25. 18-J.J. Yeley, Interstate Batteries Chevrolet (Joe Gibbs Racing)
2006 prediction (35th) 2006 results (29th)
J.J. Yeley’s opening season in NASCAR Nextel Cup was problematical to say the least. Yeley had some impressive performances, but he also totaled a lot of racecars. His seven DNF’s led all rookies in 2006. Additionally, it had to be demoralizing for Yeley to struggle on the racetrack while his rookie teammate Denny Hamlin scored two victories, three poles, and qualified for the Nextel Chase For The Championship. With a full season under his belt, Yeley is projected to improve on his less than stellar 2006 campaign. But don’t expect to see Yeley spinning celebratory doughnuts.
24. 44-Dale Jarrett, UPS Toyota (Michael Waltrip Racing)
2006 prediction (21st) 2006 results (23rd)
After 12 years of driving Fords for Robert Yates Racing, Dale Jarrett made the much-maligned decision to join Michael Waltrip Racing, and will drive Toyota Camry’s. Jarrett’s decision, though profoundly ostracized, will give the 1999 champion a fresh start after four ineffective seasons at Robert Yates Racing. Joining Jarrett at Michael Waltrip Racing is Matt Borland, an engineering guru that led Ryan Newman to 12 victories and 37 poles from 2001 to 2006. Furthermore, UPS will trail Jarrett to the Toyota camp. UPS has been Jarrett’s sponsor since 2001. Because of his experience, and champion’s provisional, Jarrett is the likeliest of Toyota drivers to give the manufacturer their first triumph in NASCAR Nextel Cup.
23. 88-Ricky Rudd, Snickers Ford (Robert Yates Racing)
By no means is Robert Yates Racing the force they were when Ricky Rudd first signed with the establishment in 2000. But they have made some amendments within the organization that should be beneficial. After Rudd boorishly left Robert Yates Racing in 2002, the performances of both Yates and Rudd began to decline. In fact, after three sub par seasons with the Wood Brothers, Rudd momentarily retired from NASCAR competition after the 2005 season. And in 2006, both of Yates’ drivers, Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler, decided to pursue employment elsewhere. Rookie driver David Gilliland replaced Sadler in the M&M’s Ford, but the second seat at Robert Yates Racing was still vacant for 2007. Despite rumors that Yates was planning to sell half of his team, he turned to his former championship contending driver. Rudd will pilot the 88 Ford, with the Snickers brand plastered on the hood. Rudd will not contend for the Nextel Cup championship, however, a victory is easily within reach.
22. 41-Reed Sorenson, Target Dodge (Chip Ganassi Racing)
2006 prediction (26th) 2006 results (24th)
Lost in the Juan Pablo Montoya hoopla is Reed Sorenson. The 21 year old Georgia native will embark on his second full season in NASCAR Nextel Cup. Sorenson’s rookie season was an up and down rollercoaster ride. There were times when it appeared as if he was on the verge of breaking out, and then there were other times when he looked like a novice. Nevertheless, Sorenson is expected to progress in 2007, and despite Montoya-mania, he will be Chip Ganassi Racing’s best shot at returning the organization to victory lane, and making the Chase for the Championship, though the latter is doubtful.
21. 26-Jamie McMurray, Crown Royal/Irwin Tools Ford (Roush Racing)
2006 prediction (13th) 2006 results (25th)
It was evident early in the season that Jamie McMurray’s much-publicized move to Roush Racing was going to backfire. Many analysts projected that McMurray would be a Chase contender, but he never seemed comfortable in his first season with Roush Racing. While the four other Roush Racing drivers contended for wins, McMurray found himself in the also-ran category. Even his qualifying efforts were pitiable. McMurray qualified 40th or worse eight times in 2006. Jack Roush hired crew chief Larry Carter to guide McMurray and the 26 team in 2007. Carter is an old-school crew chief, analogous to McMurray’s former crew chief Donnie Wingo at Chip Ganassi Racing. It is doubtful that McMurray can qualify for the Chase for the Championship, but it’s plausible to believe that he can improve upon his 25th spot in the Nextel Cup standings.
20. 43-Bobby Labonte, Cheerios Dodge (Petty Enterprises)
2006 prediction (25th) 2006 results (21st)
When Petty Enterprises signed Bobby Labonte in 2006, there was literally only one way for the organization to go, and that was up. Ever since John Andretti’s win at Martinsville in the spring of 1999, it has been trying times for the once ascendant organization. With Labonte behind the wheel, significant improvement was present, but every time Labonte seemed poised for a strong finish, he would suffer some kind of race ending misfortune. In fact, Labonte scored eight DNF’s in 2006, very atypical for a composed veteran driver. I wouldn’t anticipate similar results in 2007. Labonte could very well emerge as a darkhorse in the race to the Chase for the Championship.
