2008 Season Preview

NASCAR's off-season is over.  The sport is now gathered down in Daytona Beach and the green flag to start the season is days away.  It's the biggest week of the year for the sport.  Before the green flag drops on the 2008 season, here's a look at what to watch for this year.

Name Changes:  Once again the sport's top series is changing names.  The Nextel Cup Series will now be known as the Sprint Cup Series starting this season.  Also starting this season, the Busch Series will be known as the Nationwide Series.  2008 will mark the final season for Craftsman to be the title sponsor of the truck series.
Three-Peat?:  No driver has done it since Cale Yarborough did it from 1976-1978:  That is winning three straight championships.  That will be the challenge for back to back champion Jimmie Johnson.  Since 1984, three drivers have had a chance to win three straight titles:  Darrell Waltrip won the title in 1981 and 1982, but finished second to Bobby Allison in '83.  Dale Earnhardt had two chances.  He was the champion in 1986-1987, but finished third behind Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace in '88.  Earnhardt again won back to back titles in 1993 and 1994, but finished second to Jeff Gordon in 1995.  Speaking of Gordon, he was back to back champion in 1997 and 1998, but finished sixth in 1999 (Dale Jarrett was the champion that year).  If history is an indication, it will be difficult for Jimmie to pull that off.
Another "Drive For Five":  Before The Chase, Jeff Gordon's fifth championship seemed like a slam dunk.  But, Jimmie Johnson's dominance of The Chase was just too much for Gordon to overcome.  So once again, Jeff Gordon pursues that elusive fifth championship this season.
Other Title Contenders:
Tony Stewart:  With Joe Gibbs Racing turning to Toyota, Tony Stewart becomes the headline driver for that manufacture.  Stewart has two championships to his credit.  He will absolutely be in contention for number three this year.
Kyle Busch:  Another Joe Gibbs racer, Kyle Busch has shown both flashes of championship potential, as well as mistakes that young drivers make.  You can't deny his talent though.  Even in this very young stage of his career, Busch is more than talented enough to be a champion.
Carl Edwards:  Last year, he won the Busch Series title.  Now, he looks for more.  Edwards was solidly in The Chase last season, but struggled a bit in those races.  Make no mistake, Carl Edwards has what it takes to contend for the title.
Matt Kenseth:  It's easy to forget Matt Kenseth because of his consistency.  It just seems like a high finish is assured for him.  That was the hallmark of his 2003 title.  You have to get the feeling that Kenseth will be heard from quite a bit this year.
Hey Rookie!:  This year's rookie field has a bit of a foreign and open wheel feel.  Actually, more than just a bit.  Former Indianapolis 500 winners Dario Franchitti and Jacques Villeneuve are the headliners.  Two other former Indy Car drivers will also make their rookie campaigns in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series:  Sam Hornish Jr. and Patrick CarpentierRegan Smith will also compete for Rookie of the Year honors.
Different Looks:  Every NASCAR fan, unless he or she has been hiding under a rock for the past several months, knows that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is now with Hendrick Racing.  He now sports the #88 along with sponsorships from the National Guard and Mountain Dew Amp energy drink.  Kyle Busch leaves Hendrick for Joe Gibbs and their new Toyotas.  Busch will carry sponsorship from M&M's.  J.J. Yeley joins Hall of Fame Racing in the #96 DLP car.  With Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s new deal, Budweiser joins forces with Ray Evernham and now sponsors the #9 Dodge driven by Kasey Kahne.
Tomorrow Is Here Today:  It's not the "Car of Tomorrow" anymore.  Because it's here now.  After being raced in certain events in 2007, the new car is on the full schedule for the 2008 season.  The new car, designed to be safer and more cost efficient, made its debut at the Spring event at Bristol last season.
Drivers With Something To Prove:
Clint Bowyer:  He was the surprise of the season in 2007, finishing third in the final standings.  Many will watch to see if it is a sign of future success on the way.
Jeff Burton:  Even though he's had two solid seasons with Richard Childress, you don't hear Jeff Burton in a lot of talk about being a potential champion.  Certainly not like he was with Jack Roush.  Burton will look again to show that he can be a championship driver.
Juan Pablo Montoya:  The Rookie of the Year in 2007 wasn't always a popular driver with his peers.  His aggressive style of driving made him some enemies.  Montoya's wins came on road courses (Mexico City in the Busch Series and the Nextel Cup race at Sonoma).  But, he needs to show improvement on the other tracks if he's going to get mention as a top NASCAR driver.
Kurt Busch:  It might be a bit easy to forget that he won the Nextel Cup title in 2004, but you don't hear a lot of good talk about Kurt Busch.  A lot of that may be because of his hot temper that gets him in trouble.  See Dover last June for a prime example.  But he has talent.  If he can't control his temper on and off the track, he can have a big season.
Casey Mears:  The high point for him came when he won is first Nextel Cup race at the Coca-Cola 600 in 2007.  But when you see that his teammates are Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., sometimes it's easy to be looked over.  Casey will look to show his talent this season.
Looking For a Rebound:
Dale Earnhardt Jr.:  This one is fairly obvious to see why.  Going winless and finishing 16th in the final standings is not what Dale Earnhardt Jr. had in mind for his 2007 season.  But then again, he did also have a bit on his mind during the season.  Now in the stable of Rick Hendrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is poised for a big season.  He is very comfortable and confident in his new surroundings.  That in itself is a major improvement.
Ryan Newman:  The former Rookie of the Year had a bit of a tough run last year.  Barley missing The Chase, finishing 13th in the standings.  It's been a while since he's been in victory lane.  September 18, 2005 at Dover is Newman's last Nextel/Sprint Cup victory.
Kasey Kahne:  After winning six races and making The Chase in 2006, Kasey Kahne was a popular choice to be a title contender in 2007.  That didn't work out very well.  Kasey did not win a race in '07, had only one top five, eight top tens, and finished a very disappointing 19th in the standings.  With new backing from Budweiser, Kahne should have the proper motivation to turn things around this season.

By:  CrimsonCowboy

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