a similar situation to Dale Earnhardt Jr in 2005. After a rough season, Junior reunited with Tony Eury Jr. It was a step in the right direction, but it also took DEI time to improve the cars. It took Earnhardt most of the spring before he began resumed running up front consistently.Neither Edwards and Roush didn't suffer the sever decline that DEI did. It may not take as long, but there will probably be an adjustment period.

During the 2005 season Edwards had everything go his way. He only had one DNF and five finishes of 30th or worse. Compare that with 3 DNF's and 7 sub-30 finishes in 2006, and it's clearer how he struggled more in his sophomore season. If Roush and Edwards suffered a down year in 2006, it still wasn't that bad. He finished on a high note, with seven top tens and an average finish of 9.0 over the final ten races. Edwards is a safe bet to make the Chase and the final ten races set up very well for his stregths. Two wins is a reasonable goal, along with 10-12 top 5's and 20 top tens. That, for a change, wouldn't surprise anyone.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Greg Biffle

Greg Biffle Age: 37
2 wins, 8 top 5's, 14 top 10's, 19 top 15's
Avg Start: 14.4, Avg Finish: 18.8
Points Standing: 13th Driver Rating: 94.9
#16 Ameriquest Ford Crew Chief: Pat Tryson

After winning a Cup best six races and finishing 2nd in the points, Greg Biffle was on the short list of Nextel Cup contenders. Then the 2006 season got off to a rotten start. Biffle led laps in the first ten races except for Martinsville, but only had one top ten finish to show for it. He packed an entire season of bad luck in the first ten races: Crashes at Daytona and Texas. Blown engines at California and Talladega. Flat tires at Atlanta and Bristol. Ran out of fuel at Phoenix.

Biffle began getting his deserved finishes with a fourth at Richmond, followed by a win at Darlington. It was his second straight win at one of the toughest tracks in NASCAR. It also spurred a run of seven straight top ten finishes. The hot streak continued into July. After a 3rd place at Loudon Biffle entered the top 10 for the first time all season. It wouldn't last. He suffered last lap at incidents at Pocono and Indianapolis to effectively end his chances of making the Chase. He only scored two top tens in last seven races leading up to the Chase.

The final ten races the focus shifted towards 2007. Biffle suffered three more DNF's, giving him six for the year. That marked the most since his rookie season in 2003. He still managed three top fives during the Chase, including his third straight win at Homestead. It wasn't the season many expected, but Biffle still managed to close on a strong note.

Biffle did have a slow start, but the problem was not always performance. His 94.9 driver rating was eighth best compared to his 13th place point finish. The driver rating gives a better indication of how he ran at times. He was third in laps led, and won multiple races for the third straight season. Despite his numbers hinting at strong runs, he was not getting the deserved finishes. As the season wound down, it was obvious that Roush was in transition.

The theme for Biffle and Roush Racing in 2007 is change. After a sluggish 2006 season, changes were expected. Pat Tryson moved from the #6 car to Biffle's team to replace departing Doug Richert. Tryson was also allowed to assemble a new crew from the best members of the two teams. A change was needed, but was nudging Richert out the door the right move? Biffle and Richert combined for ten wins over the past three seasons.

Talent-wise, there is no drop off from Richert to Tryson. Tryson is a top crew chief in his own right. He captained Mark Martin to three straight Chase berths. While the talent level is the same, chemistry with different drivers is never a guarantee. Biffle's definition of loose is surely different than Martin's. It may take time for the new pairing to jell and perfect their communication.

After an almost flawless 2005 season for Roush, things didn't go as smoothly last year. All five of the Roush cars slumped at some point during the season. Excluding two wins by Matt Kenseth, Roush struggled too often at the 1.5 and 2 mile tracks, the company's unquestioned strength in past years.

Biffle has incredible car control, making him great at qualifying(15.5 career starting position) and also capable of winning at almost every track. He is best when tracks are slippery and have less grip. His ascent at the Cup level coincided with Roush Racing's dominance at the intermediate tracks. His wheelhouse is tracks like California, Michigan, Texas, and Darlington. That doesn't mean he is strictly a speedway star. He has a restrictor plate win, is excellent at Bristol and has had very good runs at Richmond, Phoenix and Loudon.

Despite Roush's struggles, the team still won six races and sent two drivers to the Chase. They have some of the deepest resources in Cup. It's a good bet that the teams will correct some of the problems from last season. With other teams expanding and Toyota entering Cup, the Competition is tougher than ever. Roush and Biffle have a smaller margin of error for early season troubles.

The biggest key for Biffle's season is how quickly he can connect with Tryson. He will have the best tools available at Roush to help him return to the Chase. Biffle is again a contender for the Nextel Cup. If the cars are improved Biffle should win at least three wins. With two additional Chase transfer spots, Biffle will also have less trouble making the Chase. Once there is a threat to win it all. If he does that, he'd also be the first driver to win Championships at all three of NASCAR's major levels.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

Random NASCAR Thoughts

Yes, I'm getting behind on my preview posts. They are coming, but lately I've been busier than anticipated. Sorry about that. In the meantime, there are a few things I've been pondering:

-Martin Truex Jr's erm, Ticket.
Truex gets arrested for public urination, which only endears him to fans more. The possiblity that he may have handed the police officer a $100 before doing his business, only enhances the story. I like Truex and like most people, think it's more humorous than harmful. It got me thinking about Kurt Busch's citation in Phoenix in 2005. The actual events prior to the ticket are pretty similar. Busch was pulled over for erratic driving after having a beer or two with dinner. He mouthed off to an officer and was arrested and cited.
This also gave Roush Racing a convenient opportunity to release him from the last two races and also served the media a story to blow out of proportion during an otherwise mediocre Chase.

The differences? Truex was not involved in the Chase, his arrest occurred during the offeseason and he is held in a positive public light. Neither driver is in the right, I'm only pointing out the differences in coverage and perception over basically the same incident.

-New Point System creates new excitement.
Now drivers have two choices to obtain those delicious five extra points:
A.) Take a fourth place car and risk wrecking on the last lap to win a race.
B.) Simply stay out under yellow and jockey with David Stremme and Kyle Petty for five bonus points.

Most drivers will surely choose A. in hopes of higher ratings. Expanding the field is not a big deal, but ten was fine. At least NASCAR was smart enough to keep the point system the same for Chase and Non-chase drivers. That would have been a huge mistake as David Poole details.

-Kelly Clarkson to sing at Daytona.
I'd rather watch Steve Carell get his chest waxed. D'OOOHHH KELLY CLARKSON!

Less than 3 weeks until Daytona!

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Casey Mears

Casey Mears Age: 28
0 wins, 2 top 5’s, 8 top 10’s, 12 top 15’s
Avg Start: 22.9 Avg finish: 18.6
Points Standing: 14th Driver Rating: 70.8
#25 National Guard Chevy Crew Chief: Lance McGrew

A driver upgrading from the #42 Ganassi team to a top multi-car team. It’s a familiar story. After four seasons with Ganassi, Casey Mears is moving to Hendrick Motorsports for 2007. The Jamie McMurray saga last year could also be a fair indicator for what will happen with Mears.

He was the 20th ranked driver according the loop data, but 14th in the points standings. This disparity can lead to different conclusions. One is that Ganassi’s equipment is not very good and that Mears maximized his finishes by staying out of trouble. Other stats support his argument. Mears only led 3 laps total, and all were at restrictor plate tracks. This ranks him 42nd among all drivers. Every driver with at least 22 starts had more laps led than Mears. For reference Mears led 104 and 145 laps in the past two seasons. Mears only had 2 DNF’s, further supporting the fact that while he didn’t run great, he took advantage of staying on the track. Obviously the point system rewards avoiding bad finishes. It’s not fully known how well the driver ratings portray success (primarily because there isn’t a published formula). It still appears that Mears outperformed his equipment. Entering next year with a new team poses an interesting question. Was it equipment that was holding back Mears or is he simply a mediocre driver? 2007 should help answer that question.

Last season ended with Mears on the verge of claiming his first NASCAR win at any level. Many predicted Mears would finally break through in 2006. Three races in, things looked true. After a 2nd place at Daytona, Mears finished 7th and 9th at California and Las Vegas respectively. Things dried up after that. He didn’t score another until race 15 at Michigan. He finished with only 2 top 5’s and 8 top 10’s. He did finally get his first NASCAR win, but it came at Chicago in the Busch series.

Although Mears 2006 season didn’t improve on 2005, there were some highlights. He scored a career best 2nd at the Daytona 500 and followed that up with a 7th in the July race. If he wasn’t consistently finishing in the top ten, at least he was finishing races and avoiding trouble. Mears managed to finish in the top 25 in 23 of the first 26 races. It’s not the type of finishes to make the Chase, but can go a long way to a top 15 points finish. With nothing to lose during the Chase, Mears gambled on fuel to finish 2nd at Kansas. He also finished sixth at Martinsville, his first short track top ten.

