12. 12-Ryan Newman, Alltel Dodge (Penske Racing)
2006 prediction (3rd) 2006 results (18th)
One of the biggest mind bogglers of the 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup campaign was the lackluster season produced by Ryan Newman. From 2002 to 2005, Newman was a recurrent winner and consistent front-runner on the Nextel Cup circuit, and hands down the best qualifier. Newman and crew chief Matt Borland seemed to be a deadly duo, as they were always able to finish better than they ran. But towards the end of 2005, Newman and the 12 team began to show signs that they were struggling on the 1.5-mile speedways, and in 2006 it all just fell apart. Eventually, Mike Nelson replaced Borland on top of the pit box. This off-season was pivotal for Newman. The Penske Racing team tested frequently at a variety of tracks, and even turned some laps in the Car of Tomorrow during Daytona 500 testing. Apparently, this team has been diligently doing their homework, and should reap the benefits. Look for both Penske Racing teams to vastly improve in 2007.
11. 07-Clint Bowyer, Jack Daniel’s Chevrolet (Richard Childress Racing)
2006 prediction (24th) 2006 results (17th)
Every year, there is an unexpected driver that qualifies for The Chase for Championship. In 2004, it was Jeremy Mayfield, in 2005 it was Carl Edwards, and in 2006 it was Denny Hamlin. Well, in 2007, chances are that guy will be Clint Bowyer. Bowyer spent most of 2006 in the shadows of his two Richard Childress Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton, as well as fellow rookie Denny Hamlin. But as he flew under the radar, Bowyer began to inaudibly emerge as one of NASCAR’s newest stars. Strong runs at Indianapolis, California, Kansas, and Texas showed that this team is for real. I do not believe that Bowyer will win the Nextel Cup championship, or come close, however he will likely win his first race and could very well be one of the twelve teams that qualify for the 2007 Chase for the Championship.
10. 2-Kurt Busch, Miller Lite Dodge (Penske Racing)
2006 prediction (8th) 2006 results (16th)
After Kurt Busch won the Food City 500 at Bristol last April, it seemed as if he was fitting right in to his new ride at Penske Racing. But following his triumph, he would finish eight of the next nine races outside of the top ten. Other than a handful of races throughout the summer months, Busch was rarely in race-winning contention. Even though Busch’s struggles were not as severe as his teammate’s Ryan Newman, his introductory season as Rusty Wallace’s successor was nothing short of substandard. But the Penske Racing teams have worked long hours this off-season trying to remedy their on-track ailments, especially on the 1.5 mile tracks. And the communication between the two teams seems to be at an all time high. Roger Penske and his operation possess the resources to turn the Nextel Cup program around, and you should see progress on both sides of the Penske shop. Look for Busch and Newman to qualify for the Chase for the Championship.
9. 99-Carl Edwards, Office Depot Ford (Roush Racing)
2006 prediction (4th) 2006 results (12th)
After his remarkable 2005 season, which he won four races and finished third in the Nextel Cup standings, Edwards was expected to be one of the few drivers vying for the championship in November. Instead, he found himself battling his temper. When the typically amiable Edwards banged heads with Dale Earnhardt Jr and Tony Stewart, two of NASCAR’s most popular drivers, it was clear that the young driver was frustrated. Edwards missed the Chase for the Championship, and did not win a Nextel Cup race in 2006, and was considered to have suffered through the dreaded sophomore slump. But now the slate has been wiped clean, and Edwards will get another opportunity to prove that the 2005 season was no fluke. Furthermore, Edwards will once again be teamed up with Bob Osborne, the crew chief that led him to his four Nextel Cup victories in 2005. Edwards will return to victory lane, and the Chase for the Championship.
8. 24-Jeff Gordon, DuPont Chevrolet (Hendrick Motorsports)
2006 prediction (7th) 2006 results (6th)
Jeff Gordon’s win at Chicagoland, a 1.5-mile intermediate track, was corroboration that this team has come along way since their disappointing 2005 season. Nevertheless, Gordon was not in championship form. The four-time champion posted seven DNF’s in 2006, more than any other driver in the top 20 in the standings. And a string of three DNF’s in a row in the Chase for the Championship purged any hope of contending for the championship. Gordon is still considered one of NASCAR’s elite drivers, and most versatile, so when he is on his game, he is a threat at any given track. Once this team finds that uniformity that has been deficient over the past few years, they will be in the championship hunt. Gordon and the 24 team will win multiple races, and easily qualify for the Chase for the Championship.
7. 17-Matt Kenseth, DEWALT Tools Ford (Roush Racing)
2006 prediction (6th) 2006 results (2nd)
For the first three fourths of the 2006 season, Matt Kenseth was the best driver in NASCAR. Nobody had led more laps, more miles, and only Kasey Kahne had posted more wins. But after Kenseth dominated the fall race at Dover, only to run out of fuel, the team seemed to lose every bit of impetus that they had spent all season building. Kenseth and the 17 team were masters of the intermediate tracks, but they seemed perplexed at Kansas, Texas, and Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Whatever had been working for them all season, suddenly seemed ineffective. Still, Kenseth was able to finish the season second in the Nextel Cup championship standings. In 2007, Kenseth does not have the momentum that he had in 2006, however this is still one of NASCAR’s premier teams, so it is expected that they will continue to win races, and return to the Chase for the Championship for a fourth time.
