Archive for Thursday, February 1, 2007

The brand to beat

Chevrolets dominated 2006 Nextel Cup and may do it again this year

February 1, 2007


All manner of statistics can be used to show how thoroughly Chevrolet teams dominated the 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup Series.

Chevrolet won 23 of the 36 points races, the most races Chevrolet has ever won in one season in stock-car racing history. Chevrolets led at least 30 laps in all but one of last year's Cup races. Dodges failed to lead that many laps 21 times, and Fords fell short of that threshold 14 times.

Most telling, though, might be this: Only four times all year - never in the season's final 21 races - did the best Chevrolet fail to finish at least second in a points race.

What that means is that Chevrolet's teams were in the hunt week in and week out, and the fact that Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart each won five races helped sustain the manufacturer's conversion rate as it won a fourth straight manufacturer's championship.

On the eve of a new season, it's hard to see where the gap between Chevrolet and the rest of the field, even one including a new factor in Toyota, will change in 2007. Only one team, Robby Gordon's single-car effort, defected from Chevrolet to Ford after last season, and only one 2006 race-winning driver, Brian Vickers, left the "bowtie brigade" to jump to Toyota.

In the bargain, Chevrolet picked up Mark Martin from Ford for at least a partial schedule in 2007 and replaced Vickers with Casey Mears at Hendrick Motorsports. Aside from that change in the No. 25 Chevrolets and the addition of Paul Menard in a third team at Dale Earnhardt Inc., the core teams in Chevrolet's NASCAR efforts - Hendrick, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and DEI - return with intact driver rosters for another shot at ruling the roost.

There are challenges. In addition to the arrival of the "car of tomorrow" for 16 races, Chevrolet teams will also be phasing in a newly approved engine package along with the Impala models that will be used in those 16 events.

Still, in a year where unpredictability seems to be an overriding theme in the sport, the quality and continuity of Chevrolet's top teams makes it fully reasonable to expect another season in which Dodge, Ford and Toyota will do well to win as many races as a group as Chevrolet does on its own.

Johnson's 2006 championship was the culmination of a five-year drive for his No. 48 team at Hendrick Motorsports, which now tries to become the first team to win consecutive titles since Jeff Gordon in 1997-98.

"Last year, our guys really did a good job of staying focused on the job at hand," Johnson said of the challenge of repeating. "I think we do a good job after every practice session, qualifying session, every race, at not looking at too many outside influences. It's easy for us in some respects to stay focused. We just have that ability and that's what our team is about."

It has now been five years since Gordon won a championship in 2001, his fourth title in seven years, and although Gordon made the Chase in 2006, he didn't win at least three races for the first time in 11 seasons.

"There were points during the season when I thought, 'OK, we're really starting to get there,'" Gordon said. "I felt like there were moments that we were capable of winning the championship. But I didn't really see it on a consistent basis. ... We just needed to make some improvements and not set our goals too high, but get ourselves into position to be in the Chase and then be a championship contender this year and hopefully years to come."

Kyle Busch also made the Chase in 2006, and team owner Rick Hendrick said the team's goal for this year is to get Mears there as well.

Tony Stewart, to the surprise of almost everyone, failed to make last year's Chase but then turned around and won three of the 10 races in the sport's playoff. Even if the Chase field had not been expanded from 10 to 12 drivers for 2007, it would be an even bigger shock for the versatile Stewart to go two years without having a shot at the title.

Denny Hamlin, teammates with Stewart and J.J. Yeley in the Gibbs camp, was the breakout star of 2006 with a sweep of the points races at Pocono and a victory in the season-opening Budweiser Shootout. He wound up third in the final standings - one spot better that Stewart's precocious rookie-season finish - and marked himself and his No. 11 Chevrolets as a potential title contender for years to come.

The resurgence of Childress' three-car operation was another of the sport's big stories in 2006. RCR had failed to get a car into the Chase in each of its first two years, but Harvick and Jeff Burton both made it last year and Burton's win at Dover gave the team six victories in the season - one more than RCR had racked up in the previous four seasons combined. Rookie Clint Bowyer added 11 top-10 finishes, too.

Like Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had some ground to make up last year after a "lost" season in 2005 when he failed to make the Chase and went through a couple of crew chief changes before getting his cousin, Tony Eury Jr., back on the No. 8 team. He only won once in 2006, the same number of wins he'd had the year before, but instead of finishing 19th in the final standings, this time he was fifth.

DEI needs for Martin Truex Jr. to improve on a less-than-stellar rookie season and to get Menard's new team up and running at a competitive level, but more than anything it needs to get Earnhardt Jr. signed to a new contract - his current deal is up after 2007 - to put that potentially huge distraction to bed as early as possible this year.

Martin goes to Ginn Racing, where he'll share the ride in the No. 01 Chevys with Regan Smith. Joe Nemechek moves to the No. 13 cars, while Sterling Marlin returns to the No 14. Bobby Ginn, who bought majority interest in the team last year, also has an aggressive driver development program going and says he plans to be a four-car team in Nextel Cup by 2008.

Haas CNC Racing grows to a two-car team for 2007 with the addition of Johnny Sauter's No. 70 Chevrolets as a teammate for Jeff Green in the No. 66.

Terry Labonte drove seven of last year's races in the No. 96 Hall of Fame Racing Chevrolets, but this year Tony Raines gets a full schedule for a single-car team that seems to be doing just about everything it possibly can correctly and still finds competing in Cup an uphill battle.

Ward Burton and Kenny Wallace, meanwhile, will both try to make it back to full-time Cup competition for 2007. Burton is in the No. 4 Chevrolets for Morgan-McClure while Wallace will drive the No. 78 Chevrolets backed by Furniture Row.


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