Now Mears moves to Hendrick Motorsports a team he is familiar with. He is close friends with Jimmie Johnson and was almost hired by Hendrick in 2003 to drive the #5 Busch car. He is certain to get better equipment compared to Ganassi.

Aside from a better ride, it is hard to blame Mears for switching teams. During the 2005 season, Ganassi originally announced plans for four teams with Mears pushed to the new team in favor of two rookies getting established rides. After McMurray’s release was worked out, Mears wound up in the #42 car. Mears’ contract status was also unknown for much of the 2005 season suggesting a tenuous relationship with Ganassi. A move to another team with close personal and professional ties, not to mention better equipment, makes perfect sense for Mears.

Mears gets his third crew chief in as many years. Lance McGrew worked with Brian Vickers for the past two seasons, winning one race. Ironically Mears is a similar storyline to Vickers: A young driver with potential that hasn’t quite put it all together weekly.

Mears is still far from a well-rounded driver. His strength is at 1.5 mile tracks like Las Vegas and Texas, where he has room to run wide open and pass people. His average finish at Vegas is 9.5 with three top 10’s in four races. He averages a 10.5 finish at Texas, including 2 top 5’s. He also is improving at restrictor plate tracks and considering the dominance of Hendrick, this should be a good program for Mears in 2007. The trouble starts when the circuit moves to tighter, challenging tracks like Bristol, Phoenix, Richmond and Darlington. His average finish at the four tracks is 28.7.

On paper switching teams makes sense for Mears. As McMurray proved in 2006, it is not that easy. It is more complex than a driver getting improved equipment. There is team chemistry, differing driving styles and numerous factors that often go unseen to the general public. The only way to have an idea is to look at the results next year and draw conclusions. Mears is good enough to improve on his eight top tens, but it could take some transition time. Maintaining his points standing would be an accomplishment, but realistically he is in for a year of regression.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

2007 Driver Previews: Brian Vickers

Brian Vickers Age: 23
1 win, 5 top 5’s, 9 top 10’s, 14 top 15’s
Avg start: 16.8 Avg Finish: 19.2
Points Standing: 15th Driver Rating: 76.3
#83 Red Bull Toyota Crew Chief: Doug Richert

If Brian Vickers got his fortune told this time last year, it would go something like this:
“After four years driving for Hendrick Motorsports you will leave for a brand new Toyota team. Then you will be banned from team meetings and given the cold shoulder by teammates. On the bright you will finally get your first Cup win. The bad news is it will be one of the most unpopular wins in recent years, coming at the expense of a teammate, plus the most famous driver in the sport. Other than that, it should be a pretty uneventful year. Good Luck.”

That is Vicker’s season in a nutshell. He had a lot of positive things happen, but they were usually overshadowed by a negative consequence. To his credit, Vickers handled things with maturity and tried his best to focus on racing. The biggest story for his season was his announcement he was leaving Hendrick Motorsports. Shortly after he signed with the upstart Team Red Bull.

Vickers' 2006 season was solid but not spectacular. He scored his first win and improved two positions in the points, but it was a very similar season to 2005. He would have some nice runs coupled with several mediocre ones. In fact he didn't have back to back top tens until the 29th and 30th races. As the season progressed his finishes did improve overall. The first 18 races his average finish was 20.9, while his average in the second half was 17.5. It was even better during the Chase when he averaged 14.8, including four top tens. The other improvement forVickers was finishing races. He had a mere 2 DNF's, down from four in 2005, and seven in 2004.

2007 might be the most challenging season yet for Vickers. A brand new Toyota team has lots of questions to answer. One big asset is his crew chief, Doug Richert. Richert helped Greg Biffle won 10 races in the last three years and is highly regarded in the garage. His experience dates back to working on Dale Earnhardt's team in the early 80's. Pairing a veteran crew chief with young driver is a popular and often successful combination in Cup.

Richert's first task is ensuring Vickers makes every race. the good news is Vickers is an excellent qualifier. In 2006 he had 14 top ten starts including one pole at Texas. His career average start is 16.0. With no owners points to start this will be paramount in 2007. Vickers must make the first five races based on time. He shouldn’t have a problem, but things can happen in qualifying. A flat tire, a bobble in a turn or a bad setup could foil the best plans. A missed race will not ruin his season, but would be a setback.

At Hendrick, Vickers was able to gather information and advice from established veterans like Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Jimmie Johnson. His new team will not have that luxury. Vickers teammate is rookie AJ Allmendinger. Making a switch from open-wheel racing to stock cars presents a huge challenge for Allmendinger. That places any expectations for success in 2007 squarely on Vickers.

Vickers' specialty is 2.5 mile tracks. He is an excellent plate racer at both Daytona and Talladega. He nearly won the Daytona 500 and the spring Talladega race. His average finish at Pocono is 8.5, including three top five finishes. Vickers is still refining his skills at short tracks, but he does excel at the 1-mile flat tracks like Phoenix and Loudon.

The move marks a fresh start for Vickers. He took a lot of criticism in his three years in the #25 car. The switch was widely questioned in the media and assumed it was based on money. Surely millions of dollars played a part, but there are plenty of reasons for Vickers to switch teams. Sometimes people lose sight of the fact that Vickers is only 23. He is a talented driver that has dealt with a lot in his young career. He won a Busch Championship before he could legally drink Busch beer. He endured the Hendrick plane crash in 2004. As long as he was at Hendrick he would be fourth priority. A switch to Toyota gives Vickers the chance to be the number one driver and be recognized for his talent instead of a cog in the Hendrick machine. It's a bold move, but at least he has the chance to shine on his own. Now the rest is up to Vickers.

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Blogger Alternatives

For the past two days I have wrangled and struggled to simply access my Blogger account. Sure sometimes I'm unable to post due to writer's block, but often-too often-it's because I can't post. I chose Blogger initially because it was free, and already used Gmail and Writely. I considered switching a few months ago, but then they added some new features like tagging. Laziness, optimism or a mixture of both kept me here. Now I'm fed up. How will my seven devoted readers (not to mention the occasional angry Jeremy Mayfield fan) read my blog, if it is constantly down?

Does anyone have a recommendation for an alternative? Eventually I want to do my own website and then blame myself when it doesn't work. Unfortunately that will take some time, as I'm still learning the nuances of design. In the meantime I hope to give Blogger the boot. I had more to say today, but now my momentum has slowed and I can't simply hit F5 to refresh myself.

NASCAR Driver Preview: Kurt Busch

Kurt Busch Age: 28
1 win, 7 top 5's, 12 top 10's, 15 top 15's
Avg Start: 10.4 Avg Finish: 19.4
Points Standing: 16th Driver Rating: 86.3
#2 Miller Lite Dodge Crew Chief: Roy McCauley

Everything was new for Kurt Busch in 2006. Moving from Roush to Penske meant new cars,crew, sponsors and also brought new struggles. Aside from a win at Bristol, the season had its fill of disappointments. After making the first two installments of the Chase, Busch did not come close in 2006.

The way Busch qualified in 2006 was from a Folger's commercial: Someone has secretly switched Ryan Newman's qualifying setups with Busch's. Won 6 poles. His career total was three prior to 2006. His 10.4 average starting position was second to Jeff Gordon. The problem wasn't the starts, but rather the finishes. His average finish was a disappointing 19.4.

No matter what Busch tries, he is a lightening rod for controversy and criticism. At Bristol, his winning pass was made by bumping leader and former teammate Matt Kenseth out of the way. It was a legal move, but it wasn't popular with some drivers or fans. Two races later he was involved in a crash with the dominant car of Greg Biffle (another former teammate, ironically). The drivers settled their differences, but their girlfriends did engage in a heated exchange on pit row.

They were two of several forgettable episodes in a forgettable year for the elder Busch. A common theme during his season went like this: Start the race at the front, then suffer problems on pit road costing track position and often leading to mistakes on the track. This happened at Atlanta, the second Bristol race, and both Texas races. Other races he started up front, led laps and then faded late from the wrong adjustments.

Despite the challenges, Busch did make progress during the summer. Starting with a 2nd at Pocono, Busch scored six top tens (including 4 top fives) in seven races. He still had an outside chance of cracking the top ten heading to Watkins Glen. After sitting on the pole, Busch led 38 laps and appeared to have the dominant car. Late in the race he entered the pits just as the caution came out. He mistimed the stop by mere seconds, resulting in a penalty that sent him to the rear of the field. He finished 19th, but it ended any real possiblity to make the Chase. The rest of the season was very uneven. He would score a top five finish one week and then slog his way to a 25th place finish the following week.

Busch's results were the worst since his rookie season. The past four years Busch averaged 3.5 wins, 10 top fives and 18.25 top tens. He led 15 races but only 272 laps. A season of transition was expected, but not to such extents. Looking from the outside, it appeared Busch was inheriting Rusty Wallace's car that made the 2005 Chase. In truth, Busch had very few holdover crew members. Roy McCauley replaced Larry Carter as crew chief.

To put Busch in a bigger hole, the Penske organization made some poor decisions that hurt the performance of both cars in 2006. During the offseason the #77 program was ended, reducing Penske to two full time teams. It also reduced the amount of information collected and limited the different options for testing. The decision didn't appear based on sponsorship either; Penske has an abundance of sponsors.

