Monday, December 1, 2008

Goodbye 2008, Hello 2009

The 2008 Sprint Cup season ends with a familiar face leading the way while the economy and NASCAR itself stare down the barrel of a potentially disastrous 2009. But before we as a country and beer-drinking racing fans embark down that treacherous path, it’s time to look at the 2008 season that can be summed up by five words: Busch, blown tires and Jimmie. In one of my first blog entries, I predicted the most important stories of the year would center around Sprint’s new sponsorship of NASCAR, Joe Gibbs changing to Toyota, the COT’s first year, Cup drivers dominating Nationwide and, of course, Dale Jr. Well, three-outta-five ain’t bad, right?

The first half of the season was all about Joe Gibbs Racing and, more importantly, Kyle Busch’s rise to the NASCAR elite. No one could touch the No. 18 as kid racked up eight victories during the regular season. Then, the bottom inexplicably fell out as Busch barely made it in the Top-10 of the points standings by the end of the Chase. Regardless, Busch, Gibbs and Toyota have proven they will be players for many years.

The Car of Today would proved to be a worth successor, although it tore up Goodyear tires like Cole Trickle. Atlanta proved to be a brutal testing ground in March when the tire compound was too hard, causing the cars to become ridiculously loose in the corners. But the war between the heavier COT and Goodyear rubber finally came to a head at Indianapolis when NASCAR threw caution flags every 10 to 14 laps to make sure the teams didn’t stretch the tire’s performance limit. It was a pathetic display, and one that never seemed fully corrected. NASCAR, Goodyear and the teams must figure out what’s causing the problems and find a happy medium to combine good racing with safety.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a somewhat successful inaugural season at Hendrick by capturing a win in June. But his inability to turn strong runs into quality finishes cost him a shot at the championship. Still, teammate Jimmie Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, flourished beginning at the midpoint of the season to capture their third-straight Cup. It’s an amazing accomplishment by a team that shows no signs of slowing down. Carl Edwards was gracious in losing, but he had an equally stellar season. He might be the 2008 champion if not for a boneheaded move at Talladega where he triggered a multi-car crash that Johnson miraculously avoided.

But the most important story of 2008 may have lasting ramifications for NASCAR. The economic downturn is hitting all facets of American life, but motorsports will especially be affected because teams deeply rely on sponsorship dollars. NASCAR already took the extraordinary step of banning testing at all Sprint Cup tracks and DEI and Ganassi agreed to merge. Expect more to follow that lead as 43-car fields become a thing of the past. Regan Smith won rookie of the year and was promptly handed his walking papers. On top of all that, imagine what will happen if General Motors, Ford or Chrysler go under. The landscape of NASCAR is changing faster than any one could have predicted just a year ago. It will be interesting to see what the sport looks like when the cars take the green flag at Daytona on Feb. 15.

From PPMS to Daytona's white sandy beaches, thanks for reading this year. I will periodically post here before starting up again full-time in February. Good luck and see y'all in 2009 ... hopefully.