Picking the final dozen
Franklin County Times
In 2006, Kasey Kahne won a series-best 6 races and finished eighth in the final standings. In my annual pre-season predictions of the Chase eligible drivers along with the champion, I picked Kahne to finish second in the final standings last season. Well, when Kahne finished 19th in the final standings and shut out of Victory Lane, my prediction skills shone brightly.
However, my predicting ability, or lack thereof, will not prevent me from announcing my picks for the 12 Chase spots and the Sprint Cup champion for the 2008 season. So, here it goes. The 12 drivers that will make the Chase, in no particular order, will be:
1. Jimmie Johnson: Johnson has a worst finish of fifth since the Chase began in 2004 and is only one of two drivers to compete in all four chases. The No. 48 team will attempt to win three straight championships in 2008. That will be a first since Cale Yarborough won three cups in a row in 1976-1978. Johnson will no doubt be a threat, but he will not top Cale.
2. Martin Truex, Jr: 2007 was a year of firsts for Truex with a first win and a first appearance in the Chase. 2008 will also be a big year for Truex as he becomes the face of Dale Earnhardt, Inc. All the attention, resources, and money of Teresa Earnhardt will be put behind Truex as Teresa tries to prove the company can be formable without a driver named Earnhardt driving.
3. Kasey Kahne: Evernham Motorsports is now Gillette Evernham Motorsports and Budweiser is now on board as primary sponsor for Kahne. After a bitterly disappointing 2007 season for all GEM drivers, Kahne has something to prove, as does Ray Evernham. With nothing to worry about except performance, Evernham gets this team back on top.
4. Elliott Sadler: After finishing 25th last season, this a bold prediction for Sadler. However, the same reasons Kahne will make the chase applies to Sadler.
5. Jeff Gordon: Gordon seemed to be a much different driver from the last several seasons. From bumping fenders with Jimmie Johnson early in the season, Gordon seemed to be a much more aggressive driver. This is a no-brainer as Gordon continues to move up the career win ladder.
6. Kevin Harvick: The defending Daytona 500 winner will again have a solid season. It will be tough for Richard Childress to repeat a super 2007 season when all three of his drivers made the chase and finished in the Top 10, but Harvick will be solid again.
7. Kurt Busch: Busch will either have to make the first five races on speed or use his champion's provisional after swapping owner's points with new teammate Sam Hornish. That shouldn't be cause for much concern at Penske Racing. Kurt becomes the first Busch to make the chase.
8. Kyle Busch: Kyle becomes the second Busch in the Chase. After getting the boot from Hendrick, "The Shrub" landed on his feet with Joe Gibbs Racing and the No. 18 ride. M&Ms is the new sponsor and Toyota is the new manufacturer. Many people say Kyle has as much, if not more, pure talent than anyone in the series. He will make the Toyota execs smile in 2008.
9. Tony Stewart: I heard someone say last week, "Tony Stewart is just Tony Stewart." Enough said.
10. Carl Edwards: The Cat in the Hat, Jack Roush, got his apple cart tipped a bit last season with sub-par showings in the Car of Tomorrow. With every race in the COT in 2008, the Roush guys will be prepared. I know Ford sure hopes they get it right.
11. Matt Kenseth: Matt is the other driver, joining Jimmie Johnson, to compete in every Chase since 2004. There is not a more consistent driver on the track and when you don't make mistakes, you have success. Kenseth will be there in 2008.
12. Dale Earnhardt, Jr: I don't think it will be as easy as people think for Junior in 2008. I hope the early expectations and demands don't get the best of Junior as he moves to Hendrick Motorsports. Like I said last week, going winless in the first few races of the year will raise the whispers of "is it the driver or is it the equipment?"
And the 2008 Sprint Cup champion will be Tony Stewart. After the dismal performance last season by Toyota, no expense and no resource will be spared to ensure 2008 is successful. The engineering and motor-building expertise that Gibbs brings to the table combined with Toyota's reputation and willingness to do what it takes to win will help Stewart to the championship. Oh, Tony is a pretty danged good driver, too, and that doesn't hurt.
Jeff Findley is a guest columnist for the Franklin County Times. Findley is the publisher of the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald.