Sure, Jimmie Johnson will have a good season in 2008 as will his Hendricks Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon. But everyone expects those two to win races, make the Chase and compete for a title. Who's likely to exceed expectations this NASCAR season?
Here are eight sleepers to keep an eye on:
Can the fastest laps in January testing at Daytona turn into a solid season for Kahne? His fans are hoping so, as the test laps gave them more to cheer about than the entire 2007 season. If money translates to success in NASCAR, then Kahne should enjoy more in 2008. Ray Evernham had a favorable track record as an owner but was always on a tight budget. The deep pockets of George Gillett Jr. are now in charge. It will be interesting to see if Evernham's new role with the team -- a reduced involvement in day-to-day operations -- will be good or bad. Kahne's career had been on an upward swing until 2007. If Kahne does well, it won't be a secret for long as his sponsor for 2008 will be Budweiser, one of the best sponsors in all of sports.
The Car of Tomorrow never really dawned on Ford teams in 2007. Once Ford owner Jack Roush realized how far behind his team was, he stepped up testing and development. While all the Ford teams stand to gain, Biffle is the one poised to benefit from the improvements the most. A steady and proven driver at every NASCAR level, Biffle can produce top-tier results with solid equipment. Look for him to be back in the Chase this year.
It's hard to call a driver with this pedigree a sleeper, but being a Formula One veteran and an Indy 500 winner doesn't mean that much in NASCAR. Montoya showed he could excel on road courses during his 2007 season, but the Sprint Cup Series races just twice at such venues each season. Montoya, however, showed much promise on ovals. He's making the adjustment. If he improves as much this season as he did his rookie year, he'll grab a spot in the Chase playoffs.
Yes, NASCAR will be rocking when a car from Petty Enterprises makes the Chase in 2008. Labonte had a decent showing in 2007, finishing 18th in the points. The Petty family, meanwhile, keeps moving in the right direction. They've made good personnel changes while moving their garage close to the center of the stock car world. Labonte, a former champion, is still smooth and consistent.
As the world caved in last season on Toyota and the rest of its drivers, Blaney stood tall. He finished just 31st in the points, but that seems like a miracle compared to the poor performance of the other Toyota teams. Blaney has always been a solid and underappreciated driver. He should reap the benefits as Toyota teams will improve considerably in the manufacturer's second year, thanks primarily to the addition of Joe Gibbs Racing and its expertise to the Toyota stable.
Who does Mears race for? Oh, yeah, Hendrick Motorsports. It will be easy for Mears to exceed expectations because most fans don't even think of him. He's overshadowed by his teammates, all legends of a sort: Johnson, Gordon and the ever-popular Dale Earnhardt Jr. Mears had a decent season in 2007, winning the first race of his career and finishing 15th in the points. He's got a new crew chief in Alan Gustafson, and the two seem to be clicking. Mears was the first car on the track for Daytona testing, got in more laps than most drivers while clocking some of the fastest speeds.
Probably the least known driver in the 2008 rookie class, he also has more stock car experience combined than his four rookie opponents. The other drivers that will compete for Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors are all open-wheel studs: Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr., Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier. Smith will be racing for DEI and will have Mark Martin as his mentor. Smith is an unproven commodity, having raced for underfunded and unsponsored teams for most of his NASCAR career, but he had some of the fastest laps in this week's testing at Daytona.
Hall of Fame Racing
The team quietly made a solid debut in 2007, then changed owners, manufacturers and driver for 2008. J.J. Yeley is an upgrade behind the wheel. New majority owners Jeff Moorad and Tom Garfinkelno, owners of the Arizona Diamondbacks, ensure financial stability as ex-Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach are now minority owners. The team will still get technical support from Joe Gibbs Racing, which means a switch to Toyota this season. Yeley could finish in the top 20 in points.