It’s that time of year again. Anybody and everybody is revealing their 2007 NASCAR Nextel Cup pre-season rankings, and now it is my turn. As I do every year, I start from the back and work my way to the front, kind of like Matt Kenseth!
21-Ken Schrader/Jon Wood- Little Debbie’s/Motorcraft Ford (Wood Brothers)
2006 prediction (27th) 2006 results (31st) – Accurate
The ageless Ken Schrader will spit time with his NASCAR rookie Jon Wood. Wood is the grandson of Glen Wood, the founder of Wood Brothers Racing, and will be phased in as the full-time driver starting this year. After two mediocre seasons in the Busch Series, Wood is expected to struggle in his part-time rookie role. However, he will have one of the most experienced and savvy veterans as a tutor. There are not many drivers in the garage that have amassed more racing miles than Schrader. With Schrader behind the wheel of the famous #21 Ford, this team can run top 25, maybe top 20 at best, but expect Wood to linger towards the back of the pack.
01-Mark Martin/Regan Smith- U.S. Army Chevrolet (Ginn Racing)
2006 prediction (9th) 2006 results (9th) – Accurate
Like Ken Schrader, Mark Martin is finding it hard to hang up his helmet. The 2005 season was supposed to be his final ‘Salute To You’ campaign, but his retirement was put on hold and Martin returned to Roush Racing in 2006. And after a season full of indecisiveness and rumors, Martin opted for the part-time role at Ginn Racing (formerly MB2 Motorsports). But his new job doesn’t end with just driving, Martin will mentor NASCAR rookie Regan Smith. Smith spent the 2006 season driving for Team Rensi in the Busch Series. Smith showed flashes of potential, and proved to be a strong qualifier, but he seemed to be no match for the Buschwhackers that invaded the series. This 01 team has been fast at the intermediate tracks, especially in 2004 and 2005, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all for Smith to run near the top 15. When it is Martin’s turn to drive the car, this could be a top ten team.
Top 45 full-time drivers
45. 49-Mike Bliss, WhatsOnline.com Dodge (BAM Racing)/78-Kenny Wallace, Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet (Furniture Row Racing)
Mike Bliss and Kenny Wallace will attempt to qualify for all 36 NASCAR Nextel Cup races in 2007 with independent teams. BAM Racing has enjoyed moderate success in the past with Ken Schrader behind the wheel, but the field is much deeper than it was two and three years ago. Both Bliss and Wallace will struggle to qualify for the majority of the races. They make squeeze into about 10 or 12 races, but they will be field fillers at best. At least Wallace has his TV career to fall back on.
44. 84-A.J. Allmendinger, Red Bull Toyota (Red Bull Racing)
If you are a fan of open-wheel, then the name A.J. Allmendinger is familiar, but to most NASCAR fans, he is just a rookie with a peculiar name. Allmendinger opted to endeavor the onerous transition from open-wheel to stock car, and will be financially backed by Red Bull Racing, but he has limited experience. Additionally, he will drive for a new team, a new manufacturer, and even worse, he does not have the reassurance of starting the season in the all-important top 35 in Nextel Cup owner’s standings, which means one slip-up in qualifying, and he is going home.
43. 4-Ward Burton, State Water Heaters Chevrolet (Morgan-McClure Motorsports)
Ward Burton will return to full-time competition in 2007 driving for the single-car operation of Morgan-McClure Motorsports. Burton, a popular veteran, was non-existent in NASCAR competition for nearly two years, and as time passed, the more these quality rides were handed to the younger up and coming drivers. It is highly unlikely that the 2002 Daytona 500 champion will return to victory lane, but there isn’t a soul out there that wouldn’t like to see Burton help turn this organization around. But in all probability, Burton will fail to qualify for a handful of races. Nevertheless, he may score some decent finishes at the restrictor plate tracks (Daytona and Talladega).
42. 00-David Reutimann, Domino’s Pizza/Burger King Toyota (Michael Waltrip Racing)
David Reutimann enters his rookie season in Nextel Cup competition after three solid seasons in the Craftsman Truck Series driving for Darrell Waltrip. The Waltrip brothers may not share much in common, but they both believe in Reutimann’s talent and potential as Michael Waltrip signed Reutimann as the driver of the #00 Toyota. Reutimman will find that adjusting to Nextel Cup racing is much more laborious than any other form of auto racing. He will undergo a superfluity of growing pains in his rookie campaign. Reutimman will be one of the guys that may miss a handful of races throughout the year.
