Tuesday February 27th, 2007

The first two races of the 2007 NASCAR season are in the books and now the Cup boys will take a week off before the racing goes green again at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 11. Herewith, five absurdly early predictions for the rest of the season:

1. The championship is going to come down to ... a battle between six drivers: Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, and Jeff Burton.

The most impressive driver in the first two weeks of '07 has clearly been Harvick. If not for a flat tire late in Sunday's race at California Speedway, he may have added a victory in Fontana to follow up his Daytona 500 win. The early success of Harvick and his Richard Childress Racing teammate Burton, who's currently second in the points, shows that the momentum RCR generated last season has carried over into '07, and RCR is now operating at the same high level as Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing. All of this reinforces the point that Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, stressed to me in the offseason: NASCAR has never been as competitive as it is today.

2. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will narrowly ... make the Chase.

The most surprising stat of the season is this: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has yet to finish a race. He was crashed at Daytona and blew an engine in California. After two weeks, he's 40th in the points. But he still has 24 races to get back into the Top 12, and his Budweiser Chevy has actually ran fairly well in spite of the poor results. Still, Little E can't afford too many more missteps if he's going to make the Chase.

3. Mark Martin ... won't make the Chase.

So far Martin has been the feel-good story of the season. He nearly won his first Daytona 500 and then he came in fifth at California. He was planning on only running in 22 events this season, but now that he's leading the points standings he's considering participating in all 36 events. It would be a compelling angle if Martin did this and wound up advancing to the Chase, but I don't see it happening. His team, Ginn Racing, has done a masterful job at preparing his racecars, but over the long haul Ginn won't be able to run with the likes of Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing.

4. A Toyota driver ... will win a race this season.

The expectations for Toyota were decidedly low during Speedweeks at Daytona, and the Toyotas struggled mightily in the 500. Dale Jarrett's 22nd-place finish paced the Toyotas at Daytona, but on Sunday Brian Vickers, who failed to qualify for the Great American Race, piloted his No. 83 Red Bull Camry to a 10th-place finish. The Toyotas should gain speed as the season progresses, and a Camry will have a great chance to reach Victory Lane once NASCAR rolls out the Car of Tomorrow, which will have the effect of leveling the playing field.

5. The biggest surprise of the season will be ... David Gilliland.

As I write in the magazine this week, Gilliland is unlike any other driver in NASCAR in that he didn't get his shot at a Cup ride until he was 30. But Gilliland spent most of his 20s building and setting up racecars, and his knowledge of how the car works is as deep as any driver on the circuit. Last year the No. 38 team was so bad that it appeared owner Robert Yates might sell it, but this season Gilliland has sparked a turnaround. He's currently 11th in the points and I think he'll be a threat to make the Chase.

I've always told my friends that television simply doesn't do NASCAR justice. To appreciate the full experience of stock car racing, you need to be trackside: breathing in the fumes; feeling the rumble of raw horsepower thumping on your chest; sensing the threat of danger that hangs over every event and letting your eyes be dazzled as you try to comprehend just how ridiculously fast these guys are really going.

I was reminded of all this again on Sunday. One of my childhood friends from Lincoln, Neb., Ted Wright, who'd never been to a race before, was at California Speedway with his friends David Jachetti and his wife, Shawna Jachetti. They sat in a box about 20 feet above Tony Stewart's pit stall. When Kevin Costner gave the starting command and the engines fired, the thunderclap of noise caused all their eyes to grow wide with wonder.

Then the green flag waved and the field of 43 cars charged into Turn 1 at full throttle. Shawna was so overwhelmed by the entirety of the experience -- the speed, the sound, the smell, the danger -- that tears welled in her eyes. "It was just so amazing," Shawna told me later. "It was one of the most powerful things you can imagine."

Yes, it is a powerful experience -- one that television cameras will never be able to adequately replicate. My advice to anyone who is remotely curious about NASCAR is this:

Get trackside. Just ask Shawna.

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