The immediate performance was most influenced however by the decision to run the Dodge Intrepid during the first part of the season. After Dodge ended this option after seven races, Penske had to play catch up on the unreliable Charger. The self-inflicted wounds cost Busch and Ryan Newman any realistic chance to make the Chase.

No matter how hard Busch tries, he remains unpopular with fans. Lost in the silly things he does is the fact that he is one of the elite drivers on the Cup circuit. Given a good car he is capable of winning at any type of track. Penske's short track program is always strong and Busch might be the top driver at Bristol. He has five career wins at the Tennessee short track. He also is very strong at Pocono. He finished 2nd at both races there in 2006 and won the July race in 2005. California, Talladega, Loudon and Phoenix are also places where Busch is on the shortlist of top drivers.

In his second year with Penske and McCauley, Busch should expect improved consistency, especially in the pits. If that happens he is a favorite to make the Chase, especially with two additional spots available. Busch always runs the risk of losing his temper at the wrong time. If Penske's equipment is still lacking, Busch won't have the luxury to turn a poor car into a wrecked car too often. The speedway program remains the largest unknown, but Busch is good enough at every other track to compensate. Two to three wins and a Chase berth is manageable.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Clint Bowyer

Clint Bowyer Age: 26
0 wins, 4 top 5's, 11 top 10's, 16 top 15's
Avg start: 20.3 Avg finish 19.7
Points Standing: 17th Driver Rating: 74.9
#07 Jack Daniels Chevy Crew Chief: Gil Martin

Bowyer wins the mythical award for Most Surprising Rookie. Sure Denny Hamlin won races and made the Chase, but nothing was expected out of Bowyer. He stayed out of trouble most of the year and steadily improved his finishes. Entering 2007 he is suddenly a legitmate Chase candidate. It is a pretty sharp ascent for Bowyer, who had one Cup race prior to 2006.

Bowyer benefitted from excellent timing. He entered the #07 ride at a time when RCR returned to elite status at the Cup level. The three Childress cars combined for 1 win and only six top fives in 2005. After drastic improvements in every department, RCR cars scored 6 wins and 26 top five finishes in 2006. Bowyer made the most of the tools at his disposal. He began the season with a top ten at Daytona, followed by two top fifteen finishes at California and Las Vegas. His first big breakthrough came at Phoenix. He led 21 laps before finishing 5th. Teammate Kevin Harvick won the race and Jeff Burton finished ninth. It was the first sign that RCR's short track and 1 mile speedway program was one of the best. This strong program was reinforced by Bowyer's 10th at Richmond and later led 23 laps at Loudon before a disappointing 27th result.

RCR's progress spilled over to the intermediate tracks where Bowyer was most comfortable. He scored top five finishes at Indy, California and Texas. He also led 43 laps at his home track Kansas speedway. He hit the wall while leading and spent the rest of the day regaining the lost ground finishing 9th. Bowyer is definitely a threat to win a speedway race in 2007.

The season was not always smooth or easy. Had a good run at Pocono but was spun out by Tony Stewart. A furious Bowyer waited for Stewart in the pits, but nothing else happened. Stewart claimed the rookie was holding him up, so he moved him. Stewart was penalized a lap, but wound up finishing 7th. Bowyer wound up 41st. When he wasn't getting "taught" lessons by veterans, Bowyer did a nice job of earning respect. He scored top tens at both Daytona races, a place where rookies don't always get support in the draft. He led laps at 8 races and ran in the top ten at several others. The more time spent at the front of the pack, the sooner veterans get accustomed to rookies.

Aside from great equipment, RCR had several factors in place to help Bowyer's transition to Cup. His crew chief Gil Martin moved with Bowyer from the Busch series. Martin had been a Cup crew chief for RCR prior to his role with Bowyer. For a rookie driver, this is a big plus to have an experienced crew chief making the right adjustments and knowing what works. The other big help was Bowyer's two veteran teammates. Harvick and Burton both have great insight and experience in the series. Having a veteran sounding board is a big part of figuring out how to drive at NASCAR's highest level.

To get Bowyer additional seat time, RCR also ran a full Busch sechedule plus select truck races. He won the fall race at Dover. If not for Harvick, Bowyer certainly could have won more Busch races. He did score 12 top fives and 17 top tens to finish 3rd in points. He also won the fall truck raceat Texas after sitting on the pole. The only thing missing now is a Cup win to add to his resume.

So what will happen to the #07 in '07? The biggest project is the Car of Tomorrow. RCR is spending a lot of time and money to maintain their edge, and the CofT is no exception. This could propel all three RCR cars even further beyond the competition. Some team is going to have a large advantage on the CofT tracks, and it's very possible RCR becomes that team.The intermediate program should be strong again, meaning Bowyer is a good candidate to pick up a win at one of the tracks. The most likely places are California, Texas or Kansas. He is also very solid at Dover. Bowyer can afford improvement at road courses.For some reason Michigan has also been a weak spot for Bowyer. He has never scored a top ten in Cup or Busch.

The biggest thing for Bowyer is improving his consistency. He has strong equipment and a good crew chief in Martin. If Boywer can turn some of the top fifteens into top tens, he can definitely improve his 18th place standing. A top ten spot is a big jump. Winning a race is the first hurdle. Real hardware is surely preferred to winning mythical Most Surprising awards.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Ryan Newman

Ryan Newman Age: 29
0 wins, 2 top 5's, 7 top 10's, 15 top 15's
Avg Start: 11.6 Avg Finish: 20.6
Points Rank: 18th Driver Rating: 76.3
#12 Alltel Dodge Crew Chief: Michael Nelson

2006 began with optimism for Ryan Newman. He finished 3rd in the Daytona 500, his best restrictor plate finish ever. Then Penske dusted off the Dodge Intrepid for the next three races. The initial plan was to run the Intrepid at the intermediate speedway tracks the entire season. Dodge mandated all teams to run the Charger after the seventh race of the season. That set Penske's plans back, something they didn't fully recover from in 2006. Ryan Newman didn't have a pole or a top ten finish on 1.5 or 2 mile tracks. He suffered career lows in every category. By his standards, the 18th place points finish was unthinkable.

Newman had a decent summer, scoring seven top fifteens in eight races through Daytona. Things began to really sour in July. After winning his second pole of the season at Loudon, Newman was involved in a crash with Tony Stewart. Stewart was leading the race while Newman had just pitted for fresh tires. Newman was trying to pass Stewart and regain a lap, but neither let off. The result was both crashed, ruining the race for both drivers. He scored only two more top tens the rest of the season (Watkins Glen, Bristol). He had zero during the Chase.

It was also during the Chase that Newman got a new crew chief. Matt Borland took a personal leave of absence. The leave became permanent after the season when Borland moved to Michael Waltrip Racing to work with Dale Jarrett. Borland had worked with Newman since his days in the Busch series. They both emphasized the engineering tack when working on the cars. It's hard to speculate why Borland left, but things were obviously stagnant in 2006. Michael Nelson assumes the crew chief position on the #12 team.

As spotty as the intermediate program was, Penske's other areas were quite strong. The restrictor plate program improved significantly in 2006 and the road course package was arguably the top in Cup. To help on the aero-sensitive tracks, Dodge teams will have a new nose for the Charger. This is intended to reduce the debris collected on the grille. This has caused overheating issues in the past. The new nose will also make the car more neutral to changes, a major complaint and one of the reasons why Penske tried to use the less finicky Intrepid.

Many of the question marks about Newman's season rest on the management and direction at Penske. Can Penske improve or continue to stumble over themselves? In an era when every team is expanding to three and four cars, Penske contracted from three to two cars for 2006. While other teams and manufacturers emphasized sharing information, Penske tended to shy from this practice. Newman's team never talked to Rusty Wallace's. Penske insisted on perfecting the Dodge Intrepid (with terrible results) instead of aligning with the other Dodge teams to improve the Charger.

Despite his desire to outsmart other teams, Newman is a fantastically talented driver. He can handle any type of track. He is always a threat to win at Loudon or Dover and can also scored two top tens at road courses. He was even stout at restrictor plate tracks, far from his favorite race. Newman also has a penchant for crashing. He had 15 in 2006 and over the last four years he has averaged 11.25 per season. One way to reduce the chances for a crash are running closer to the front of the pack. The drivers are typically more patient and are obviously the more skilled drivers.

After a chilly relationship with former teammate Wallace, Newman and Kurt Busch appear to share information more freely. With only two teams this is vital. It's hard to predict much improvement for Newman in 2007. His strongest tracks in '06 will now feature the Car of Tomorrow. Penske has not always adapted well to changes and this could happen in 2007. Newman will still compete for wins at Dover and the road courses, but it's hard to imagine a return to the consistency he enjoyed in 2003 and 2004.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Martin Truex Jr

Martin Truex Jr Age: 26
0 wins, 2 top 5's, 5 top 10's, 11 top 15's
Avg start: 21.2 Avg finish: 20.8
Points standing: 19 Driver Rating: 71.3

#1 Bass Pro Shops Chevy Crew Chief: Kevin Manion

A year ago Martin Truex Jr was the favorite for Rookie of the Year. Some writers went as far as predicting he'd make the Chase. After two straight Busch championships, the predictions made sense. After running seven Cup races in 2005, Truex was more than ready for full time Cup action. A funny thing happened, Truex had a typical rookie season filled with mistakes, run-ins with veterans, and crashes mixed in with some good runs.

