As the Sprint Cup teams begin testing at Daytona today for the 2008 season, let's take a look at the biggest storylines for the upcoming campaign.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. joins Hendrick Motorsports: No other driver change has generated as much attention as that of NASCAR's most popular driver, who left Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team founded by his late father, Dale Earnhardt, to join the team hated by most of his fans.
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of this, consider that the late Earnhardt was the "Man in Black", the common man's friend and idol; while Hendrick Motorsports was considered the team of the slick, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson; two drivers as smooth in front of a camera as they are behind the wheel.
Earnhardt Jr.'s saga played out in the media as much as behind closed doors. His stepmother, Teresa, and he didn't see eye-to-eye on any number of issues. Rather than talk to one another, they spoke to us (and you, the fans).
Now that Junior has joined Hendrick he's in the unenviable position of lose-lose. If he returns to his winning ways, well, it's the cars that were responsible for the last two Cup titles. Worse, if he doesn't win, he's washed up.
Before making a final judgment consider this: He's won 17 Cup races, which does not exactly make him a journeyman driver. But it doesn't quite make him his late father.
Dale Sr. ran four races in 1975-78, then five in '79. In the next eight years, running full-time, he won 20 races. That's only three more victories than Junior in the same eight-year full-time period. The big difference is that Dale's father won two Cup championships and he hasn't.
While most fans are sticking with Junior, the question will be for how long? He's 33. That wasn't a big deal when his dad was racing, but, with competition the way it is today, he's got limited time to make a mark in the record books like his dad did.
My prediction is that Junior will adapt to his new team quite well. This won't necessarily be a championship year, but he'll likely have three wins and make the Chase.
Joe Gibbs Racing switches to Toyota and hires Kyle Busch: On paper the team has as strong a driver lineup as anyone in the Sprint Cup series can expect. Tony Stewart's title record in the past eight years are only matched (and exceeded) by reigning champ Jimmie Johnson. With Denny Hamlin and new import Kyle Busch, both previous race winners, the team is a threat at just about any track. But now that Gibbs has joined with Toyota, many will question just how fast can they bring that product into a winning profile?
One easy answer is with the advent of the Car of Tomorrow (and can we now stop calling it that?) just about all the cars, from the outside, are the same. Results will be more dependent than ever on the motor. Gibbs has a leader in engine development in builder Mark Conquist, who's responsible for much of the development of General Motors' latest engine iteration. It shouldn't be long before Toyota will be celebrating it's first visit, of many, to Victory Lane.
At the very least, the addition of Busch should spice things up around the team. All three drivers are known for showing their temper when things aren't going well. A clash between Stewart and Hamlin brought team founder Joe Gibbs to a race to straighten them out and remind them that they are teammates. My feeling is that each of them will push each other to drive harder than they do right now. A championship? Not likely. All three in the Chase? Probably.
Can anyone catch or stop the Hendrick Motorsports express?
General Motors' Chevrolet brand had a numbers superiority when it came to top teams, and Hendrick was top of that list. Nine of the 12 drivers in the Chase were in Chevrolets.
The contenders to the Hendrick throne are a varied lot.
Ford's two top runners were Roush and Yates (which has since been folded into a NASCAR-sanctioned association with Roush). Jack Roush admits he was caught behind the eight ball in regards to the development of the Car of Tomorrow and suffered in the points as such. His teams started a test team to play catch up and should be more competitive.
But over at Dodge there was a meltdown. Penske Racing had only one driver in the Chase, and Ray Evernham's golden boy, Kasey Kahne, was on a slump. Ganassi Racing had a modicum of success but was not in the title hunt at all. It's too soon to tell if the Dodge boys have made the leaps and bounds necessary to consider them contenders.
Not to neglect other Chevy teams, Richard Childress Racing has accomplished an incredible turnaround in the last three years and is on the verge of a breakthrough. With three drivers in the Chase and Clint Bowyer coming on to assist Jeff Burton and Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick, they could be the team to edge Hendrick.
Of course, there are other storylines developing for 2008 such as (1) what will happen to Dale Earnhardt Inc? and (2) can we finally stop agonizing over the Car of Tomorrow, but there's time to talk about them later.