Auto Racing

Economic crisis, Johnson's attempt at record usher in '09 season

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - On the eve of the Budweiser Shootout, the kickoff of Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, the roar of stock cars finally fills the air at "The World Center of Racing," as a new season in the Sprint Cup Series begins with much anticipation.

Even though the off-season was quiet on the track, due to NASCAR's 2009 suspension of testing at sanctioned tracks, the break had its share of newsworthy items, resulting mostly from a weakening economy that continues to cripple the sport.

But NASCAR is hopeful this year's competition might steer attention away from the economy, especially if Jimmie Johnson is on pace to win his record- breaking fourth consecutive Sprint Cup championship.

ECONOMIC WOES

Since the season-ending race in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway, hundreds of NASCAR team employees have been laid off. Several teams have also scrambled for sponsorship dollars for this year.

Some organizations were forced to align just to keep afloat.

Petty Enterprises merged with Gillett Evernham Motorsports to form Richard Petty Motorsports, ensuring that NASCAR's winningest driver will continue to have his legendary presence in the sport. Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing have joined forces to field Chevrolets for a four-team operation now known as Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. Yates Racing and Hall of Fame Racing also formed a partnership.

Wood Brothers Racing lacks sponsorship and plans to run a dozen races only this season. Team owner Bill Davis sold his organization in December.

Meanwhile, NASCAR has taken steps to help significantly reduce costs for teams. This year, the sanctioning body has suspended testing for all three of its national touring series and a couple of regional touring series at tracks at which they compete. Sprint Cup teams can spend as much as $100,000 per day testing a car.

NASCAR's cost-cutting measures have allowed 15 new teams at least a chance to compete in this year's Daytona 500. Fifty-seven teams are entered for the season-opening race; however, the entry list for upcoming races, especially those in the western part of the United States, is likely to be much lower.

During these difficult economic times, NASCAR Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Brian France has remained upbeat about the upcoming season.

"In tough times like these, strong people tighten their belts, put a little extra zip in their step, and focus on the things they do best," France said. "In our sport, that's racing, and no one does it better than our drivers and teams."

One thing is for sure: France and the rest of the NASCAR community are ready for the season to get underway.

FOUR-PEAT?

Jimmie Johnson hopes to make NASCAR history this year by becoming the only driver to win four Sprint Cup championships in a row. In 2008, Johnson tied Cale Yarborough's 30-year record for most consecutive Cup titles with three.

"It's great to be part of history, but I'd certainly like to go out and make it," Johnson said on the possibility of capturing a fourth championship. "It's going to be tough. Amazing we've been able to do three."

With all members of his team returning, including crew chief Chad Knaus atop the pit box, Johnson will certainly be one of the favorites to win the title this year. But plenty of teams are looking to topple his reign in America's premier motorsports series.

THE COMPETITION

Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch are likely to be the most serious threats to Johnson's bid for a fourth-straight title.

Edwards ended the 2008 season by winning three of the last four races and finished 69 points behind Johnson in the championship standings. The media has voted him the top-ranked driver in this year's NASCARMedia.com preseason poll.

"It's an honor," Edwards said. "I don't know if it's any more pressure or not, but it's definitely an honor. It means a lot for members of the media to vote on things like this."

Carl Edwards scored a series-high nine victories during the 2008 Sprint Cup campaign.
Edwards scored a series-high nine victories during the 2008 Sprint Cup campaign.

Last year, Busch won eight races before entering the "Chase for the Sprint Cup" as the top seed. His title hopes, however, quickly went up in smoke after he experienced engine trouble in the first two races of the Chase. Busch is optimistic about the new season, and hopes his year will end with a Cup trophy in hand.

Look for Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing to once again dominate Sprint Cup competition this year. Edwards (Roush Fenway), Busch (Gibbs) and Johnson (Hendrick) combined for 24 wins in 36 races last year.

Richard Childress Racing could also be a factor with drivers Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick. Burton recorded two victories last year, but Harvick has not won a race since the 2007 Daytona 500.

Jeff Gordon should remain a perennial threat for the title, although the question of when he will finally snap his winless streak remains. Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, has not been to victory lane since October 2007 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Entering his second season with Hendrick, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. feels more confident about winning races and finishing higher in the point standings, possibly capturing his first championship.

"I feel a little more comfortable and a little less concerned," Earnhardt, Jr. said. "Going to a race season with a new team you have not had any laps with, man, you really wonder how it is going to work out. We kind of have an idea that we are a pretty good team. We make a few adjustments, do some things right, catch a few breaks and we are a great team. We are going to try and make that happen this year. I feel pretty comfortable though, no real worries."

Earnhardt, Jr. won the spring race at Michigan, ending a 76-race winless streak, but ended the 2008 season 12th in points.

NEW RIDES IN '09

Tony Stewart begins his first year in Cup competition as driver and co-owner of the new Stewart-Haas Racing. Stewart has placed several key personnel into his organization, including the hiring of crew chief Darian Grubb, since announcing his entrance into team ownership. The two-time Cup champion will be back in a Chevrolet after driving a Toyota for Gibbs last year, and will have engine support from Hendrick.

Stewart's role as both driver and owner will certainly have its challenges, but many think he will be a title contender this year.

"I don't know what to expect," Stewart said. "It's been a very humbling experience knowing that the guys we're racing with consider us ready to go and ready for us to be a contender with them."

Ryan Newman, the defending Daytona 500 champion, will join Stewart at his new team. Newman left Penske Racing after spending nine years with the organization. Newman will drive the No.39 Chevrolet, while Stewart will be behind the wheel of the No.14 car.

Mark Martin becomes the new team member at Hendrick, joining Johnson, Gordon and Earnhardt, Jr. Martin, now 50 years old, has taken over the wheel of the No.5 Chevrolet with high hopes of capturing his first series title.

After two years with Hendrick, Casey Mears moved over to Childress to become the team's fourth driver this year. Mears takes over Clint Bowyer's former ride in the No.07 Chevrolet, as Bowyer switches to the team's new No.33 entry.

Bobby Labonte, the 2000 Cup Series champion, left Petty and joined Yates/Hall of Fame to drive the No.96 Ford. Paul Menard will now handle driving duties of the No.98 Ford for Yates after two full-years of Cup competition with DEI.

David Stremme returns to the series this year to take over Newman's seat in the No.12 Dodge for Penske. Stremme drove for Rusty Wallace Racing in Nationwide Series competition last season. Meanwhile, Reed Sorenson replaces Labonte in the No.43 Dodge at Petty.

THE ROOKIE CLASS

Joey Logano and Scott Speed will battle for rookie-of-the-year honors in the series this year. Logano, 18, is expected to become the youngest driver ever to compete in the Daytona 500. The NASCAR phenom takes over driving duties of the No.20 Toyota, the seat formerly occupied by Stewart.

"I went down there last five or six years, and I've had to watch from the sidelines, and to be involved in it (this) year is really exciting," Logano said on competing at Daytona for the first time. "There's just so much history there and to be able to be on the same track that so many legends have won at is really an honor. It's Daytona and that's the Daytona 500. Even though I've never run in the race, I know how much of a big deal it is."

Speed, a former Formula 1 driver, will be behind the wheel of the No.82 Toyota for Red Bull Racing.

Last year, Logano scored his first Nationwide victory in only his third start, while Speed picked up his first Camping World Truck Series win in just his sixth attempt.

With the stage now set for the 2009 Sprint Cup season, it's time to buckle up and enjoy another great year of racing, despite troubling economic times.

The sport may change dramatically this year as far as team participation, track attendance and corporate sponsorship, but the competition should be better than ever.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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