Brant James
Wednesday August 26th, 2009

There apparently is a reason they actually run the races. And whereas we don't always know as much as we think about any particular sport, racing seems to have a special way of shredding the virtual certainties we concoct in our minds.

And so, presenting ...

"Five things about the 2009 Sprint Cup season we got wrong (or are in the process of getting wrong)"

1. The thought: Tony Stewart would have a frustrating, if not humbling first season as a Sprint Cup driver/owner.

The reasoning: Driving for one's own team is a stressful, taxing, often demoralizing job when both are attempted at NASCAR's highest level. It busted Mark Martin and Ricky Rudd emotionally and financially. It made former series champion Bill Elliott a bit player in a sport in which he once thrived. Michael Waltrip has seen his operation bloom since a humbling 2007 as his focus has shifted to a life beyond the steering wheel and toward the desk. But Waltrip, 46, has four Cup wins in a quarter century and never finished better than 12th in the final driver standings. Stewart has 36 Sprint Cup wins, two titles -- most recently in 2005 -- and an expectation at age 38 of contending for more.

The reality: Stewart became an accidental businessman as an offshoot of his habit of collecting toys. Race cars, race teams, race tracks. Expensive hobbies became businesses and he's insulated himself well with the likes of Stewart-Haas racing executive vice president Brett Frood to keep aloft the balls he keeps adding to the juggling act.

Stewart invests as much pride and worry as any driver/owner, but his cadre of managers has allowed him to focus on racing. And it's worked. Stewart won his first race in the non-points All-Star event and followed with three more that counted to lead the standings by an imposing 220 points with two races left until the Chase for the Championship.

Yes, having half of an already-running (albeit poorly) team is easier financially than starting from a backyard shop as Waltrip did. Yes, possessing the magnetism of a two-time champion helped secure a talented teammate (Ryan Newman) and a passel of monied sponsors.

Yes, he's been helped by strong mechanical support from mighty Hendrick Motorsports, but Haas CNC Racing had an alliance with the team before owner Gene Haas ceded half-ownership to Stewart. The team didn't win a race until he arrived. And Hendrick drivers acknowledge that Stewart has provided crucial feedback and intelligence in the relationship.

Stewart staked his reputation on this one. And the experiences of his predecessors suggested his astute business acumen would be tested by his impatience and volatility when two difficult jobs began overlapping.

So far at least, he's managing more than fine.

2. The thought: A mature, seasoned Kyle Busch would put it all together this season for a championship run.

The reasoning: There is a teapot dome of talent beneath the 24-year-old's sometimes craggy exterior. Anxiety -- Brian Vickers calls it anger -- stokes him, and at times undoes him. Last season he won eight Cup races, 10 in Nationwide and three in trucks, but after another Chase for the Championship flame-out (finishing 10th), he would return wiser, ready to contend for the title former teammate Jimmie Johnson has held since 2006. Or so we thought.

The reality: There is still work to do to quell the stormy inner turmoil that dictates Busch's professional life. Hee's already raced for two of the top organizations in the sport -- Roush Fenway and Hendrick -- and been deposed by one of them, Hendrick. He's thrived at Joe Gibbs Racing and faltered, exulting in wins with his team and blistering them for mistakes on the team radio.

Busch entered last Saturday's race at Bristol three places and 71 points out of the 12th and final Chase berth and scuttling to avoid the embarrassment of missing the Chase for the first time since his rookie season in 2005. But maybe his win on Saturday will be a turning point. He seemed genuinely heartened of the state of mankind that Mark Martin chose not to turn him while racing for the lead in the final laps. Maybe the seas calmed. Maybe he will claim that Chase spot, and with four wins begin the Chase atop the standings with Martin, launching himself to what has seemed like an inevitable first title.

We'll see.

3. The thought: Carl Edwards is going to dethrone Jimmie Johnson.

The reasoning: He came within 70 points of stopping Johnson's streak at two consecutive championships last season, winning three of the last five races, and finishing third, and fourth, respectively in the other two. His nine wins led the series.

The reality: Edwards consoles himself with the assertion that he's been close in several races, that a call or some luck here or a more efficient pit stop there might have put him in position for his first win of the season. He has seven top 10s (second at Pocono) and is fifth in points, but he is winless. At Race 24 last year, he'd won three of his last four and was second in points. This year he's winless and set to start the Chase ninth of 12, from where no one has ever come to finish better than sixth in five years of the playoff format.

Edwards can still fulfill this prophecy, but considering Johnson's history in the Chase, Edwards needs a back-flip, and soon.

4. The thought: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing is about to implode.

The reasoning: Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s downward performance spiral began before nameplate icon Dale Earnhardt Jr. left before the 2008 season. Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates has never accomplished enough in eight seasons (six wins in 724 starts) to achieve the elevation necessary for a downward spiral. Their financially driven merger before this season, amid scores of layoffs and some sponsor defections, did not portend of success.

The reality: After an encouraging transition from Formula One to NASCAR in 2006 and two subsequent seasons of no apparent growth, Juan Pablo Montoya has made the next step. He's ninth in points, competitive most weeks regardless of the venue, and should give Ganassi his first Chase-qualifier. Admittedly points-racing for the paramount portion of the season, Montoya figures to be a dynamic force in the 10-race dash for the championship. He could give Ganassi the IndyCar-NASCAR title double before his friendly rival Roger Penske.

5. The thought: Richard Childress Racing was ready to challenge Hendrick Motorsports.

The reasoning: The three-car organization had been burgeoning, with a driver contending for a title late in each of the last two seasons and placing Kevin Harvick fourth, Clint Bowyer fifth and Jeff Burton sixth in the final standings last year. The addition of Casey Mears -- although he had won just once in stops at Ganassi and Hendrick Motorsports (where his teammates thrived) -- gave RCR a full fleet and, theoretically, exponentially more information-gathering and race-winning potential.

The reality: Nothing has worked. Burton admitted there is some chaos within the team. Engineering issues are being questioned. Harvick's and Mears' crew chiefs were swapped after nine races. Harvick may opt out of the final year of his contract. Bowyer is 15th in points and is likely to miss the Chase for the first time since his first full-time campaign. Harvick is 24th. Burton is 18th in points. Mears is 20th and the entire RCR Cup program is winless. (Bowyer and Burton combined for three last year).

Bowyer struggled more than expected after he was removed from the No. 07 Chevrolet in which he'd finished third, and fifth, respectively, the previous two seasons and seeded in the new No. 33. Mears faltered despite being dropped into a team that helped make Bowyer one of the series' top new success stories. There were meetings, crew chief swaps without major improvement.

FOOTNOTE: Nelson Philippe had the time and the humor to TwitPic a photo of himself at the airport as he tries to finally leave Northern California. He sustained a concussion, a broken left foot and a fractured right fibula in a practice crash Saturday with Will Power at Infineon Raceway.

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