Chevy sports best teams, best chance for title

2/12/2007 - NASCAR

CONCORD, N.C. -- Three of the last six Nextel Cup champions have driven Chevrolets, including the last two in Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart. The last four manufacturers' titles have been claimed by Chevrolet, including last season when Monte Carlos won 23 of 36 races.

"The way NASCAR has the rules, it's tough for a manufacturer to find an advantage. I feel we have amazing support from [Chevy], but it comes from the teams in a lot of ways. We take the support from Chevy and make the most of it."
-- Jimmie Johnson

The only time a Chevrolet didn't lead at least 30 laps in a race last season was the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Seven Chevrolets qualified for the Chase, capturing six of the top seven spots. Chevrolet driver Denny Hamlin was the rookie of the year, finishing third overall in points.

Only four times last season did a Chevrolet fail to finish at least second.

The Chevrolet teams of Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing easily are three of the top four in NASCAR's premier series.

It might be debatable that Chevrolet is the "Heartbeat of America" as its ad campaign says, but it certainly is the "Heartbeat of NASCAR."

There's no reason to expect a drop-off in 2007. Chevy teams will introduce a new engine package with a new block and head that owner Rick Hendrick said is as good as the "killer piece" Toyota has.

Chevy teams are so confident that you don't hear them whining about Toyota's entrance into the sport as owners from other manufacturers have.

"I like seeing other manufacturers come in," Hendrick said. "It makes the ones here step up, and it brings more advertising dollars. If you had only one or two manufacturers in here, all these other teams wouldn't have the opportunity to have factory support.

"Right now, I'm worried about Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth and those kind of guys. I'm not really worried about the people I don't think are going to run for the championship."

A Chevrolet driver definitely will contend. Johnson and Stewart are among the early preseason favorites. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, perennial most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., Busch Series champion Kevin Harvick and Hamlin also should be stronger than ever.

Chevrolet also picked up Mark Martin, who left Roush Racing's Ford organization team after 19 years to run a part-time schedule for Ginn Racing.

Bobby Labonte, who drove a Chevrolet for JGR before joining the Dodge team of Petty Enterprises last season, said Chevy's dominance has more to do with the teams than the car.

"Their teams are just well established," the 2000 Cup champion said. "You figure the teams that won, they won for years. The teams make the difference."

Johnson agreed.

"The way NASCAR has the rules, it's tough for a manufacturer to find an advantage," he said. "I feel we have amazing support from [Chevy], but it comes from the teams in a lot of ways. We take the support from Chevy and make the most of it."

Hendrick Motorsports
Johnson broke his wrist while surfing on top of a golf cart and Gordon announced he would become a father this summer.

Even the offseason was exciting for the reigning top organization in NASCAR.

Hendrick doesn't expect the excitement to end in 2007, saying there's no reason to believe all four of his teams can't make the Chase and challenge for a title.

Why not? Johnson no longer has the pressure of being the best driver without a title and Gordon has a year's worth of experience with crew chief Steve Letarte.

Kyle Busch made the Chase a year ago and matured as much as any driver on the circuit.

The only question is Casey Mears, who takes over the No. 25 car of Brian Vickers. And expectations in Mears' camp are higher than ever.

"You've got to have those high goals," Mears said. "That's what pushes you. That's what drives you. If you're constantly saying, 'Man, it would be great to get a top-5,' well, when you're sixth, you're like, 'Man, we haven't got a top-5.'

"But if you go and talk about how you want to win races, you want to be in the Chase, and you set those as your realistic goals, you strive harder to make that happen. Those are my goals for this year."

Outlook: The surprise here would be if all four drivers don't make the Chase. Don't be surprised if Johnson becomes the first driver to win consecutive titles since Gordon in 1997-98. Also don't be surprised to see Gordon win a fifth title. Busch should win at least two races, and if Mears doesn't make the Chase, he can't blame a lack of good equipment as he could at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Joe Gibbs Racing
Not making the Chase last season might have been the best thing to happen to Stewart.

It forced the two-time Cup champion ['02, '05] to re-evaluate a few things, from his weight -- which was becoming an issue in performance -- to overall focus.

Neither is a problem heading into 2007.

"Yes, I see that focus," Stewart said. "I've been at the shop working out with the guys, and you can see the dedication in their eyes and see it when they're working on the floor. We're not doing anything any differently than what we've always done, but you can see the passion in their eyes."

Hamlin also is slimmer and more focused. He says anything short of top-three in points will be a disappointment after an amazing rookie season in which he won two races, had 20 top-10s and finished third in points.

J.J. Yeley was disappointed with his rookie season in which he had only three top-10s and was 29th in points, but he thinks he knows the solution.

"My biggest problem is that I've been too passive," he said. "I've made sure that when I go on the racetrack, I don't want to be the guy that's taking someone out. I want to get the reputation of racing guys clean. That way, I get raced the same.

