Looking back: Preseason predictions

Way back in February, before the Daytona 500, each of our NASCAR experts made predictions for the 2008 Sprint Cup season. How did we do?

Well, some were spot on, while others couldn’t have been more wrong.

Here’s a look back at our preseason predictions, followed by a post-season comment (in italics) on each:

Sprint Cup winner:

Photo Not only did Jeff Gordon fail to make a challenge for the title in 2008, he didn’t win a single race.

Jerry Bonkowski: Jeff Gordon will finally win that elusive fifth Cup championship in 2008. As great as Jimmie Johnson has been the last two years en route to back-to-back championships, he won’t win three in a row. Gordon has lost two championships to the Chase format. It won’t happen a third time.

Okay, so I blew it – and so did Jeff, for that matter. Given his six wins in 2007, and a close runner-up finish to Jimmie Johnson, I thought Gordon was a cinch to come all the way back in 2008. Frankly, I don’t know what surprised me more: that he was a virtual non-entity as a championship contender or the fact he went through a whole season without even one win, the first time that happened to him since his first full-time season in the Cup series in 1993.

Ricky Craven: Jimmie Johnson has earned the right to be preseason favorite to win the 2008 Sprint Cup title. Johnson’s performance in last year’s Chase (winning four consecutive races) put him among the sport’s best drivers, along with Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. I maintained all of last year that the 2007 title was Jimmie Johnson’s to lose until another driver stepped up to take it from him. I carry the same opinion into 2008.

Johnson seems like an easy pick in hindsight, but it was not so obvious during the early portion of the 2008 schedule when the team struggled to find consistency. I stuck with my pick all year long, in large part because this driver-crew chief combination has shown great resilience. Their amazing four consecutive wins in the 2007 Chase highlighted their above-average abilities. In the end, they rallied to perform at their best when it counted most and won that third consecutive title. Expect the same in 2009.

Jay Hart: Jimmie Johnson defies conventional wisdom when it comes to repeating. Unlike most teams/players who feel the pressure of going back-to-back, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are impervious to it. They are so consistent it’s impossible not to pick them. Johnson will win a third-straight title, joining Cale Yarborough as the only drivers to go back-to-back-to-back.

To be the champ you have to beat the champ. That’s the way I looked at it then and that’s how I look at it now, especially when it comes to the Chase format. Johnson and company have proven time and again that they know how to manage the two NASCAR seasons better than anyone, which is why they will be working toward title No. 4 in 2009.

Bob Margolis: Jeff Gordon almost made it No. 5 last season. Despite having distractions in his personal life during the season, Gordon never once took his focus off the target. Unfortunately, in the Chase, his team ran into an unmovable force in Jimmie Johnson’s team and they had to accept the runner-up spot. Gordon will return the favor in 2008.

So heading into the new season and predicting that the 2008 champion would be the guy who finished second in the championship the year before, hasn’t gone winless since his rookie season and appears on just about everybody’s list of best drivers of all-time is pretty much a no-brainer, right?

Looking back, Gordon didn’t have a terrible season, but there are two year-end stats that tell the story – a zero in the wins column and six DNF’s, the most of any driver in the Chase. Gordon struggled all season trying to get comfortable with the new car, especially on the 1.5-mile tracks. Perhaps a critical moment came early in the season when Gordon had a hard wreck at Las Vegas, in the first race with the CoT on a 1.5-mile track. Gordon called it “one of the nastiest wrecks I’ve ever had.” Despite coming back the following week and capturing the pole at Atlanta, its after effects may have set the tone for his entire season.

Rookie of the Year:

Photo Rookie Sam Hornish Jr. barely finished in the top 35 in points and didn’t even qualify for the final Cup race of the season.

Bonkowski: Dario Franchitti has struggled adapting to a new racing format, but last year’s Indy Racing League and Indianapolis 500 champion is used to success. Once he gets the hang of things, Franchitti will eventually put fellow rookies Jacques Villeneuve, Patrick Carpentier, Sam Hornish Jr. and true Cup newcomer Regan Smith to shame. Don’t rule out Franchitti winning a race, either, possibly coming on either a superspeedway or 1.5-mile track.

