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The Sprint Cup season is upon us, officially getting underway Saturday with the Budweiser Shootout, followed by Daytona 500 qualifying Sunday and NASCAR's biggest race a week later. Then it's 35 more events until the championship. Indeed, this promises to be one of the most interesting of the circuit's 60 seasons.
Storylines are boundless. Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Hendrick Motorsports. Joe Gibbs Racing to Toyota. The influx of open-wheel drivers. Jimmie Johnson's run at a third straight championship, a feat accomplished only by Cale Yarborough 30 years ago. Jeff Gordon's Drive for Five.
Much has been written on those subjects already -- but the anticipation and speculation will end shortly. The reality, joyous and harsh, is in the racing.
Here are five pressing questions in need of answers on the eve of the season:
1. How will the Dale Earnhardt Jr. saga play out?
The pressure is on Junior, but it's always been since his arrival. Earnhardt is coming off a winless, Chase-less season -- the worst of his Cup career -- and steps into the Hendrick machinery at the perfect time to revitalize his career. Earnhardt had 17 Cup wins at DEI. Nobody should doubt he has the talent to perform at the highest level. Owner Rick Hendrick adroitly managed the transition, bringing in crew chief Tony Eury Jr. late last season to prepare for 2008. First cousins Earnhardt and Eury Jr. will be on the same page from Day 1, a big advantage for a driver with a new team. And since Eury was also able to bring some crew from DEI for the No. 88, the team is only partially new.
Earnhardt will win races, make the Chase and maybe even challenge for the championship this season. He has the hardware, he has the people and he can drive the car.
2. How soon will Joe Gibbs Racing take Toyota to Victory Lane?
You shouldn't be surprised if Tony Stewart wins Daytona. Toyota had a strong restrictor-plate package at Talladega last fall, taking the pole with Michael Waltrip, and it was with this year's car design: yesterday's Car of Tomorrow.
Toyota had a respectable showing at all the big tracks in 2007. It's easy to overlook Brian Vickers' 10th place finish at the California Speedway in the second race of last season. Toyota's most serious problems were on the one-mile and smaller tracks. Stewart and teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch should be running at the front in the fifth race at Bristol's half-mile.
We broke the Toyota-to-Gibbs story in early June. It was a story I stumbled across from one source and was able to confirm with another who knew everything. The second source, a friend for many years, was reluctant to talk but gave me enough to write it. Over the winter, a third source told me the deal had been completed before last season started and Gibbs' Mark Cronquist-led engine department had been working with Toyota since early spring -- even sending team members to Toyota Racing Development headquarters in Costa Mesa, Calif. With Gibbs' help, Toyota is much farther along than what could have been done in the last couple of months.
Does anybody think Gibbs would enter this season without everything it needs to win races? How long would the team be able to keep Stewart happy if they don't have the ability to win races?
With Gibbs' trio, Vickers at Red Bull and J.J. Yeley at Hall of Fame, Toyota is headed for a dramatic turnaround in its second Cup season. It's not if Toyota will win -- it's when and how many.
3. How will the open-wheel veterans do as Raybestos rookies?
Juan Pablo Montoya's Rookie of the Year season in 2007 had something to do with the opening the flood gates but not everything. Montoya's success -- 20th in the points and one victory -- was a major factor in convincing Chip Ganassi that top open-wheel drivers could make the switch and be solid immediately and hired Dario Franchitti. But it didn't have anything to do with Jacques Villeneuve, Sam Hornish Jr. and Patrick Carpentier making the move.
Villeneuve wanted to continue racing and he wasn't interested in IRL IndyCar or Champ Car -- been there, done that. Cup was the only place for him to go. Carpentier, a Canadian like Villeneuve, had a good career in Champ Cars and IndyCars -- but had run out of rides in both and wanted to keep racing. Cup was the answer and Evernham Gillett owner George Gillett hired him.
Once Hornish won the Indy 500 and his third IndyCar championship in 2006, he was looking for new worlds to conquer and Cup was it. He was able to do it staying with the same owner, Roger Penske. Hornish is only 28 and he has time to develop into a competitive Cup driver.
Don't expect any of the newcomers to approach the level of success Montoya had. Franchitti and Hornish have top-35 points to start the season and their talent and teams should keep them out of the go-or-go-home category. It will be a long, learning year for both.
Villeneuve and Carpentier will have to qualify on time and it will be difficult for them to ever get into the top 35 and get the seat time needed to learn to race in Cup. The Canadians are going to have a very hard time of it this season.
4. Can Jimmie Johnson equal Cale Yarborough's three straight titles?
History is against him, but Johnson has an excellent chance. He's 32, in the prime of his career, and runs with the No. 1 crew chief in the garage, Chad Knaus. They've developed into a tornado-like force, blowing past the competition. Johnson had 10 wins last season and 33 in six seasons. They won so many races last year because they were willing to take chances with setups and strategy. Expect them to use the same game plan this season.
5. Can Jeff Gordon succeed in the Drive for Five?
You bet. Gordon's performance last year would have won him the championship in almost any other season. He had six wins -- his most since 2001 -- and led the Cup series in top-five finishes with 21 and top-10 placings with 30. How can he make the jump past Johnson and hold off Stewart? Steve Letarte is the answer. He's been Gordon's crew chief for two full seasons, has nine victories and he's only 28 years old.
Letarte is still learning and that gives him an upside that could get the 36-year-old Gordon over the top to that fifth crown.