6. 9-Kasey Kahne, Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge (Evernham Motorsports)
2006 prediction (15th) 2006 results (8th)
In 2006, Kasey Kahne finally emerged as one of NASCAR’s biggest stars. In 2005, Kahne was considered to be overhyped, and underachieving, but in 2006, his six wins and six poles proved that he was more than just a marketing dream. Kahne is exceptionally fast on the 1.5 mile and 2 mile speedways, but he must overcome his deficiencies the short tracks as well as the road courses. Kahne lacks the versatility that Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and Kevin Harvick possess. But once he figures the out the more difficult tracks on the NASCAR circuit, Kahne will be considered as a serious championship contender. In 2007, six wins is unlikely, but Kahne will display more consistency, and he will be back in the Chase for the Championship.
5. 8-Dale Earnhardt Jr, Budweiser Chevrolet (Dale Earnhardt, Inc.)
2006 prediction (10th) 2006 results (5th)
Much to the satisfaction of Earnhardt nation, Dale Earnhardt Jr returned to the winner’s circle, and Chase for the Championship. After an abysmal 2005 season, which he finished 19th in the Nextel Cup standings, Earnhardt Jr became one of the season’s most improved drivers. Earnhardt Jr and the 8 team clearly alleviated whatever was encumbering their intermediate program, and their short track program never really wavered. Still, he just seemed to be a step or two behind the top tier teams. Throughout the off-season, a lot of focus was centered on the possible dispute between Earnhardt Jr and his stepmother Teresa Earnhardt, also the owner of Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Also, Earnhardt Jr is still a free agent after 2007, and there is not a team in the universe that would not unreservedly welcome NASCAR’s most popular driver. Even though it is highly unlikely that DEI will let Earnhardt Jr walk, the unsigned contract could be a distraction for this team. Once Earnhardt Jr’s fate is determined, he will emerge as a championship contender, but as mentioned earlier, contract negotiations can create a distraction.
4. 48-Jimmie Johnson, Lowe’s Chevrolet (Hendrick Motorsports)
2006 prediction (5th) 2006 results (1st)
From 2002 to 2005, Jimmie Johnson finished in the top five in the Nextel Cup standings, but fell short of NASCAR’s ultimate prize. Finally, the Nextel Cup championship belongs to Jimmie Johnson. No driver put together the consistency that Johnson did for the entire 36 race season. But early in the Chase for the Championship, it appeared as if Johnson’s championship aspirations were going to have to be placed on hold another year. After the first three races in the Chase, Johnson found himself a distant 165 points behind championship leader Jeff Burton. But a string of five consecutive top two finishes, including a win at Martinsville, elevated Johnson and the 48 team to the top of the championship standings. It has been almost a decade since Jeff Gordon won back-to-back championships so the odds are stacked against Johnson, but this 48 team has proven time and time again, don’t ever count them out. Johnson will have a difficult time repeating as champion, but he will get his share of wins, and will be back in the Chase for the Championship.
3. 16-Greg Biffle, Ameriquest/3M Ford (Roush Racing)
2006 prediction (1st) 2006 results (13th)
After winning six races in 2005, Greg Biffle was a logical pick to win the 2006 Nextel Cup championship. But after a rocky start to the season, Biffle was never able to recover, and by the time September rolled around, he was out of the Chase for the Championship picture. As usual, Biffle ended the season on a high note as he captured his third consecutive victory at Homestead, the season finale. The 2007-year marks a season of new beginnings for Biffle. No more will he sport the red, white, and blue colors of the National Guard, as the sponsor has moved on. Biffle will be co-sponsored by Ameriquest and 3M. Moreover, he will be working with a new crew chief, as Pat Tryson moves over from the 6 team replacing Doug Richert. Even though Richert and Biffle enjoyed great success together, sometimes change is essential in order to move forward. The changes on the 16 team can go either way- Biffle will either fall further down the Nextel standings, or if he will return to championship contention. Obviously, I am going with the latter.
2. 20-Tony Stewart, Home Depot Chevrolet (Joe Gibbs Racing)
2006 prediction (2nd) 2006 results (11th)
It was widely expected that Tony Stewart would rack up five wins in 2006, but what few anticipated was the two-time champion missing the Chase for the Championship. After finishing a mediocre 18th in the Chevrolet Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond in September, Stewart fell three spots in the Nextel Cup standings- from 8th to 11th. Many fault Stewart’s obstinacy at New Hampshire in July, when he refused to allow the lapped car of Ryan Newman bypass him. Ultimately, Stewart was sent into the wall, and into the garage. But his absence in the championship chase may have been the motivation that this team needed. Stewart won three of the ten races in the Chase for the Championship, two of them in convincing fashion. So it is not surprising that Stewart is deemed as one of the favorites to win the 2007 Nextel Cup championship.
1. 29-Kevin Harvick, Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet (Richard Childress Racing)
2006 prediction (11th) 2006 results (4th)
It took a little longer than anticipated, but Kevin Harvick has finally materialized as the championship contender that everyone expected him to be when he was hastily thrown into the late Dale Earnhardt’s ride in 2001. After Harvick’s valiant rookie season, the two-time Busch Series champion hit hard times. And even though the poor finishes was not all his fault, Harvick quickly faded to also-ran status, and when the 2006 season began, rumors began to swirl that he was primed and ready to jump ship. But behind the scenes, Richard Childress began to take steps to innovate his Cup program. Harvick’s performance began to rapidly pick up, and by midseason, he was solidly in the top ten in the Nextel Cup standings. In 2006, Harvick won five races, and was solid at all types of venues. The only weakness I can see with the 29 team is that they are a bottom-half top ten team at the intermediate tracks. But they are in a class of their own when it comes to the short flat tracks. The 2007 season is the year that Harvick will emerge from the shadows of Dale Earnhardt, and become the Nextel Cup champion.