Okay, 0-for-2 in my predictions thus far. But what would have happened if Franchitti’s team hadn’t been shut down in June due to lack of sponsorship? He actually had started showing signs of improvement before team owner Chip Ganassi shuttered the No. 40 team. Unfortunately, Chip ran out of both cash and patience, and Dario soon found himself headed back to the IRL. I still think Franchitti can make it in NASCAR, but given the failure of this experiment, will another owner give him a second chance sometime in the future?

Craven: Sam Hornish Jr. gets the nod over Dario Franchitti. Hornish has greater depth in terms of NASCAR experienced teammates, which includes past champion Kurt Busch. Also, Hornish’s 11 stock car starts in 2007 provide him an edge in seat time, which will prove invaluable as he transitions to the new series and heavier race cars. Both drivers have guaranteed start status for the season’s first five races, based on both of their cars being in the top 35 in last year’s owner’s points. This will help separate them from the other candidates early in the season because Hornish and Franchitti won’t have the distraction of having to qualify on time. This means they can focus solely on logging laps and capturing critical track time. Hornish Jr.’s edge in experience, albeit small, should reward him early and carry him to the rookie title.

I expected that Penske equipment and personnel supporting Hornish would be too powerful a combination for other candidates to overcome. I also thought that by the time they hit the midway point in the schedule, visiting tracks for the second time, we would see great progress and performance from Hornish. It didn’t happen. Instead, it was Regan Smith who did a far better job finishing races. He utilized his experience in trucks and the Nationwide Series to string together a solid rookie performance. Regan Smith earned and deserves the title.

Hart: Sam Hornish Jr. struggled to qualify for a Cup race last season, but that’s behind him. With the security of making the first five races, Hornish will have time to get comfortable at the Cup level. By Race No. 6, he’ll be solidly in the top 35 and can concentrate on working his way to the front.

Did anyone get this one right? Seriously, all rookies were a disappointment in 2008, but none more than the open wheelers, which included Hornish. I didn’t expect him to win races, but I did expect him to finish better than 35th. In my view, there shouldn’t be a 2008 Rookie of the Year. No one earned it.

Margolis: Sam Hornish Jr.’s credentials in racing before coming into NASCAR are unquestionable. Forget about those first races at the Cup level. Hornish is a dedicated and driven racer who won’t settle for anything less than perfection. It may take the first few races of the 2008 season, but when Hornish does “get” racing at the Cup level, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with.

I’m still not convinced that Hornish’s mediocre rookie season wasn’t more a Penske Racing mentality issue than it is with his ability to drive a race car – any race car. By that, I mean that if we saw more of the “win at any cost” mentality that is apparent in the Penske Indy car and ALMS programs, his NASCAR programs would likely follow a similar path to success. If teammates Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman had been winning races and made the Chase this past season, then Hornish’s struggle just to stay in the top 35 nearly every weekend would have rested solely on his shoulders. That was clearly not the case. Hornish was also handicapped by having not yet learned what his race car needed to make it go faster, a key element to what separates the winners from the losers at the Sprint Cup level.

Give this guy one more year to get it figured out.

Biggest surprise:

Photo Ryan Newman kicked the season off by winning the Daytona 500, but it was all downhill from there as he missed the Chase for the third straight season.

Bonkowski: After struggling for much of the last two seasons, Ryan Newman will build upon his strong performance in the latter part of the season to come back to prominence and be on a level par success-wise with the top drivers in the sport. If another driver is to win the Chase for the Sprint Cup, he’ll have to get by Newman first – and the driver of the No. 12 Dodge is not going to make it easy.

Well, I got this one partly right – at least for the first race of the season, when Newman won the Daytona 500. Unfortunately, things went south shortly after, eventually leading to Newman leaving the team at season’s end and joining up with Tony Stewart at Stewart Haas Racing for 2009.

Craven: I anticipate Ryan Newman, teaming with crew chief Roy McCauley, to produce several wins and vault the team into this year’s Chase. The two personalities complement one another. If they win early in the year, the confidence, momentum and performance will build quickly and the victories may pile up. I have high expectations for this team. It should be fun to watch.

This pick sure paid off early with Newman winning the Daytona 500. Things did deteriorate for Newman and the 12 Team as the season went along, but it sparks the old debate – how big is a Daytona 500 win?

It was clearly not the season I expected from Newman as he failed to make the Chase, but he did win the Daytona 500.

