First of all, I must apologize for being away for a while. That was unavoidable on my part, but I apologize all the same. Second of all, Congratulations to Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, and Johnny Benson, the 2008 champions of the Cup, Nationwide, and Trucks series. In all three series, there were triumphs and heart breaks, feelings of "We can do this" and "What the heck is wrong with us?"
My primary focus, as always, is on the Cup series. After a slow start to the 2008 season, Jimmie Johnson came roaring back to win his 3rd consecutive Sprint Cup. Jimmie's boss and teammate, Jeff Gordon, remains winless in 2008, the first time in 15 years Jeff hasn't won a race during a season. Jeff's championship total remains at four, while Jimmie now has three. Is there a rivalry here between these two friends? Probably. But it's a friendly one, and one which team owner Rick Hendrick has to be very happy about. Despite all the changes that have taken place in the series with the new car, Hendrick still seems to have a good handle on how to give his teams what they need to win races.
Speaking of Mr. Rick Hendrick: I know there are still the haters out there. You claim that Hendrick was once convicted of some crime, which he was. He was under house arrest for quite a while, during which time he had leukemia. You claim that Jimmie Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus is a cheater. It's true he's been caught cheating. Any crew chief worth his keep has either been caught cheating or should have been by now. If you're not pushing the envelope in this sport as a crew chief, you're not trying hard enough. Not that cheating is right, but in NASCAR, it's not cheating unless or until you get caught. It's that tiny advantage that you gain of the other competitors that helps you beat them by 1/10th of a second per lap is what counts. That's what any crew chief who makes it to this level has to be thinking about if he's going to win races.
What had to be NASCAR's biggest embarrassment this year was the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. Competition caution flags flew every 10 laps during most of that race because tires kept popping like bubble gum. As usual, NASCAR tried to pass off the race as a huge success, but even the newest fan of the sport had to see through that ruse. NASCAR did everything they could to shovel as much praise on Goodyear for providing a tire that was an abject failure, it was hilarious to see. All eyes looked to Tony Stewart, who has been critical of Goodyear in the past, but apparently Smoke had already had the word about that. Don't disrespect the tires, ever, or else, Tony must have been told.
One of the more exciting finishes in any race this year was Kansas, when Carl Edwards let it all hang out in a last lap dash to beat Jimmie Johnson. Carl knew he was going way to fast when he shot around Jimmie going into the corner, but he was thinking about winning all the marbles at the time. Carl paid for his aggressiveness by hitting the wall and falling behind once again, but that was a real racing move he made there. Too bad he ran out of talent before he could make it stick.
The biggest disappointments in the actual Chase for the Cup had to be for Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Despite Kyle's dominance early in the season, and beginning the Chase out front, he basically hit everything and broke just about everything there was to hit in the next 10 races. Dale Jr., already suffering a series of slumps after his win at Michigan in June, continued to slip and slide along, and though he had some good finishes, he was never seriously a threat to win a second race in 2008. Worries about his crew chief situation continue to be debated by his fans. I'm going to stay out of that argument. Dale Jr. will have who he wants as he crew chief, period.
NASCAR faces a tough year in 2009. Unless the economy quickly recovers to the point that people have a little spending money, attendance will be down at the track next year as it was much of this year. American auto manufacturers will likely step down their support of the teams, as companies such as GM, Ford, and Chrysler fight for their very lives. Toyota will have an advantage in this area, since their sales are higher than ever.
Mergers among teams took some surprising turns this year. The new Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates is proof of some of the hard times being experienced by so many second tier teams in this sport. Almost every team has announced layoffs in light of the changing conditions in the sport. Virtually all phases of NASCAR face tough times in 2009.
My vote for most improved driver in 2008 is David Ragan. David was struggling in 2007 just to finish races, but in 2008 he showed exactly why Jack Roush put the young driver in the the famed #6 Ford.
My vote for most improved team has to go to Red Bull Racing, and namely Brian Vickers who was in contention to win a few races in 2008. It appears that Red Bull benefited from Toyota's emergence as a true contender in NASCAR. Everyone looks at Joe Gibbs Racing success, namely with Kyle Busch, but the Red Bull guys were strong this year. I look for them to be even better next year.
My vote for best overall team effort goes to Richard Childress Racing. This three car team, soon to expand to four cars in 2009, managed to get all three cars into the Chase in 2008. Richard Childress managed to put all of his cars into the top 12 when it counted, and his driver, Clint Bowyer, also won the Nationwide championship in a RCR car. Richard Childress Racing has proven itself to be very consistent, even though they don't have the resources that Hendrick or Roush possess.
All in all, 2008, to me, was somewhat of a disappointing season. The new car, which was supposed to make the racing better, seemed to accomplish the opposite. The cars are harder to drive, and most of the drivers seemed to spend more time fighting the cars and the tires, rather than racing each other. Though I respect NASCAR's attempt to make the sport safer, I feel like they've finally meddled with a good thing too much, and now they will spend years trying to figure out how to get the excitement back that they once had an abundance of.