Truex spent the first half of the season running between 15th and 20th. He had one top ten in the first 18 races. He had several nice runs, some with deserving finishes (8th at Texas) and some not (finished 22nd at Phoenix after running out of fuel). One of his toughest days came at the spring Bristol race. Fighting to get a lap back, he was spun by Jeff Gordon. After some minor repairs, he returned to the track in search of Gordon. After trading paint with Gordon, Tony Stewart dumpedTruex for holding up the lead-lap cars. His day was done and a lesson was painfully learned.

One of the highlights of his season came in the Busch series. In April he won the Busch race at Talladega in a Dale Earnhardt Sr. paint scheme. It was also his third straight Busch win at Talladega. Unfortunately he was caught in an early crash in the Cup race, proving again that momentum doesn't really exist race to race. The following week he lost an engine, his thirdDNF in five races.

Aside from bad luck and crashes, one of the biggest challenges for the #1 team was a lack of experience. Crew Chief Kevin "Bono" Manion was with Truex for the last two years in Busch, but had never been a crew chief at the Cup level. It took the team almost the entire first half of the season to accumulate enough notes to figure out fast setups.DEI has one of the top Busch programs, but is middle of the pack at the Cup level. This also makes for a tougher transition when the equipment is not elite. While they waited for the cars to get more speed,Truex still managed to finish races. From Darlington to the second California race, Truex completed 99% of the laps.

The second half of was a big improvement. The overall results didn't show immediately, but Truex and Manion started figuring out some tracks the second time around. The speed finally improved during the Chase. Truex scored a sixth at Dover, an 11th at Kansas and a 5th at Talladega. He ran inside the top 10 the whole day at Atlanta before a crash with 19 laps to go. The following week Truex was running fifth with two laps to go when Scott Riggs crashed and Truex was caught in it. He wound up 11th. Truex's finest race was the finale at Homestead. He finished second, led 27 laps and had a driver rating of 111.4.

The final ten races showed what everyone expected from Truex. With his late season success, he finished 19th in the standings. Overall it was a solid debut while also showing a glimpse of what Truex can do with good cars. Good cars will be the key in 2007. Truex and Manion have good chemistry and now have experience to build on when adjusting the car. It's up to DEI to continue to produce, and improve their engines and chassis. Paul Menard will drive a third full time car. That could pull personnel and resources away from the #1 team. Menard will have to qualify for at least the first five races, meaning extra attention will be given to his cars and engines. There is also the issue ofDEI's foggy management picture.

One of Truex's strengths is taking care of equipment. Although he had 5 DNF's, he was second among rookies with 21 lead lap finishes. One thing Truex must control is his emotions. The Bristol incident illustrated how aggressive Truex can get. He had a similar run-in at a Richmond Busch race in 2005. Every driver has days of struggle and frustration, but losing control is an easy way to turn a 21st finish into a 41st.

DEI's strength in 2006 was their intermediate program, although Truex is capable of running well at almost any track. He is strong at plate tracks and should get more help this season in the draft. He is also strong at Dover, where he won twice in the Busch series and scored a 6th in Cup. He won the Mexico City Busch road race in 2005, and has also run well at short tracks like Bristol and Richmond. Although his driving style is similar to teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr, he is a superior qualifier. A pole win is a real possibility next season.

As long as Truex gets the proper support he has the talent to run up front. Making the Chase is a long shot this season, but Truex should improve his finishes in year 2. A top 15 points finish along with 5 top fives and 10-15 top tens is the likely forecast forTruex. A win is not likely, but not out of the question either. Maybe the best news is that expectations for Truex are returning to previous heights.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Scott Riggs

Scott Riggs Age: 36
0 wins, 1 top 5, 8 top 10’s, 13 top 15’s
Avg start: 19.5 Avg finish: 20.3
Points Standing: 20th Driver Rating: 71.2
#10 Valvoline Dodge Crew Chief: Rodney Childers

After two mediocre seasons at the Cup level, Scott Riggs finally broke out in his third year. An offseason move to Evernham motorsports made a big difference in Riggs' ability to consistently run up front. After six top tens in his first two years combined, Riggs scored eight in 2006 and he could have had several more. After a sour beginning, the year turned out pretty sweet. If there was an award for Breakthrough Driver, Riggs was deserving.

It seems like ancient history, but Riggs began the year by not qualifying for the Daytona 500. A mechanical issue ruined his qualifying run. Then in the Twin 150 race, his fate was sealed by a mistake during a pit stop. The brand new team missed the biggest race of the season. Not only that, but they were in an immediate hole for entering the top 35 in owners points. Fortunately it was the only race Riggs missed. After a 19th at California, a 28th at Las Vegas and an 11th at Atlanta, Riggs was safely inside the magical top 35.

Riggs had some solid runs in the spring, especially a 10th at Martinsville, 7th at Texas and a 9th at Talladega. His emergence was fully realized, however at the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motorspeedway. He won the pole and at times was the dominant car. He led 90 laps, second only to teammate Kasey Kahne's 158. He was leading entering the final pit stop, but a penalty on the stop coughed up his lead. He finished 13th, but it was the strongest sign yet that Riggs was capable of running at the front. The race also marked the first of 14 straight finishes on the lead lap. The span alson included another four top tens (Pocono, Loudon, Bristol, Richmond). After Richmond Riggs sat in 18th place in the standings, the high mark of the season. Unfortunately, the Chase caused his results to balloon. After avoiding problems and poor finishes most of the season, he had five finishes of 30th during the final ten races. He had great runs at Dover, Kansas and Texas spoiled by crashes. Despite the late struggles, he won his second pole of 2006 at the fall Charlotte race and capped the season with a seventh place finish at Homestead.

One of the wildest events of Riggs' season took place after the fall race at Texas. While running in the top five, Riggs lost control, got a slight bump from Kevin Harvick and crashed very hard into the outside wall. Not only did this ruin another possible top five, it also created controversy after the race. One of Riggs' crew members confronted Harvick and ultimately shoving Harvick. The crew member, Craig Curione, was suspended by NASCAR for the final two races of the season. Riggs had nothing to do with the incident, but it still gathered negative attention for the team.

The move to Evernham was a boon. Not only did he have better equipment than at MB/2, but he had something else valuable. His driving style was similar to Kahne's, meaning both teams could share information. Kahne won six races, all on speedways, in 2006 and not coincidentally Riggs also was very strong at the intermediate speedways. One factor that helped the transition was crew chief Rodney Childers moved with Riggs from MB/2.

In addition to his two poles, he also had seven top ten starts. His average start was 19.5. The other big improvement was his ability to stay on the track. He had 9 and 7 DNF's in his first two seasons. In 2006 he had a mere two. He had a total of 24 lead lap finishes, proving he wasn't simply turning laps.

Heading into 2007, Riggs has a real shot at winning a race. His intermediate cars have plenty of speed. Riggs just needs a little more consistency from himself and his crew to finish the job. He should be strong at Charlotte, Texas and Michigan. He also scored three top tens at the short tracks. This speaks to his maturity as a driver. He is crashing less, finding more speed and finishing races. It's a pretty simple formula, but not always easy to execute. Riggs should continue to work well with Kahne as well as newer teammate Elliott Sadler.

Although Evernham Motorsports has made great strides for Dodge, the cars still tend to be inconsistent. All three cars will run well one week and then struggle at a different track the next. It's important to improve the other aspects of the team like engine reliability, 1-mile and restrictor plates. Riggs proved he can drive when he has good equipment. The next is transforming lead lap finishes into top tens and top fives. If Riggs can consistently do that, he can win a race. Another top 20 finish is very possible, but with increased competition for every spot he isn't ready to threaten for the Chase.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Who has the best Engine Programs?

Engines are the biggest single expense on a car. They are also essential for finishing a race. It sounds simple, but think about it. Teams can recover from almost any problem during a race: a flat tire, a crash, a dead battery, even a bad transmission is still not the end of the race. If your engine is done, so is your day.

Horsepower is a big requirement for a good engine, but reliability is even more important. The teams that figure out the formula to maximize both parts have a huge advantage. Certain teams have reputations for stronger engine programs than others, but which ones are truly the best? Since I don’t have a dynometer, or access to the NASCAR garage, I thought the best way to gauge the engine programs was engine failures.

I took the number of DNF’s due to engine failures as noted by Racing Reference. This means that if an engine was headed south, but didn’t expire before the end of the race it wasn’t counted, because it’s impossible to judge that. The quick and dirty answer is counting the number of failures divided by the number of total races. This includes full and part-time teams plus teams that purchase engines from other teams (Ginn, Haas, Petty, etc).

