Yahoo! Sports is spending the offseason breaking down the Nextel Cup field as February's season-opening Daytona 500 approaches.
Next, we examine the drivers who finished between 35th and 37th in the 2004 Cup standings. We will continue throughout the offseason until we count down to '04 Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch.
37. Carl Edwards
Edwards left no doubt he was ready for Nextel Cup competition when team owner Jack Roush promoted him from the Craftsman Truck Series to replace Jeff Burton in the No. 99 Ford last August, compiling three top-10 finishes in his first four starts. Although he was forced to give up a chance at Rookie of the Year in 2005 (because he made too many Cup starts in 2004), Edwards was the driver who gave the most bang for the buck in Cup competition, finishing 37th in just 13 starts and earning nearly $1.4 million in the process. He also finished fourth in the CTS.
Roush has said Edwards will run a full Cup season in 2005, but sponsorship remains a question mark. The taste of Cup racing that Edwards had last season will only serve to put him that much further ahead in '05.
Best case scenario: Edwards is one of the most natural drivers on the Cup scene in quite some time. Some have even compared him to a young Jeff Gordon, which is a heady compliment. Given how well he did with a limited number of starts in 2004, it's not out of the realm of possibility that he will not only win at least one Cup event in 2005, but could finish in the top 20, maybe even the top 15 if things go ideally and his team – provided, of course, they manage to have enough sponsorship dollars to mount a full campaign.
Likely scenario: If Edwards can race the full season and avoid injury, his talent and potential are so strong that it's doubtful he'll finish any lower than 25th in the final standings.
Beware: With Roush Racing behind him and Doug Yates motors under the hood, Edwards' potential is unlimited. But the key will be in cold, hard cash. Without enough sponsorship funding, Edwards may be forced to race a partial Cup schedule. He'll likely log significant time in both the Busch and CTS circuits. If he doesn't race full-time in Cup, the key is to get him in as many undercard races as possible in the other two series just to keep him fresh.
36. Johnny Sauter
Sauter had long been considered a strong Cup contender, but when he finally got his chance to do it full-time for Richard Childress Racing in 2004, the expectations and end results were diametrically different. Perhaps he wasn't ready for a full-time Cup ride. Perhaps he needed more seasoning in the Busch Series. Perhaps the pressure of driving for a high-dollar sponsor like America Online became too much. Whatever the reason, Childress booted Sauter after 13 races (he picked up three additional starts at the end of the season for team owner James Finch with mediocre results).
It looks like Sauter will continue to race a part-time schedule for Finch in Nextel Cup competition, as well as having an expected full-time Busch Series ride for Finch. Sauter's dismal showing with RCR is indicative of a guy who has a great deal of talent but needs more seasoning. Racing for Finch could be just the thing Sauter needs to regain his confidence and gain some added experience before giving full-time Cup racing another try, perhaps in 2006 or 2007.
Best case scenario: Sauter's best chance for success will be in the Busch Series, where he finished 18th last season. With his talent and Finch's backing, he likely could finish in the top 15 in the Busch circuit in 2005.
Likely scenario: Given that he'll only be racing part-time in Cup, it's likely Sauter won't be much of a factor in either the overall standings or in any particular race. He could surprise, but the key for him is just to keep getting as much seat time as possible.
Beware: There's no question that Sauter has talent, but he still makes occasional and inopportune mistakes that cost him and his team. This could be a very pivotal year for him. If he continues to make mistakes, he might kiss his dreams of landing a full-time Cup ride anytime soon goodbye.
35. Jimmy Spencer
Spencer had struggles both on and off the track in 2004. He could never get past mediocre finishes, had several noteworthy tangles with fellow drivers on the track and wound up getting fired after being arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting a public officer in front of his suburban Charlotte home the evening following the Oct. 24 race in Martinsville. He also had three starts each in both the Busch and Craftsman Truck series, but just like his efforts in Cup, there was nothing much to write home about.
Spencer still has not been picked up by another Cup team – nor by a Busch or Trucks program – for a full-time ride in 2005. Some teams may not want to touch him after his brush with the law. Others may believe that Spencer no longer has the talent or motivation to be a viable and successful Cup driver. While Spencer is always quick with a joke and a smile, his record has continued to slide downward for the last several years. Spencer might get some one-off, fill-in rides in Cup this season, but for as much as it may pain many of his fans, we may have seen the end of his full-time Cup competition.
Best case scenario: With few opportunities, Spencer may be relegated to driving for a second- or third-tier team, or may have to be content with occasional fill-in stints in Cup, Busch or Trucks. There have been rumors about Spencer driving on an occasional basis for Kirk Shelmerdine, but those do not appear to have much substance behind them.
Likely scenario: It's very possible Spencer will have lots of free weekends this year. Given his age (he turns 48 in February), there's very little in his favor. Unless another driver gets injured or is fired early in the season, Spencer may be waiting by his phone for a long, long time.
Beware: By punching Kurt Busch in the nose at Michigan two years ago and being arrested for his confrontation with the police officer in October, not to mention some of the scrapes he's had on the racetrack with the likes of Robby Gordon, Kevin Harvick and others, Spencer may have made himself an untouchable. If so, he only has himself to blame.