While it's cliché to label a particular season as a "benchmark year" for a sport, 2008 most definitely was that for NASCAR.
This was a season of transition. The sport's biggest star (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) found a new home; its most decorated active driver (Jeff Gordon) looked mortal; its biggest icon (Richard Petty) sold out to the highest bidder; and its champion (Jimmie Johnson) entered the stratosphere of greatness.
Add on the fact that a lagging economy is threatening to change the sport forever and benchmark sounds about right.
Top 10 stories of 2008
10. Open-wheelers flame out: Going into the season, plenty of attention was paid to the former open-wheelers, including three Indy 500 winners, who were making the jump to NASCAR. By season's end, the open-wheel invasion was in full retreat as only one of those drivers (Sam Hornish Jr.) still was competing – and even he didn't qualify for the final race of the year.
9. Jeff Gordon goes winless: The last time Gordon failed to find victory lane during a season, Major League Baseball hadn't yet canceled the World Series, Michael Jordan had yet to retire even once and the Buffalo Bills were losing their third straight Super Bowl with still one more to go. The year was 1993 and Gordon was a 22-year-old rookie. But in 2008, the best the four-time champion could do was a pair of second-place finishes, snapping a string of 14 straight seasons with at least two victories.
8. NASCAR slapped with $225 million discrimination lawsuit: In June, former NASCAR official Mauricia Grant, filed a massive racial and sexual discrimination lawsuit against NASCAR, claiming, among other things, that co-workers referred to her as "Nappy Headed Mo" and told her she works on "colored people time." NASCAR chief Brian France flatly denies the allegations, saying Grant never filed a single complaint to the sanctioning body. The lawsuit was settled this month.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. snaps 76-race winless streak: Driving for his new team in Hendrick Motorsports, wins were expected early and often for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who went the entire 2007 season without taking a checkered flag. It took 15 races, but Junior finally got his in June at Michigan International Speedway. It would be his only win of the season.
6. Brickyard tire debacle: The Allstate 400 at the Brickyard is supposed to be one of NASCAR's premier events, but this year's installment was a total fiasco. With tires wearing out after only a few laps, fans who were there witnessed a race in name only as much of the event was spent with drivers steering their cars down pit road. It will go down as one of the worst races in NASCAR's 60-year history.
5. Tony Stewart starts his own team: Just like Derek Jeter would never leave the Yankees, it was thought that Stewart would be with Joe Gibbs Racing until the end of his career. But that changed in July when Stewart announced he would leave the JGR fold, where he won two championships, to start his own team, Stewart-Hass Racing. Stewart later signed 2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman to fill out the two-car team.
4. Petty Enterprises sold: Though Petty Enterprises hasn't been competitive in years, the organization stood as the beacon illuminating NASCAR's mom-and-pop roots. So when Richard Petty decided to sell controlling interest to a Boston-based investment firm, it wasn't a surprise – he had to do something to stay afloat – but it did mark the symbolic end of an era, not just for the organization, but for the sport as a whole. The days of family-owned businesses are officially over, replaced by generic franchises that are in the game just for the money.
3. Kyle Busch, rising star: There are those inside the NASCAR garage who believe Kyle Busch, at 23, has more talent than Jeff Gordon did at the same age. Still, Busch winning eight of the fist 22 races of the 2008 season came as a shock. Though he floundered in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, finishing 10th after beginning as the No. 1 seed, Busch officially proved he's a force to be reckoned with.
2. Jimmie Johnson three-peats: Barely a few minutes after becoming just the second driver in history to win three straight championships, Johnson and Co. were already talking No. 4. The three-peat may merely be a necessary step in Johnson's quest to stand as the only driver to win four in a row.
1. Economic turmoil: Perhaps no sport has been hurt more by the world's financial crisis than NASCAR. With sponsors scaling back, teams have been forced to cut payroll and in some cases merge just to stay afloat. The full impact won't be felt until the 2009 season begins, when there's a possibility that many races will be run without a full 43-car field.
- Jeff Gordon
- Jimmie Johnson