19. 19-Elliott Sadler, Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge (Evernham Motorsports)
2006 prediction (16th) 2006 results (22nd)
Other than the 2004 season, Elliott Sadler’s tenure at Robert Yates Racing was less than spectacular. So it came as no surprise that as soon as the Jeremy Mayfield/Ray Evernham saga unfolded, Sadler would get the call to take over the 19 ride, the same ride that appeared in the Chase for the Championship in 2004 and 2005. Because Sadler was visibly discontent at Robert Yates Racing, Yates had no problem releasing the Emporia, Virginia native. But Sadler went from one mess to another. Sadler showed modest improvement after replacing Mayfield in the 19 Dodge. It is unlikely that Sadler will qualify for the Chase for the Championship, but he will show that there is still life left in the 19 team.
18. 1-Martin Truex Jr, Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet (Dale Earnhardt, Inc.)
2006 prediction (22nd) 2006 results (19th)
After a lethargic start to his rookie season, the 2004 and 2005 NASCAR Busch Series champion began to show some promise toward the latter half of the season. Martin Truex Jr was the trendy pick to win the Rookie of the Year title, however, he never posed a threat to Denny Hamlin. And after an off-season full of disarray for the Dale Earnhardt, Inc. organization, including the Dale Earnhardt Jr/Teresa Earnhardt squabble and Truex’s brush with the law, many question if Truex and the 1 team can carry any of the momentum that they had built into 2007. Nevertheless, Truex is one of the drivers that could possibly win their first career Nextel Cup race in 2007. But I would not anticipate a run at the Nextel Cup championship.
17. 10-Scott Riggs, Valvoline/Stanley Tools Dodge (Evernham Motorsports)
2006 prediction (29th) 2006 results (20th)
After Scott Riggs and the 10 team failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 last February, the third Evernham Motorsports team seemed to be fated for a long, wearisome season. But instead of letting their Daytona 500 absence set them back, Riggs and company used it as motivation to turn their season into a success. In fact, Riggs would finish 20th in the final Nextel Cup standings, ahead of 13 teams that qualified for all 36 races. Riggs also posted 8 top tens, and nearly won the Coca Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. In 2007, Riggs is expected to win his first race, and perhaps challenge for a spot in the Chase for the Championship.
16. 25-Casey Mears, National Guard/GMAC Chevrolet (Hendrick Motorsports)
2006 prediction (17th) 2006 results (14th)
After four seasons of unremitting development at Chip Ganassi Racing, Casey Mears joins fellow Californians Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports, arguably the most prevailing organization in NASCAR. But as his former teammate Jamie McMurray proved, just because you land a premier ride with a premier team doesn’t necessarily translate into wins. Mears will be a marginal upgrade from Brian Vickers, so a win and a top 15 spot in the Nextel Cup standings is obtainable.
15. 31-Jeff Burton, Cingular Wireless Chevrolet (Richard Childress Racing)
2006 prediction (20th) 2006 results (7th)
I may take some heat for this one, but Jeff Burton will have his work cut out for him in 2007. After becoming NASCAR’s most improved driver in 2006, Burton has reclaimed his place as one of NASCAR’s top drivers. Burton’s win at Dover last September, which was his first since November of 2001, was debatably the most popular win of the season. But in 2007, anyone in the top 15 or 16 will vie for a spot in the top 12. And I believe that Burton will fall just shy of making his second straight Chase for the Championship appearance. However, Burton could easily put together a multiple win season.
14. 11-Denny Hamlin, FedEx Express Chevrolet (Joe Gibbs Racing)
2006 prediction (19th) 2006 results (3rd)
Denny Hamlin’s 2006 rookie season may rival Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, and Jimmie Johnson as the most impressive freshmen campaign in NASCAR history. But unfortunately, many feel as if a sophomore slump is on the horizon. It is not uncommon for drivers to overachieve in their inaugural season, only to sink like a ship in the subsequent season, just ask Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, and Carl Edwards. Hamlin will be fast, and contend for wins, especially at Pocono, but he will also go through the inconsistencies that eluded him as a rookie.
13. 5-Kyle Busch, Kellogg’s Chevrolet (Hendrick Motorsports)
2006 prediction (12th) 2006 results (10th)
Ever since Kyle Busch was a rookie in NASCAR Nextel Cup, he has been hot and cold. That was the case in 2006. After he managed to remain in the top ten in the NASCAR Nextel Cup standings throughout the first 26 races, Busch fell off the radar in the final ten. In fact, he finished 448 points behind his teammate Jimmie Johnson in the championship standings, and 141 points behind 9th place Mark Martin. Busch has emerged as a star in Nextel Cup, but he still has the propensity to lose his cool and make youthful mistakes. Because of this, Busch will undergo another erratic season, and barely miss the Chase for the Championship.