HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns

February 12, 2007

NASCAR fans in for an unpredictable 2007 season

By Jesse Menden

The NASCAR offseason is short. The last race of the season is in mid-November, and the first race of the next season is in mid-February.

The past three months flew by. With all of the news the sport has generated in the offseason, it was almost like the season never stopped.

Stories included Toyota coming to town, the like and mostly dislike of the Car of Tomorrow, interlopers such as Juan Pablo Montoya descending on the sport, the 2006 champion breaking his wrist while riding in a golf cart, and most recently, changing the points system and expanding the number of drivers allowed into the Chase for the Cup.

Whether you like it or not, get ready for more NASCAR, more of the time as the season officially begins Sunday with the Daytona 500.

Even though television ratings dropped for almost every race last season, NASCAR is still extremely popular, and with their switch to ESPN and ABC this year, the sport will be down right unavoidable, but with good reason.

NASCAR enters the 2007 campaign amid a slew of changes, enough to fill decades, much less one season, and it should be one of the most interesting years ever for the sport. This year is the beginning of a new NASCAR, it is a renaissance of sorts.

The most controversial of the changes, and no it’s not Toyota, is the Car of Tomorrow. After early speculation that NASCAR might scale back the number of races for the COT this season or even push the new high tech car into the 2008 season, it is a go.

The futuristic-looking car will run in 16 races this season, including five Chase for the Cup races, starting in March at the Bristol Motor Speedway. Reports have the car as being safer, and it will make the racing more competitive, making those of you watching at home for five consecutive hours pay a little more attention.

However, not everybody is on board with the car. Many have spoken out and said they are not a fan of the COT. There are no guarantees that this car will be good or bad, but it will be different. Either way, it will make for good television beginning in mid-March.

And then, here comes Toyota. A foreign car company makes its way into a sport that is more American than a cheeseburger.

Seven drivers have signed on to drive the Camry, the biggest name being Dale Jarrett. The first races look to be a bit of a challenge for those drivers as teams wait to see how well the new cars drive and compete.

Say what you will, Toyota is good for the sport. It will inject new blood into NASCAR’s stagnant competition. Ford and Chevy had little reason to improve in the past, but now they do. Throw the improving Dodge teams into the fray, and the racing should be great to watch in the coming years.

NASCAR continued its points-tweaking this offseason, awarding more points to winners. In recent years, they wanted to emphasize winning more than running well. This creates more aggressive driving and less points racing.

Winning drivers, starting this season, will be awarded five more points for a victory. Those wins will also make a difference in the Chase seedings at the end of the year. For every win in the first 26 races, the driver will receive a 10-point cushion in the Chase seedings. Again, it will create a better product.

This is an exciting change for fans, and hopefully, NASCAR will take it a step further in the coming years. After all, racing should be all about winning, rather than top-10 finishes.

The result of these changes will make a better product on the track this season, and seasons to come. This season will be the most exciting one ever.

With all of these changes, the best NASCAR experts won’t be able to predict what will happen. But odds are, the COT will favor multi-car teams with a lot of money for testing. Many say the COT has a different feel, so it could favor drivers that are better with open-wheel racing, or even the trucks that compete in the Craftsman Truck Series.

Having said that, here are my top drivers for 2007.

1. Jimmy Johnson: Finally won his elusive championship in ‘06 and races well on any type of track. He is the favorite to win again.

2. Tony Stewart: He will carry last season’s late success, after missing the Chase, into this season. Look for his wide-open racing and mouth to compete in the Chase.

3. Greg Biffle: He is one of the drivers expected to handle the COT well. He had a ton of bad luck to begin the ‘06 season and missed the Chase. Look for him to turn it around under new crew chief Pat Tryson.

4. Matt Kenseth: He had 21 top-10 finishes last season, and was second overall in points. The ‘03 champ has finished in the top 10 each of the past five years, need I say more?

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Fifth-place finisher after an ordinary start in ‘06. He has a ton of ability and should be feared.

The best of the rest:
6. Kevin Harvick
7. Kasey Kahne
8. Kurt Busch
9. Carl Edwards
10. Martin Truex Jr.