Penske/Jasper engines did not have a failure in 2007, although they only ran 72 total races. Although Penske only won one race, they did score eight poles, which does testify to the horsepower available. Penske’s lack of wins is related to other issues with the cars, but at least the engines appear in good shape. Joe Gibbs Racing supplied engines for four full-time teams and had two failures all year. Two failures in 144 races works out to a 1.4% failure rate. That’s pretty impressive over that many races. Gibbs is one of the premier organizations, and the engine program proves that.

Five other teams (Hendrick, Ganassi/Elliott, Bill Davis, Childress and Yates/Roush) all had a failure rate between 2.6 and 3.0%. For Hendrick and Yates/Roush that is pretty impressive considering the number of teams they each support. Each organization supplied engines for over 300 races in 2006 and both had less than 10 failures. The two other companies with their own engine programs are Evernham (5.6%) and DEI (6.1%). Evernham won six races and eight poles, all on speedways, in 2006. The power is evident, but they have less reliability. At first glance, these two organizations are lacking compared to others.

Digging deeper reveals some interesting numbers. Several organizations lease out engines to smaller teams. Theoretically any team that purchases engines will get the same specs and product as the in-house teams. It’s hard to know for sure what differences there are, but the failure rates almost always increase for teams buying their engines at retail.

The largest engine supplier is Hendrick Motorsports, who support three other full-time teams at Ginn Racing and Haas CNC. They also supplied engines for Michael Waltrip Racing’s five test races. In total, teams ran 115 races with Hendrick retail engines. There were only three failures or a 2.6% rate. That falls directly in line with their overall rate and the in-house failure rate (5 failures in 190 races). Evernham and DEI take much better car of their in-house teams. Evernham’s in-house failure rate was 4.6%, but it jumps to 6.9% for third-party teams. Iin 36 fewer races Petty Enterprises suffered the same number of failures as Evernham’s three full-time teams. DEI’s gap is even larger. They had three failures from their in-house teams, including one from part-time Paul Menard, good for a 3.8% failure rate. Robby Gordon leased DEI power and had three failures himself. That’s an unacceptable 8.3%. Again, it’s difficult to know the exact reasons for failures. It’s still no surprise that Gordon will switch to Ford in 2007, and the engine factor certainly weighed in his decision.

There are so many parts and variables in play for any engine’s performance. It’s a constant struggle to balance maximum horsepower with reliability. Evernham produces great horsepower at the cost of some reliability. Bill Davis and Ganassi showed great reliability, but not necessarily the same strength of other teams. Next year might be totally different. Bill Davis Racing switches to Toyota. It’s very possible they experience greater horsepower with flakier results. All three Toyota outfits are likely to have inconsistent engine programs in year one. Other teams fluctuate from year to year. Look at Childress Racing. Their entire program improved in 2006 while other teams declined. It’s no different for engine departments.

The top 35 will affect everything in 2007. This is especially true for team's engine programs. A blown engine in the first five races will put a driver in a big points hole. All the time spent in the offseason at the wind tunnel, pit crew practice or preseason testing can go down the drain if an engine fails. For a team hovering around the 35th place, this could prove fatal.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Tweaking the Chase or Tweaking off Fans?

One of the big changes expected this year is modifications to the Chase. One is a tweaking of the point system. That is a large task, and is a lot to chew on (I’ll try to break it down in another entry). The other expected change is opening up the Chase field to more drivers. The current limit of ten drivers will apparently rise to at least 12. That means that over quarter of the field is eligible for the Chase. Under the current model NASCAR’s playoff is the most elite of the professional sports with a playoff. Of the major sports, which NASCAR considers itself, only NCAA men’s basketball has a smaller percentage of teams make its playoff, and that is only because Division 1 basketball has 334 teams.

NCAA Football 64 of 117=54.7%
NBA 16 of 30=53.3%
NHL 16 of 30=53.3%
NFL 12 of 32=37.5%
MLB 8 of 30=26.6%
NASCAR 10 of 43=23.2%
NCAA D1 Basketball 65 of 334=19.4%

It’s basic economics: the fewer spots available the more prestigious each spot is. Increasing the number of drivers also increases the chances of an undeserving team walking away with the title. Jeff Gordon won three of the first nine races in 2005. After that he was wildly inconsistent during the summer. He did not make the Chase and didn’t deserve to. If the field is widened, Gordon makes it in, along with Elliott Sadler who had 0 wins, and 1 top five after Richmond. That’s a very diluted field. What happens if Gordon got hot and scored the most points in the last ten races? The 26-race “regular season” should count for something too.

The current ten-driver ceiling also allows for any driver within 400 points of the leader. If a driver is that close to the top teams, he deserves to make the Chase. In three years that has not happened. That is pretty good evidence that ten drivers (or less) is a natural limit.

The motive for expanding the playoffs is granting more exposure to more sponsors. Sponsors of cars that miss the Chase probably do not get the return on their investment that the top cars do. It’s a valid point, but Chase or not, the top cars will always get more attention. They shouldn’t have the power to dictate how a championship is decided.

Instead of appeasing the sponsors with more Chase slots, how about NASCAR pressuring the TV networks to make the coverage less Chase heavy? If Jimmie Johnson is currently running 22nd and a non-Chase driver is leading the race, show the leader. If Matt Kenseth struggles all day, it is not a story that needs constant coverage. Take that camera and focus it on Dave Blaney running fifth.

There are plenty of ways to get exposure during the Chase. Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle garnered attention by winning races. Brian Vickers captured the spotlight by wrecking the most popular driver plus his teammate. And he won a Chase race. Not everyone can make the Chase or win races. Michael Waltrip crashed early, ensuring an interview to drop sponsors’ names.

This move also poses the risk to non-Chase races. Races like Bristol, California and Richmond have added importance as the final races before the Chase. With more teams assured spots, there is less drama. This past season at Richmond Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart and Mark Martin all dangled off the edge of a cliff. One was guaranteed to fall. With the new system none of the three would really sweat as long as they finished the race.

Maybe the biggest problem I have with changes to the Chase is the timing. The Chase was only implemented three seasons ago. Constant tweaking will only do harm. Some years the Chase will be great (2004), some years the best driver will dominate (2005) and some years it will be dull (2006). It happens in all sports, but NASCAR is the only one that seems too impatient to let things solidify. If the sport’s leaders can’t sit still, how can they expect fans to?

It's reaching crunch time for the driver previews. I'm down to the top 20 drivers plus some of the top rookies. I hope you've enjoyed them as much as I have. I will continue with the previews again on Monday. There are so many other things to cover I needed a quick break. With real NASCAR news begins cropping up again (ie something other than family feuds and drivers falling off golf carts.) there are a few things to say.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Bobby Labonte

Bobby Labonte Age: 42
0 wins, 3 top 5’s, 8 top 10’s, 12 top 15’s
Avg Start: 21.6 Avg Finish: 22.0
Points: 21st Driver Rating: 67.9
#43 Cheerios Dodge Crew Chief: Paul Andrews

Despite 15 years of Cup experience everything was new for Bobby Labonte in 2006. After ten seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing, Labonte got a fresh start with Petty Enterprises. He was one of several notable additions for PE in 2006. Champion crew chief Todd Parrott signed on as Labonte’s crew chief and Robbie Loomis rejoined Petty as General Manager. The moves gave the organization renewed credibility and also raised expectations for the season.

Petty Enterprises hadn’t been competitive for years. John Andretti was the last driver to score a top five back in 2001. Since that time, the company had a total of seven top tens. With a former Winston Cup winner, plus adding two Cup winning crew chiefs gave hope for drastic improvement.

For Labonte it was a chance to reenergize his career. Things weren’t bad at Gibbs, but it had grown stagnant. Petty offered a chance to contribute more than simply driving, but to help rebuild the most famous car in NASCAR.

Everyone at Petty warned that progress would be slow. It was still hard to not notice the immediate change. Labonte started 8th at the Daytona 500 and ran well until a crash with three laps left ruined his run. Then he started 4th at Atlanta and led 13 laps before his engine blew. The breakthrough finally came the next week at Bristol. Labonte deftly avoided trouble and finished 5th. He added top tens at Texas and Phoenix in the next few weeks.

Three top tens in the first eight races. It was the same number of top tens that Kyle Petty and Jeff Green combined for in 72 races in 2005. Even with swift success, it was hard to maintain the whole season. Labonte had more strong runs, but didn’t get another top ten until the July Pocono race.

In the middle of the season, Parrott announced he was leaving Petty to return to Yates Racing. It was a setback for Labonte’s team but it wouldn’t last long. Prior to the Chase, Kyle Petty hired Billy Wilburn to head the #45 team. This moved Paul Andrews to Labonte’s car. Andrews won a championship in 1992 with Alan Kulwicki.

Labonte and Andrews clicked during the Chase. In their second race together Labonte finished 7th at Dover. This began a very solid eight race stretch where Labonte’s average finish was 12.15 including two top 5’s and four top 10’s. The season ended with a crash at Homestead, his eighth DNF of the season. It was still one of the most successful seasons in the last decade for PE.

