In less then two weeks one the the most gruelling schedules in all of professional sports begins. That harsh schedule belongs to the renamed Nascar Sprint Cup, formerly known as the Nascar Nextel Cup. This most unforgiven schedule includes 36 official point races plus a 'Shootout' and two 'Gatorade Duels' at Daytona International Speedway and an 'All Star Challenge' at Lowes Motor Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina.
What was once called the 'Nascar Nextel Chase For the Cup' will now be called the "Nascar Sprint For the Cup". For the third time in four years the second most popular sport on American television has had a title ownership change. Nascars second tier series formerly known as the Nascar Busch Series has also had a title makeover with Nationwide taking over title sponsorship of Nascars unofficial 'minor leagues'. That series is now called the Nascar Nationwide Series. The Nascar Craftsman Truck Series retains it's title for another year.
With Sprint taking over from corporate sister Nextel, this is the unofficial year—as my good friend Rafiki from the Lion King would say: "Change is Good!"
There have been a number of changes within the Nascar Nation going into this 2008 race season. Change has included Dale Earnhardt Jr. 'divorcing' his step-mother Teresa Earnhardt @ Dale Earnhardt Incorporated Racing and jumping over to Rick Hendrick and his top flight team of powerhouse racers; 2008 will see the 'Car of Tomorrow' aka the 'COT' making it's official full-time ride in the Nascar Sprint Cup; we have also witnessed a full fledged migration to Nascar from 'A -List' open wheel racers, including past Indy 500 Champions—such as 1997 Formula One Champion—Jacques Villenueve, Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. as well as Canadian veteran Patrick Carpentier. The addition of these open-wheelers, plus second year racers Juan Montoya and AJ Allmendinger, will certainly bring some exciting 'change' on the big ovals and the road courses in 2008. Something that has not changed is the fact that Jimmie Johnson of Hendrick Motorsport Racing is the present 'two-time' series champion and this week Las Vegas has listed him as the official 4 to 1 favourite to win his third championship in a row which would set a modern day Nascar record!
Here is why change will be good in 2008 for Dale Earnhardt Jr. The biggest reason is the fact that he has left DEI Racing and does not have to be a part of his step-mother Teresa's organization. During last season's acrimonious relationship between Teresa and Dale Jr. their feuding got so bad that at one point Jr. wanted to purchase 51 percent majority ownership from his astute business savvy step-mother and of course she 'red-flagged' that idea. Jr's contract was expiring at seasons end and he pretty well went two thirds of the season without even speaking to his teams owner and CEO—Teresa. Earnhardt Jr's. performance on the track certainly showed during his frustrating 2007 season. He has not won a race in almost two seasons, and last year he finished in 16th place overall with zero wins, one pole, seven top five finishes and 12 top 10 finishes. He finished out of the 'chase' or should I say 'sprint'. (In 2006 - Jr. finished 5th overall in the 'Chase'). Yes, Dale Jr. needed change!
In 2007 the soon-to-be free agent met with family friend and car owner Rick Hendrick who would eventually sign the former number 8 Budweiser Chevrolet fan favourite Dale Jr. to a five-year contract. Earnhardt Jr. will drive with a stable of all - star drivers at Hendrick. I predict that Dale Jr. will finish in the Top Five of the driver standings. He is with a far superior team and will have an excellent rivalry with former champion and arch rival Jeff Gordon and the number 24 team and of course he will drive with and against present day series champ Jimmie Johnson and his Chad Knaus led number 48 Lowes Chevrolet Team.
This season Dale Jr. will be driving the 'Car of Tomorrow' full-time and last season Hendrick Motorsport had more success with this new state-of-the-art-car then any other team in the series. In 2007 Dale Jr. had a horrendous race completion average. The DEI engines, before they went to a Richard Childress Racing leasing engine agreement, were very unreliable and often led Jr. to frustrating moments caught on national television. This year should certainly be different, Dale Jr. will be given world-class equipment of which has led his crew chief - Tony Eury Jr. - to predict that the new number 88 National Guard/AMP Chevrolet will win "at least four races" and Nascar veteran TV commentator and former series champion Darrel Waltrip has predicted that the new 88 Team will win the upcoming 2008 Daytona 500 and "at least six races". Pretty heady stuff for a new team!
Presently we are witnessing a Presidential Nomination race in the United States and one red hot candidate named Barack Obama is using the word 'CHANGE' in his election quest, I think that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Nascar as a whole will be using this moniker to their advantage as the season kicks off next Thursday February ninth with the Bud Shootout at Daytona International Speedway.
Rafiki, my friend, let's hope that 'change is good!'