The smoke is still settling from Jimmie Johnson’s championship burnouts at Homestead, but it’s never too early to prognosticate what’s going to happen next year in NASCAR! In this article, I’ll predict five drivers who will improve in 2009, five who will deteriorate in 2009, the Chase field, and the 2009 champion.
I have to tack a disclaimer onto this article, though: all of these predictions are based on the assumption that none of the four manufacturers pull out of NASCAR. Hopefully Congress and the Big Three can find a way to not only save the companies but also to save the jobs of thousands upon thousands of American workers.
On The Rise: (in no particular order)
1. Kyle Busch – How can you top a season with 8 Cup wins and 21 wins across all three series? Well, when your finishes go to pot in the Chase and you finish 10th in the points, you still have to call it a disappointing season. Shrub set NASCAR on fire – in more ways than one – in the first 26 races, but he quickly became an afterthought when the Chase started. He won’t win 8 races again, but I think his team will follow the trail blazed by Johnson & Chad Knaus to spend the first 26 races building up to the Chase. Look for him to finish in the top five next year, and he will be in competition for the championship.
2. David Ragan – In light of the disaster that was his rookie season, his sophomore season in 2008 was very impressive. He had the most top 5s and top 10s of the non-Chase drivers. His crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, is one of the best in the business. Next year, UPS comes on board as Ragan’s primary sponsor, injecting more money into the team. I think we’ll see a lot of this year’s Chasers stumbling next year, and Ragan is in the best position of anyone to capitalize. He will win his first race next year (Dover?), and he will make the Chase. Look for him to place around 8th or 9th in the final standings.
3. Kurt Busch – As disappointed as brother Kyle must feel after tanking the last 10 races, Kurt feels even more disappointed because he tanked the entire season. Aside from his fluky win in the rain in June and pushing his teammate to victory in the Daytona 500, Kurt had a substandard season. Honestly, do you really think he’s going to finish in 18th place again next year? No way. He’s far too talented to fall that low, and I think Penske will focus on getting him back into the Chase in 2009. Whether or not he makes it is debatable, but we will see a marked improvement from 2008 for the former champion.
4. Mark Martin – This one’s an obvious choice. The Old Man is going all in for 2009. This is his final season, and he’s making one last run at a title (haven’t we seen this before?). He’s definitely hooked up with the right team to make this last-ditch effort. He’ll have access to the notes and wisdom of the three-time reigning champion, not to mention that Jeff Gordon guy. The last two guys to sit in his seat, Casey Mears and Brian Vickers, have had marginal success with this team. Martin is definitely more talented than either Mears or Vickers, but is it enough to send him out in a blaze of glory?
5. Jeff Gordon – No wins and a 7th place finish in 2008. Do you really think that the four-time champ is going to be content with that? No way. He still had 13 top 5 finishes (only behind Johnson, Carl Edwards, and Kyle Busch). He’s still immensely talented. He’s still driven, all the more now. It’s been 7 years since Gordon added a championship trophy to his collection, and he’s hungry. Lock him into the top five, probably top three.
On the Decline:
1. Greg Biffle – Believe it or not, he finished 3rd in the points this year. He had two wins to kick off the Chase, and then he was a spectactor for the last 8 races. Yet, he still finished 3rd. He did not have the third best season amongst all drivers. The Biff has talent, and he consistently gets good equipment. I just can’t see him beating out Johnson, Edwards, Kyle Busch, or Gordon next year. He’ll still make the Chase, but I don’t foresee him getting another podium finish.
2. Tony Stewart – New team, new crew chief, new sponsors, new responsibilities, new teammate. As immensely talented as he his, Stewart has more changes to deal with than any other driver. I do think he’ll be successful as an owner/driver – in 2010 or 2011. This year will be a struggle for Smoke, and he’ll be fortunate to make the Chase.
3. Clint Bowyer – New team, new crew chief, new sponsor. Bowyer is being forced out of the Jack Daniels car, and he’s losing his crew chief Gil Martin as well. Based on the press releases after that announcement, Bowyer was not at all happy about it. Drivers who feel unappreciated tend to run poorly (see Ryan Newman, circa 2008). I’ve never been terribly impressed with Bowyer, and I think the bottom is going to drop out on him in 2009.
4. Bobby Labonte – His effort to revive Petty Enterprises has been noble. In 2008, he had as many top 10 finishes (2) as David Gilliland, Michael Waltrip, Dave Blaney, Reed Sorenson, and A.J. Allmendinger. The sun is setting on Labonte’s career, and the ship that is Petty Enterprises is sinking. He finished 21st in 2008, but he’ll be lucky to finish in the top 30 next year.
5. Joe Nemechek – Time to give it up, Joe. Quit beating a dead horse. The horse is dead... like your career. Just stop.
The 2009 Chase Field (in alphabetical order)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Anyone who bets against Jimmie Johnson is a fool, for the record. I think we’ll see the most competitive Chase yet, as I think the Lowe’s Team will come back down to earth for the 2009 edition. Look for the 48, 99, 18, and 24 to be the top four contenders. In 2007, when Joe Gibbs Racing announced they had signed Kyle Busch to drive the #18, I told my wife that Kyle would win the Cup title in 2009. His early-season dominance this year was a harbinger for the success that is to come. Kyle won’t win 8 races in 2009, but he will win the championship.
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