As impressive as Labonte was in his first season with Petty, the results could have been better. He suffered 8 DNF’s, including 3 engine failures. He also had a variety of bad luck ruin other runs. Crashes twice spoiled good finishes at Daytona. A bad transmission spoiled a top ten effort at Martinsville. Labonte also ran well at Richmond until his crew accidentally put the wrong sided tires on, wreaking havoc on the handling.

Team preparation is a large part of Cup racing and must be improved next year. On a team desperate for strong finishes they can’t afford these mental mistakes. Unfortunately they have less control over the engines. Leasing from Evernham guarantees good horsepower, but reliability has been an issue. Labonte lost three engines and Petty lost two during the season.

The progress of the #43 car was certainly the highlight of the season and brings greater optimism for 2007. There are still major obstacles for PE to remain competitive. Kyle Petty struggled with sponsorship last year and barely retained his spot in the top 35. Toyota’s introduction to Cup also brings additional big-budget teams that will raise the cost of competition.

Petty Enterprises made great strides in 2006, but they will have a large task in 2007. With the Car of Tomorrow arriving, will the team have enough personnel to cover both projects? It might be too large a task to hope for improvement. Maintaining their current status, especially in regards to the top 35 is very important. If the #45 falls outside the top 35 and begins missing races, that will also have a severe impact on Labonte’s team.

Labonte showed he can still drive in 2006. He is a legitimate threat to win at Martinsville and also excels at tracks like Atlanta, Pocono and Charlotte. Petty Enterprises hasn’t won a race since 1999. It is a long shot for Labonte to win a race in 2007, but more top fives and top tens would be a big success. A realistic goal is a top 20 finish in the points. It would mark the first time a Petty car finished in the top 20 since Andretti finished 17th in 1999.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Elliott Sadler

Elliott Sadler Age: 31
0 wins, 1 top 5, 7 top 10’s, 11 top 15’s
Avg start: 17.5 Avg finish: 23.1
Points: 22nd Driver Rating: 69.2
#19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge Crew Chief: Josh Browne

Things happen quickly at the Cup level in NASCAR. For evidence look at the last year and a half for Elliott Sadler.
After making the Chase and winning two races in 2004, Sadler spent the first half of 2005 inside the top 10. Then he went without a top ten finish for ten races, dropping him from Chase contention. The aero issues, prominent in 2006, began surfacing in 2005. Further, Sadler’s crew chief Todd Parrott was moved to Dale Jarrett’s car for the final ten races, before Parrott moved to Petty Enterprises. This planted a seed of frustration for Sadler.

One year ago Sadler won his qualifying heat at Daytona and finished fourth in the Daytona 500. It was a nice start to a season that soured quickly. It was evident that Robert Yates Racing had fallen behind on the intermediate tracks that comprise the bulk of the schedule. Sadler and Dale Jarrett could compete at Daytona and Talladega along with the short tracks, but once the tour visited Texas or Charlotte they were back markers. In 22 races with Yates Sadler didn’t have a top ten at an intermediate track. The frustration had grown for not only Sadler but teammate and close friend Dale Jarrett. When Jarrett announced plans in May to leave Robert Yates Racing after 2006 for Toyota, Sadler also began researching his options with other teams.

After three and a half seasons at Robert Yates, Elliott Sadler moved to Evernham Motorsports in August. He left on a good note, finishing 7th at Watkins Glen in his final race for Yates. He also was reluctant to publicly discuss his parting, instead trying to make the spilt as amicable as possible.

Things began well in the #19 car too. Sadler started 2nd and finished 10th in his first race at Michigan. The strong car was reportedly due to Evernham’s personal battle with the departed Jeremy Mayfield. Whatever the case, it was still the first top ten for the #19 team. More importantly the finish returned the team to the top 35 in owner’s points.

The finishes didn’t necessarily show improvement, but Sadler’s driver ratings in the first six races averaged 83.8, with a high of 95.1 at Dover. It’s not numbers to get excited about, but much steadier than the car had run prior to Sadler. As the year progressed, the team switched to testing mode and the results suffered. He didn't score a top ten in the final eight races.

Sadler joined a team that had a brand new crew in 2006. The end of the year was spent getting Sadler on the same page as Browne and the team. It is hard to gauge the team’s progress based solely on the results. What, and how much, the team learned at the end of 2006 should show up in the first four races in 2007.

Both Sadler and Dale Jarrett felt the largest need at Yates was more engineering support. Now that both have moved to new teams, it’s interesting that each of their new crew chiefs have engineering backgrounds. How Sadler and team director Josh Browne communicate will be a huge part of any success in 2007.

In good equipment Sadler is a proven front runner. He has won at Bristol, California and Texas, but is also strong at Martinsville and restrictor plate tracks Daytona and Talladega. He has also had several strong runs at Dover, leading 186 laps, although his finishes haven’t always justified the good runs. Evernham’s intermediate program was one of the best in 2006, winning 6 races and 8 poles at 1.5 and 2 mile tracks. With a full season, Sadler should resume running up front at the aero-sensitive speedways. Sadler has also developed into a very good qualifier with seven career poles.

Sadler made the Chase in 2004 and spent the first half of 2005 in the top 10, based on patiently finishing races. A monumental swoon in the summer cost him a second Chase berth and Sadler is yet to regain that consistency. His first step is finishing races. He had 3 combined DNF’s in 2004 and 2005. In 2006 he suffered 7.

A new team with a different approach is exactly what Sadler was looking for. Now that he has his wish, it is up to him to get the results. Evernham is an improving organization but there are still weaknesses. Sadler is a proven driver that could surprise in 2007. A win is possible, but not expected. A realistic goal is 3-4 top 5’s and 10-15 top ten finishes. He has an outside chance at making the Chase, but realistically will probably need another year for his team to jell.

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A quick thought

I started working on today's preview yesterday. And then again last night and today. I'll get it done later today at some point if Blogger cooperates. The main reason I haven't finished today's post is becuase I've been sick since Saturday. It's not an excuse, but it got me thinking about athletes, and especially drivers that get sick on gameday or raceday.

During the Texas race the announcers made a big deal about how Dale Earnhardt Jr was sick, but still finished 6th. And every beat writer seemed to pick up on the theme after the race too. At the time I thought it wasn't a big deal. Sure he was sick, but it's his job. I'm rethinking that stance today. Many writers still made too big of a deal about the effort. At the same time I can't imagine driving a 500 mile race at Texas in my current state. It was hard enough for me to wake up and drive 20 minutes (at 60mph) to work with my headache, cough and associated features of a cold. Picturing a driver with like symptoms or worse having to strap in for three hours and 500 miles and enduring a loud, bumpy ride with high-banked turns inducing great G-forces all while having to concentrate on going as fast as possible without hitting anything is pretty amazing. This isn't just a salute to Junior, Tony Stewart won at Watkins Glen in 2004 while sick. Plenty of drivers have been sick during races, many that the public never hears about. It's impressive is all I'm saying.

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Dale Jarrett

Dale Jarrett Age: 50
0 wins, 1 top 5, 4 top 10's, 10 top 15's

Avg start: 28.2, Avg Finish: 22.7

Points rank: 23rd Driver Rating: 57.5

#44 UPS Toyota Crew Chief: Matt Borland

2006 did not go the way anyone at Robert Yates Racing had hoped. For Dale Jarrett it was a season of struggles and transition but also hope. Jarrett's on-track performance was one of the worst seasons of his 22 year career. Four top tens was the lowest season total since 1989. He scored at least seven per year from 1990-2005. He went winless for the second season in three years. Things were rough on the track, but Jarrett does have a fresh start to look forward to in 2007.

After 12 years with Robert Yates Racing Jarrett will drive for Michael Waltrip Racing, helping to introduce Toyota to the Cup stage. This presents a new challenge for the 50 year old Jarrett. It's a new manufacturer, new organization, a new crew chief (again) and maybe a new perspective for Jarrett. While that is a lot of changes, Jarrett will keep UPS as sponsor. Keeping his same sponsor since 2001 guarantees the popular, “He's going to drive the truck” ad campaign will continue.

On the track the numbers spelled struggle for Yates and Jarrett. His season driver rating was 57.5, 29th among full time drivers. A fourth at Kansas was his only top five of the season. Even that was more the result of fuel mileage than a great run in a strong car. On the other hand he finished 23rd in the point standings. This means he didn't run well, but avoided trouble and finished races higher than he deserved. Some of this slump is attributed to Jarrett, much of the problems fell on the Yates team. They trailed the other powerhouse teams on every track except Daytona and Talladega.

The season was especially rough for Robert and Doug Yates. Coinciding with Jarrett's announced exit, Crew chief Slugger Labbe was also suspended four races for a sway bar infraction at Richmond. He was later released from Yates, along with fellow crew chief Tommy Baldwin and General Manager Eddie D'Hondt. Yates' other driver Elliott Sadler also left mid season for Evernham motorsports. 2006 was also the first season in his 18 years that Robert Yates didn't score a victory.