Hart: Martin Truex Jr. wasn’t a factor in last year’s Chase for the Nextel Cup, but mostly because of circumstances beyond his control. Now, as the leader at DEI, Truex Jr. will become a real challenger – not just to make the 12-driver playoff, but for a championship.

Uh, did I really think that? I still believe Truex is a perennial top-10 driver, just not with DEI. He’ll be the hot free agent next season, with a host of teams bidding for his services in 2010.

Margolis: The resurgence of NASCAR. Much to the dismay of the naysayers, following a period in which the series’ television ratings and attendance figures were on the decline, NASCAR’s numbers will rebound in 2008 with television ratings for nearly every race on the schedule the best they’ve been in years. Much of the credit will go to the success of Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose intramural battle with his Hendrick teammates will make headlines.

I think I was right on the money with this prediction, despite the drop-off in attendance that was exaggerated at the start of the summer as a result of the enormous increase in gasoline prices and then continued through the fall due to the downward spiral of the whole economy. Television ratings for a clear majority of races were up from the previous year, except during the Chase, when the excitement of Jimmie Johnson scoring a three-peat didn’t quite capture the imagination of NASCAR fans (which is a real shame).

Sprint Cup racing unfortunately is still the “Dale Jr. and Friends Racing League” to a vast majority of fans, and as Junior goes, so goes the sport. The drop-off in viewers during the Chase can also be attributed to Junior’s lackluster Chase performance.

There’s little wrong with the racing show that’s produced every weekend other than the cost of producing it and of seeing it in person. Hopefully the powers that be, in an attempt at lowering those costs, don’t dramatically alter the show. It’ll be a delicate balancing act.

Biggest disappointment:

Bonkowski: Denny Hamlin will continue to falter almost aimlessly. He was a non-factor in last year’s Chase and will likely struggle to make this year’s postseason. Hamlin seems to have lost the edge he had as a rookie in 2006 and will continue searching for it in 2008, but without much success.

Hey, I got one right. Even though he had some decent finishes in four of the final five races, it was too little, too late for Hamlin, who wound up finishing eighth in the Chase. If there’s anyone that needs a big rebound in 2009, it’s Hamlin.

Craven: That the old format for the Twin 125 /150 races was not preserved. It allowed the top 14 (potentially 15) to qualify for the biggest race of the year by racing their way into the Daytona 500. “The Twins” provided great drama for the drivers, the team members, but most importantly the fans. The remaining 13 spots available gave a chance to teams that needed to race their way into the race. The new system, in the simplest terms, locks in last years’ top 35 in points and leaves the remaining drivers to battle one another for only a final few spots. I understand the value of this system during the season, but I prefer the old system when it comes to qualifying for the biggest race of the year.

Okay, I’ve gotten over it. I was disappointed to see the format changed because qualifying for the Daytona 500 has always been a very significant accomplishment. Guaranteeing 35 drivers a spot in the greatest race on the planet seemed too much like a free pass compared to what we had experienced in previous Daytona 500 qualifiers. In one year’s time, however, the focus may have shifted from growth in our sport to temporarily preserving what we have. Protecting those top 35 teams makes more sense today than it did perhaps 10 months ago.

Hart: Ford. Matt Kenseth will post his usual solid performance, and Carl Edwards will win a race or two, but overall Ford will be chasing the Chevys, Toyotas and, before mid-season, the Dodges.

Again, did I think that? The Dodges? I wouldn’t say I was totally wrong, though. Ford only placed three drivers in the Chase, it took until Race No. 26 for someone other than Edwards to win a race in a Ford and who would have predicted Edwards would have won nine races?

Margolis: Toyota as a single-team success. Despite having other teams that will be carrying the Toyota banner in the Sprint Cup series, only Joe Gibbs Racing will be able to deliver consistently for the Japanese manufacturer.

I saw this one coming as soon as Toyota signed JGR. Long overshadowed as a Chevy team by Hendrick and Childress, once the Gibbs guys were able to show how good they really were, you just knew it was going to be fun to watch. Even Chevy officials admitted off the record that JGR’s departure left a large gap in engine and chassis development for the entire GM program.

No one can argue that Kyle Busch isn’t an extremely talented driver – when he’s focused. But, he couldn’t have done it without a good race car.

In the Nationwide series, the JGR cars were so good that even after “magnet-gate” and the smaller spacer that was placed on the Toyota engines, the JGR guys continued to spank the competition.