41. 70-Johnny Sauter, Yellow Transportation Chevrolet (Haas/CNC Racing)
After his first fruitless tenure in NASCAR Nextel Cup with Richard Childress Racing, Sauter found himself back in the Busch Series. After two solid seasons driving for James Finch and Gene Haas, Sauter has once again been elevated to NASCAR’s maximum level of competition. Despite rumors that he was hired to take over the 88 ride at Robert Yates Racing, Sauter will carry the Yellow Transportation colors, the same company that he represented in the Busch Series for the past two seasons, and he will be teamed up with Jeff Green at Haas/CNC Racing. Sauter is among the handful of drivers that will begin the season outside of the top 35 in Nextel Cup owners standings, so the odds of him missing a race or two early in the season are rather high.
40. 13-Joe Nemechek, Ginn Racing Chevrolet (Ginn Racing)
2006 prediction (23rd) 2006 results (27th) – Accurate
The one downside of Mark Martin’s advent to Ginn Racing is that Joe Nemechek lost his ride with the flagship team. In 2004 and 2005, Nemechek was surprisingly fast on the intermediate tracks, but he struggled throughout the entire 2006 season. When MB2 Motorsports ownership changed hands, and Bobby Ginn became the majority owner, changes within the organization were inevitable. Nemechek will remain with the organization, but he has been reassigned to Ginn Racing’s newly formed team, which means that Nemechek will have to qualify on speed for the first five races. Of all teams without the luxury of starting the season in the top 35, Nemechek is probably the best qualifier, so there is a good chance that this team will not have to go home early on race weekends. Expect this team to have a sponsorship package announced before the Daytona 500.
39. 96- Tony Raines, DLP/Texas Instruments Chevrolet (Hall Of Fame Racing)
2006 prediction (39th) 2006 results (35th) – Accurate
For a new, single car operation, Hall of Fame Racing exceeded expectations in 2006. Both Tony Raines and Terry Labonte posted respectable finishes in the 96 car. At Infineon, Labonte nearly stole the victory from Jeff Gordon before fading to a third place finish, and Raines scored a seventh place finish at Lowe’s Motor Speedway later in the season. Additionally, the 96 team was able to maintain a top 35 spot in the owners standings, so they were able to relax on Fridays. But as with most new operations, the team underwent some growing pains. As a single car team, it will be difficult for Raines to contend for a spot in the top ten, but he is backed by solid sponsorship, and is powered by Joe Gibbs Racing engines. It is logical to believe that Raines can score two or three top tens in 2007, but nothing more.
38. 45- Kyle Petty, Wells Fargo/Marathon Oil Dodge (Petty Enterprises)
2006 prediction (33rd) 2006 results (32nd)
There may not be a nicer guy in the NASCAR garage, but his on-track woes have been a mainstay for Kyle Petty for over a decade. The third generation driver has not won a Cup race since 1995 at Dover. Many will attribute Petty’s lack of on-track success to a full plate as he is involved in a number of other ventures outside of the cockpit- CEO of Petty Enterprises, Victory Motorcycles, Victory Junction Gang Camp, Kyle Petty Charity Ride- just to name a few. And recently Petty expressed interest in a broadcasting career. So it is evident that he has other ambitions other than driving. There is nothing wrong with multi-tasking, but it could very well hinder Petty’s on-track success, especially if he relinquishes the driver’s seat for a bulk of races so he can sit in the broadcasters booth.
37. 55- Michael Waltrip, NAPA Auto Parts Toyota (Michael Waltrip Racing)
2006 prediction (32nd) 2006 results (37th) – Accurate
Michael Waltrip is to be commended for assembling a three-team organization in Nextel Cup. Very few first-year operations have the capacity to do that, but that just goes to show you that sponsors adore Michael Waltrip. Throughout his career, Waltrip has had no trouble endorsing various products, but he has had trouble finding victory lane. And that will likely be the case again in 2007. Waltrip’s primary focus is to build a powerhouse organization with Toyota Camry’s, and eventually Michael Waltrip Racing may very well emerge into a team to be reckoned with, but not in 2007.
36. 66- Jeff Green, Best Buy/Haas Automation Chevrolet (Haas/CNC Racing)
2006 prediction (34th) 2006 results (28th) – Somewhat accurate
Jeff Green will have something that he did not have in 2006- a teammate. Haas/CNC Racing has added Johnny Sauter to their Nextel Cup roster, so Green and the 66 team will be able to disclose ideas with another team. This could help boost Green’s on-track performance, however, the addition to several newcomers, as well as the invasion of Toyota teams will give the Nextel Cup field even more depth. It is going to be challenging for teams that typically run in the 30’s to show any substantial improvement.