"There's a point where that works and there's a point where you are going to get taken advantage of and get shoved out of the road. Now that I have my rookie season out of the way, it's not going to happen."

Outlook: Stewart is the popular preseason pick to win the title after winning three of the final 10 races. There's no reason to think he won't win at least five races for a third straight year. Hamlin only needs to look at Stewart for inspiration on how to avoid the sophomore slump. Stewart followed his amazing rookie season with six wins in 2000. Yeley still has to prove himself and cracking the top 15 might be difficult.

Richard Childress Racing
RCR had five wins between 2002 and 2005. Kevin Harvick had five wins in 2006.

If they gave awards for comeback organization of the year, RCR would win it. After being shut out of the Chase the first two years, owner Richard Childress was represented by two drivers in Harvick and Jeff Burton.

Harvick finished fourth and Burton led four weeks during the 10-race playoff before settling for seventh. Burton also won his first race since 2001 and sat on the pole for the two biggest events, the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.

Rookie Clint Bowyer also showed promise with 11 top-10s and four top-5s, including sixth in his debut at the Daytona 500.

"Honestly, I believe we have three teams that can compete for the championship," Burton said.

Outlook: No team is better prepared for this season, particularly for the debut of the Car of Tomorrow. Harvick ran away with the Busch Series title a year ago and he has the potential to be just as dominant in the Cup Series.

Burton finished in the top five in points four straight years for Roush Racing from 1997-2000, so last year was no fluke. Bowyer, who had an outside shot of making the Chase a year ago until a run-in with Stewart at Pocono, might be a darkhorse for biggest surprise of 2007.

Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Earnhardt Jr. would like to get the focus off trying to extend his contract with DEI beyond 2007 and on performance.

Despite the soap opera surrounding negotiations, expectations are higher than ever at the organization founded by seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt.

Earnhardt Jr. is coming off a fifth-place finish in points despite winning only one race. Martin Truex Jr. began showing the promise that made him the 2004 and 2005 Busch Series champion late in the season, wrapping up his rookie year with a second at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The addition of a third team with rookie Paul Menard gives the organization much-needed depth and resources to draw on.

"We're really exciting coming into the season," Truex Jr. said. "We feel our team has really come together and gelled, and we've got that experience we were looking for last year. Our teamwork has really come a long way. I think we'll do some great things this year."

Outlook: If contract negotiations don't become a distraction, Earnhardt Jr. again will be a factor in the Chase. Don't be surprised to see Truex Jr. hang around the top 12 as well if he can avoid trouble -- he ended four races with crashes a year ago -- and find consistency on the intermediate tracks. Could be a long year for Menard.

Hall of Fame Racing
Two-time champion Terry Labonte helped this team get its feet wet a year ago by driving a handful of races to get it solid in the top 35 in points.

Now it's all on the shoulders of Tony Raines, who showed some promise toward the end of last season with a seventh-place finish at Charlotte and six finishes of 21st or better in the final seven races.

Outlook: The organization remains a year or so from Victory Lane, but a handful of top-10s isn't out of the question.

Ginn Racing
Why isn't one of these cars sponsored by Grecian Formula?

There are more gray hairs between Martin, 48, Sterling Marlin, 49, and Joe Nemechek, 43, than any team in the garage. Were it not for 22-year-old Regan Smith, who will split time in the No. 01 with Martin, the average age would be 46.

Don't let age fool you. Bobby Ginn, who joined Jay Frye as a financial partner late last season, is determined to put the organization on par with the Hendricks' and Gibbs'.

And he's not afraid to spend money to do it.

"Money to a company is like a nail to a carpenter," he said. "If you don't have it, you can't frame the house."

Outlook: A win is not out of the question for this organization. If Martin were to somehow get off to a fast start, don't be surprised if he asks to run a complete schedule if he has a legitimate shot at making the Chase. It'll be strange not seeing Nemechek in the No. 01 U.S. Army car, but Ginn is committed to keeping him in good equipment. This might be Marlin's swan song.

Morgan-McClure Racing
Ward Burton had several options when deciding to return to the sport he left in 2004, but he ultimately settled on an operation that is looking to make a comeback of its own.

Morgan-McClure Racing won 14 races, including three at Daytona, from 1990-98 with drivers Ernie Irvan, Sterling Marlin and Bobby Hamilton. Since 2000 the organization has only four top-10s and no top-5s.

Outlook: Ward's comeback story will not have as happy an ending as the one his brother Jeff had a year ago. But he should provide much-needed stability to a team that has gone through more driver changes since 2003 than any organization in the garage.

Haas Racing
In an attempt to keep up with other teams, Haas is expanding to a two-car operation with Johnny Sauter joining Jeff Green.

Green finished 28th in points a year ago, collecting two top-10s, both in the final 10 races. Sauter started 14th and finished 24th in his only Cup appearance last season, but he finished eighth in the Busch Series dominated by Cup drivers.

Outlook: They'll struggle to make the field a lot of weekends with the addition of seven new Toyota cars.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.