Jarrett did enjoy some highlights among the frustration. He started things off with a tenth place finish at Daytona and followed that with a ninth at Atlanta three races later. The weekend of the Darlington race in May, Jarrett announced he would drive for Waltrip in 2007. He finished 21st or better in the first ten races, including two top tens and four top fifteens. After the announcement, Jarrett's performance sunk. Except for a 20th at Michigan, he didn't finish better than 22nd for the next 13 races. He did finish strong with six top fifteen finishes in the final 12 races. It wasn't a dream ending for his Yates tenure, but he didn't mail it in either.

Heading to 2007 there are two big questions to ask. Can Jarrett still get up on the wheel or will he enjoy his golden parachute? Can Waltrip Racing provide consistent cars for Jarrett?

Crew chief Matt Borland left Ryan Newman's team at Penske to join Toyota and Jarrett. Jarrett's biggest complaint at RYR was the lack of engineers. Borland might place the greatest emphasis on engineering of any crew chief on tour. This is often a good trait, but last year it didn't serve Newman and and Borland well. They wasted the beginning of the season and presumably the offseason on perfecting the 2004 Dodge Intrepid. Borland will be Jarrett's sixth crew chief in three seasons. The addition of Borland and his fresh perspective should help reignite Jarrett.

He is assured a place in the field thanks to his Champion's provisional. He and Dave Blaney are the only Toyota cars with a guaranteed spot for the first five races. Jarrett should have no problem entering the top 35 and staying there the entire season. That means he can focus less on qualifying and more on the actual races. Unless the Camry proves totally flaky, Jarrett should be able to score 5-7 top tens. In the right equipment Jarrett is still one of the top restrictor plate drivers. He also has impressive numbers at Michigan, Atlanta and Bristol. He has won at 16 different tracks. His best chance for top tens are at these three track

Jarrett is one of the most popular and well-respected drivers in the sport. The tentative plan is to drive for two more seasons and then retire. Of course, drivers have changed plans before. Jarrett is past competing for championships, but given the right car at the right race he can still vie for wins and top fives.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Reed Sorenson

Reed Sorenson Age 20
0 wins, 1 top 5, 5 top 10's, 11 top 15's
Points rank: 24th Driver Rating: 68.4
#41 Target Dodge Crew Chief Jimmy Elledge

For a 20 year old rookie with one previous career Cup start, Reed Sorenson's rookie season was pretty normal. Glimpses of his talent blended together with his inexperience for a top 25 points finish. He crashed often (12 times, 4 DNF's), but he also showed why he is a top driving prospect. The biggest thing Sorenson lacks is experience and seat time. A busy 2006 schedule running both full Cup and Busch schedules helped accelerate his learning curve. After winning two Busch races in 2005, last season was a mild disappointment. He finished 10th in points, with 5 top 5's and 14 top 10's. Although it wasn't the season the team anticipated, it was still valuable seasoning.

On the Cup side, Sorenson started slowly, mostly staying out of the way in the first three races. In the fourth race he scored his first top ten at his home track, Atlanta. Strong runs continued at unfriendly tracks like Martinsville (12th) and Darlington (11th) displayed his talent. In between were bumpy runs at Phoenix, Talladega and Richmond.

The combination of Sorenson and crew chief Jimmy Elledge worked well in season one. Prior to Sorenson, Elledge helped Casey Mears improve for three years. One trait of Elledge is his willingness to take risks. At Michigan in a race threatened by rain, Elledge gambled on track position keeping Sorenson out during the final pit stop. The gamble worked as rain shortened the race after 129 laps, giving Sorenson his first top 5. It wasn't a complete theft. Sorenson ran in the top ten during the latter part of the race, but the gamble did leapfrog several cars to improve his finish.

They gambled again at the Labor Day weekend race at Fontana. Sorenson nearly won the race before running out of fuel one lap short, finishing 21st. The move still made sense for a rookie simply trying to get experience and finish races. His best race of the season came at the second Dover race. Sorenson led 39 laps and was running fourth until he again ran out of gas with two laps left. He wound up eleventh, but his 112.5 driver rating was fifth best. The finish also capped a very solid seven race segment where his average finish was 17th. It was a good cross-section of the Cup scene. Races at Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol, California, Richmond, Loudon and Dover run the range of difficulty and variety.

Unfortunately like every rookie not named Hamlin, Sorenson hit a rough patch to end the year. After Dover he finished 43rd, 39th, 36th, 35th and 29th. He also drew Dale Jarrett's ire at Lowe's for multiple incidents. As a result Jarrett donated pieces of his wrecked car to Sorenson's hauler.

Looking ahead to 2007 Sorenson will continue to improve with experience. Having established a notebook allows Elledge to improve setups the second time around. Sorenson gets a new teammate to replace the departing Mears. Juan-Pablo Montoya comes to NASCAR after an impressive open-wheel career. Montoya might bring a lot of help for Sorenson. His impressive resume includes championships, premiere wins and experience in several of the world's best racing series. Montoya's credibility will carry more weight when giving feedback to Ganassi. It's not that Ganassi doesn't recognize the need for improvement, but hearing it from a world class driver as opposed to a youngster like Sorenson or David Stremme has more impact.

The biggest question is still about the cars. Can Ganassi improve the equipment and enable Sorenson to run up front consistently? That will determine how successful Sorenson's second season goes. Ganassi made some changes in management during the season. If the changes work, it will help all three cars. Progress could be difficult with cloudy future of Dodge. As the year progresses, don't be surprised to hear rumors about Ganassi moving to Toyota.

Like many rookies Sorenson's weaknesses were plate tracks and short tracks. This is the type of track that sometimes even patience isn't enough. It takes time earning respect from veterans. Sorenson's strength is easily the intermediate tracks. All of his top tens came at 1.5 mile or 2 mile speedways. The results didn't show, but he also ran well at Loudon and Dover. He is scaling back his Busch schedule to focus on the Cup side in 2007. This is probably a good move, especially with the new Car of Tomorrow to worry about. Since that car won't run in the Busch series, the seat time won't transfer as directly.

Sorenson has the potential to win races, but needs consistency first. If Ganassi's equipment improves Sorenson is capable of 2 or 3 top fives. His weekly performance is still uneven, but he will eventually compete for wins and Chase berths in the coming years. A top 20 finish, something he almost accomplished in 2006, is a definite possibility.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Jamie McMurray

Jamie McMurray
0 wins, 3 top 5’s, 7 top 10’s, 9 top 15’s
Avg start: 25.3 Avg finish 23.6
Points Rank: 25th Driver Rating: 67.4
#26 Crown Royal/Irwin Ford Crew Chief: Larry Carter

Race fans with any level of interest know about Jamie McMurray's story in 2006. First the obvious. He moved to Roush in highly publicized move from Ganassi in 2005. It was a case of a talented driver in search of better equipment. It made sense, except that's not how it played out. He had his worst season in Cup. He endured three crew chiefs, 7 DNF's and had fewer top fifteens (9) than his top ten total in any of his first seasons. And he didn't get any closer to winning his first race since 2002. He did have some nice runs, but fell well short of expectations.

The most vivid picture of McMurray's struggle was of him sitting dejectedly in his garage stall during the Texas race. The handling on the car was so bad he couldn't drive it. No mechanical issues or damage from a wreck, just a terrible car and McMurray and crew having no answer. Jack Roush made a crew chief change the next week, moving Bob Osborne from Carl Edwards' car to the #26 of McMurray.

Aside from the Texas letdown, McMurray hadn't run terribly in the first seven races. A late crash ruined a top ten at Daytona, and he finished 7th at California and 9th at Martinsville. The change initially got results. McMurray finished 14th at Phoenix, 5th at Talladega, 8th at Lowes and 2nd at Dover. He led 95 laps at Dover before teammate Matt Kenseth passed him late for the win. McMurray led a mere 37 total laps in 2005.

McMurray couldn't sustain the success, recording only two top tens the rest of the year. At the start of the season McMurray apparently wasn’t comfortable in the same setups as his teammates. As the year progressed, it’s hard to say whether it was McMurray struggling or Roush Racing as a whole. Roush's intermediate program, their bread and butter the past few years, struggled in the second half of the year, especially during the Chase.

Looking back on the season, when McMurray wasn't struggling, his luck abandoned him. Crashes at Daytona, Bristol, Talladega and Phoenix spoiled good runs. He sat on the outside pole at Sonoma only to spin twice on the first lap. A rock at Darlington knocked his oil pump belt loose, ruining the engine. There is nothing to do but throw your hands up.

Another confounding statistic is McMurray's qualifying on 2006. He had 16 starts of 30th or worse and eight starts worse than 40th. Usually qualifying doesn't mean a lot, especially in relation to finishes. It still illustrates the complete struggle McMurray endured. A car from a top team shouldn’t be consistently outran by single-car, under-funded field-fillers. The other four Roush cars all started an average 19.3 or better.

