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Archive for Thursday, December 21, 2006

Grabbing the spotlight

Top five racing stories of 2006

December 21, 2006

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That's Racin's David Poole looks back on the five biggest stories of the 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup season.

No. 5: Whacked

Kevin Harvick did not win all 35 of this year's Busch Series races, it just seemed that way. He did finish in the top 10 in 32 of those races, however, and threatened the series record of 10 victories (set in 1983 by Sam Ard) with nine wins in completely dominating the race for the championship in NASCAR's second-tier series.

Harvick won the championship by an absurd 824 points, and finished 1,573 points ahead of Paul Menard, who was fifth overall but first among drivers who also were not running a full Nextel Cup schedule while double-dipping in the Busch Series as well.

Menard won at Milwaukee in June, making him one of just two Busch "regulars" to win a race this season. The other was easily the year's biggest NASCAR upset, a victory at Kentucky by David Gilliland that came out of nowhere and propelled Gilliland into a Nextel Cup ride with Robert Yates Racing within a little more than two months.

The "Buschwhackers," as Cup drivers racing in the series are called, are seen as good news by track owners hoping to use their marquee value to sell tickets to their Busch races. But if their dominance chokes out drivers, sponsors and teams who want to run at that level exclusively, can the Busch Series' traditional role as a proving ground for upcoming talent be sustained?

No. 4: Rookie surprise

Denny Hamlin showed promise when he ran seven races in the No. 11 FedEx-

sponsored Chevrolet last season, winning a pole and getting three top-10 finishes. Not even that, however, led anyone to expect what Hamlin would do en route to winning Nextel Cup rookie of the year in 2007.

Indeed, two-time Busch Series champion Martin Truex Jr. opened the year as favorite to be top rookie in a talent-laden class. But Hamlin came out firing, winning the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona right out of the gate.

Nine races into the season, Hamlin was 19th in the standings. But he finished second the next week at Richmond and never finished worse than 17th after that until he'd qualified for the Chase for the Nextel Cup, sweeping to dominant victories in the summer's pair of races at Pocono in the process.

Hamlin then finished in the top 10 in each of the final five Chase races to wind up third in the final standings.

No. 3: Fickle fortune

Fortunes in NASCAR go up and down every year, but seldom have there been so many dramatic swings in a single season.

In 2006, everyone was talking about the resurgence at Richard Childress Racing. Or about dire circumstances facing Robert Yates Racing.

Or about Roush Racing, one year after putting five teams in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, shuffling crew chiefs in an attempt to revive three struggling operations and putting an untested rookie named David Ragan in the seat vacated by the surprising departure of Mark Martin.

Or about Penske South and its struggles, ending with the breakup of Ryan Newman and Matt Borland, who had been considered one of the top

driver-crew chief tandems in the sport as the season began.

Childress and Yates, though, were the opposite ends of the spectrum. Childress' cars won six Cup races in 2006, five by Kevin Harvick and one by Jeff Burton, after having won just eight in the previous five seasons after the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. Both Harvick and Burton made the Chase, too, the first time RCR had made the 10-race playoff.

Yates, meanwhile, let Elliott Sadler go in August and replaced him in the No. 38 Fords with David Gilliland. Dale Jarrett had already announced his departure at season's end, to drive for Michael Waltrip's new Toyota team in 2007. Up until the very end of the season, there was serious danger that team might cease to exist after 2006, but Yates has managed to keep it going and heads into 2007 still as a two-car team.

No. 2: Breaking through

Jimmie Johnson won the Daytona 500 and the Allstate 400 at The Brickyard with his No. 48 Chevrolet from Hendrick Motorsports and, once again, was at or near the top of the Nextel Cup standings through the first 26 races.

The pattern, though, had been for Johnson's team to sputter at some point during the summer and then falter just enough in the Chase for the Nextel Cup to come maddeningly close but fail to win a championship.

When a problem took him out at New Hampshire as the Chase opened and he got wrecked by teammate Brian Vickers on the final lap at Talladega, Johnson was 165 points out of the lead and seemingly about to be denied once more.

But Johnson finished first once and second four times in the next five races and took command of what eventual |runner-up Matt Kenseth called a "sloppy" Chase to go into the finale at Homestead with a working margin. Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and their team fulfilled what had always seemed to be their championship destiny, making Rick Hendrick the first Cup car owner to win titles with three different drivers.

No. 1: Blip or slump?

For a decade or more, NASCAR has enjoyed remarkable growth. Moreover, it had also enjoyed being the apple of the national media's eye. Hardly a month went past without some major magazine, national newspaper or television network deciding the sport was a grand American business success story.

But there's a price that comes with that. NASCAR has been "hot" because things had all been going so well, but that perception has created the expectation that it should be ever thus. And then, in 2006, television ratings dipped, more race tracks found themselves with unsold tickets and International Speedway Corporation, NASCAR's sister company, walked away from plans to build a track on Staten Island, the kind of setback the France family hasn't often had to deal with in recent years.

Longtime NASCAR fans can't wait to say "We told you so." They feel abandoned by the sport they feel like they helped make into the flavor of the month for the past 10 years, believing NASCAR takes them for granted while going out trying to rope "new" fans into the sport's fold.

The 2007 season promises big changes for the sport. Toyota arrives in Nextel Cup, and so does the "car of tomorrow." ESPN and its corporate partner, ABC, return to the television fold. Changes, most likely minor ones, are anticipated in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, which after three years has certainly lost some of its bloom.

It's hard not to see 2007 as a critical year for stock-car racing. If all of those changes click and the sport's trends start heading upward again, then maybe 2006 will wind up being seen as just a "blip." But if the sputter becomes an outright stall, no other story could be bigger.

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