The question that dogs McMurray is “when will he win another race?” It’s not to Jeff Burton lengths yet, but announcers constantly remind people that he hasn’t won since he subbed for Sterling Marlin in 2002. Despite many critics, McMurray is a very good driver that excels at any type of track. Phoenix is the only track for McMurray without a top ten, although he has a Busch win in 2004. He is equally capable at restrictor plate tracks, short tracks or road courses. Three of his top 10’s were at plate tracks. He is also great at California (5 top 10’s in 7 races), Martinsville, and Charlotte. When he resumes running up front he has a chance to win practically anywhere.

Now it's up to Roush to get McMurray back the front. The team may have slipped below Gibbs, and Hendrick, but Roush is still one of the best organizations at the Cup level. Larry Carter was recently hired as crew chief. He previously worked with Rusty Wallace at Penske and for Michael Waltrip Racing this past year. With the introduction of coil-bound spring packages, certain drivers weren't as comfortable. A second year with Roush should help McMurray find a setup that suits him.

In his first three seasons McMurray finished 13th, 11th, and 21th. He barely missed the Chase in 2004 and 2005. He didn't forget how to drive in one season filled with poor races, tough crashes and strange luck. The season also wasn't as bad as the results show. Switching teams, even a perceived upgrade, is not simply A+B=C. McMurray should return to the top 15 in points and consistently running in the top ten. A win wouldn't be a total shock, especially at California if Roush can regain their mojo at 1.5 and 2 mile tracks.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Dave Blaney

Dave Blaney Age: 44
0 wins, 1 top 5, 2 top 10's, 4 top 15's
Avg Start: 28.3 Avg finish 24.4

#22 Caterpillar Toyota Crew Chief: Kevin Hamlin

With seven full-time Toyota cars in 2007, who will be most successful? There is Brian Vickers, a young driver with potential. There is former Winston Cup Champ Dale Jarrett. What about established veterans Jeremy Mayfield and Michael Waltrip? Believe it or not, the most successful season just might come from Dave Blaney.

Blaney is the only Toyota driver inside the top 35 in owner points. Bill Davis Racing is also the only Toyota outfit with Cup experience. Neither Michael Waltrip Racing nor Red Bull have competed at the Cup level. Both will experience growing pains in their debuts. That leaves Blaney as the driver with the greatest chance to consistently run well for Toyota.

For the past three seasons BDR has fought legal issues with Dodge, while trying to remain competitive at the Cup level. In this context, Blaney had a pretty solid season. If there was an award for getting the most out of his equipment, Blaney would win. He ranked fifth in laps completed at 98.3%. His cars weren't always fast, but Blaney maximized his finishes. He scored a the car's first top five since the opening race of 2004. He also laid a foundation for improvement in 2007.

Most of the season Blaney survived races and avoided trouble. He only had two DNF's, but his equipment limited him to runing in the 20's and 30's. The first sign of progress was a three race stretch in July. He finished 17th (Chicago), 13th (Loudon) and 16th (Pocono). This was part of a run where he finished on the lead lap in 8 of 10 races. Things got even better in September. He ran exceptionally well at Richmond with a season high 108.7 driver rating and a fourth place finish. For an underfunded team, it was practically a victory. He followed up with a ninth place finish at Loudon and a 12th at Dover.

While moral victories are nice, Blaney finally broke through at the NASCAR level in October. He won a wild Busch race at Lowe's, holding off Matt Kenseth and displaying some serious car control. His first win in NASCAR's top three levels was overshadowed by Kevin Harvick clinching the Busch championship. It still capped an impressive fall for Blaney. It could make for an even better 2007.

For the first season since 2003, BDR gets manufacturer support. BDR is already the premiere Truck organization, backed by Toyota. Getting any support at the Cup level will elevate performance, but Toyota's funding could be enormous. Blaney also welcomes a new teammate for 2007. Michael Waltrip was technically a teammate last year, but he basically consumed cars, resources and owner points. Jeremy Mayfield will drive the #36 BDR car in 2007. Mayfield spent the fall testing cars for BDR. This will help deepen the data pool for both teams. Both drivers have tested the Car of Tomorrow, which is the great unknown for every team. Will BDR's success in the truck series translate to the boxier, heavier CofT?

Blaney will also race full-time in the Busch series for Braun racing in '06. It's his first full Busch season since 1999. While most Cup drivers have reduced their full-time Busch efforts, it makes sense for Toyota teams to get more track time in the new Camry. There will no doubt be wrinkles to iron out in the brand new car. Blaney certainly doesn't need the seat time that a rookie would, but racking up a few top fives or another win in the Busch series never hurts.

With his dirt track background it is not surprising Blaney's strength is tracks where car control is a necessity. Darlington, Richmond, Loudon and Phoenix are all places that Blaney can run well. His best average finish is at Homestead where he had a top ten in 2005. After bouncing around for the past four years from BDR, Jasper, RCR and back to BDR, 2007 grants Blaney some stability. He is finally in the same ride for more than one season. Blaney finished 26th in points in 2006. It is not crazy to think he could crack the top 20. Toyota has several higher profile drivers, but Blaney is the one people will talk about if Toyota has success in 2007.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Joe Nemechek

Joe Nemechek Age: 43
0 wins, 0 top 5's 2 top tens 4 top 15's
Avg start: 18.0 Avg Finish 24.4
#13 Ginn Chevy Crew Chief: Peter Sospenzo

2006 was a tough season for "Front Row" Joe Nemechek. During the past six seasons, Nemecheck was often a threat to win a race despite never driving a top-flight ride. From 1999-2005, Nemechek won four races, seven poles and scored 15 top fives. Even in winless years, he had chances at wins. He led races late in '05 before suffering heartbreak from a sour engine at California and a flat tire.at Lowe's. 2006 marked the first year that he never seriously contended for a win. It also began a period of transition for Nemechek that continues into 2007.

Nemecheck's season was filled with crashes, especially early in the season. He only had 3 DNF's, but 16 total crashes made for a lot of hollow laps. He finished worse than 25th in six of the first ten races. He was never able to gain traction and make a charge in the points. After finishing 16th in points in 2005, Nemecheck slipped to 27th last year. He managed a meager 2 top ten finishes and both came late in the season. It was a down year overall for MB/2. Sterling Marlin finished 34th and struggled all season in his first year with the team.

The largest change in 2006 was Bobby Ginn purchasing MB/2 motorsports. Ginn purchased the team in August and immediately invested in additional resources for the team. It was after this change that Nemechek began running better. Finished the year with seven straight top 20 finishes including two top tens at Lowe's and Atlanta. If the results declined, Nemechek still showed his qualifying prowess in 2006. He had nine top ten starts and averaged an 18.0 starting position. This strength is a necessity in 2007 as the changes continue for Nemechek.

Last fall Mark Martin announced plans to join Ginn for 2007. The move brings enormous credibility to Ginn, but it is at Nemechek's expense. Matin will be in the US Army #01 with crew chief Ryan Pemberton. This slides Nemechek to a brand new team with a new sponsor, new number, new crew and most significantly no owner's points. That means competing with 12-15 teams for seven available starting spots, including teammate Marlin. Nemechek's a great qualifier(career avg start: 18.4, 9 poles), but there is still no safety net or guarantee. Even the slightest bobble in qualifying can cost enough time to miss the field. There is another problem with starting outside the top 35. Cars go through inspection based on their point ranking. The longer a car has to wait, the less practice time is available. Less practice time for Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth is not vital. Teams looking for the best qualifying setup however, need all the possible track time especially at races when there is only one pre-qualifying practice session.

Finding enough qualifying speed will fall on new crew chief Peter Sospenzo. Sospenzo comes from Hendrick Motorsports. He was Nemechek's crew chief in 2003 and also worked with Brian Vickers and Terry Labonte in the past few years. Nemechek won at Richmond with Sospenzo as crew chief in 2003, so at least it's not a completely blank slate. Another asset for qualifying is the team's engines they lease from Hendrick.
Not only is Nemechek switching teams, but he is also switching sponsors, away from US Army. Nemechek and his family, especially his mother, took this sponsor relationship very seriously. Nemechek even visited troops at Guantanamo Bay this past year. A primary sponsor hasn't been announced, but Ginn Resorts is always a possiblity.

Once Nemechek makes the show, he is very capable beyond two laps. He has Cup 4 wins since 1999. Of the 2007 full-time drivers, only 15 have more than Nemechek.He has always ran well in the speedway and restrictor plate races. Eleven of his 18 top 5's have come on intermediate speedway tracks. He also has a win and three top 5's at Loudon. Short tracks are the wildcard, especially Bristol and Martinsville.

Bobby Ginn is intent on improving the organization. He has already purchased new R&D equipment, expanded to three teams and signed a high profile driver. It might take a rough season in 2007 to realize some of the improvements. With two cars outside the top 35, qualifying is priority one. The addition of Martin should also help solving some of the problems with the cars. Nemecheck is definitely an accomplished driver that is capable of not only winning a race, but finishing inside the top 20 in points. If he can steer clear of crashes and start the season well, a top 25 points finish is possible. Realistically it will be a fight to stay inside the top 35 this year.

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