Five story lines dominate as 2007 season looms
It's time to get started for another season, and it should be a great one.
Already there is controversy on and off the track. Here are the five things I am focusing on as NASCAR 2007 gets set to begin.
1. Toyota is here
I expect the three Toyota teams to really struggle the first half of the year, but the second half of the year I expect them to improve. They will be much better in the second half.
You have to understand this is all brand new for the company. New cars, new drivers, new crew chiefs. Everything is new. Toyota has never competed with this type of car, having run only in the Craftsman Truck Series. The teams are new and even some of the shops they are working out of are new. The Toyota teams are learning on the fly.
That said, Toyota is simply an amazing company. I think it will get the right people in place and start to turn it around in the second half.
Who will lead that turnaround? I would think Dale Jarrett and Michael Waltrip of Michael Waltrip Racing will be the first to start running up front. Both have a tremendous amount of talent and experience. Waltrip has some controversy right off the bat, with his crew chief -- David Hyder -- suspended indefinitely and team director of competition Bobby Kennedy escorted out of the Daytona garage by NASCAR. I still expect Waltrip to bounce back by midseason.
But Jarrett and Waltrip have struggled in recent seasons to get their car set up right, so a lot depends on whether they're given a good car.
I also wouldn't be surprised to see Dave Blaney of Bill Davis Racing do well this season. The Davis team has a lot of experience with Toyota, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see Blaney break out of the box as the lead Toyota guy.
So much work and so much effort goes into winning a championship, but good breaks play a big role as well. That's why it is so tough to repeat. Will Johnson catch the same breaks he did last year? Can he avoid that big wreck and stay on the track? Those are big questions and they are largely left up to chance.
It also takes so much out of you to be a champion, that repeating is that much harder.
As for Stewart, he really got his nose rubbed into the ground last season, missing the Chase. I expect him to come back with a vengeance. He won three of the last 10 races last year. He came to Daytona and dominated the Budweiser Shootout. He's the man to beat.
3. The rules changes are great, but we need more
The expansion of the Chase to 12 drivers was a good idea because there are so many good teams and deserving drivers out there. It's also great for the sponsors.
Now everybody needs to understand they are only going to give awards to the top 10 drivers at the Nextel Cup banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria at the end of the season.
Giving more points to a winner is a great idea, too.
One thing I wish they would change: I would like to see NASCAR quit awarding five points to a driver who simply leads a lap. A lot of guys are just staying on the track to get that cheap bonus.
Another thing: I would like to see NASCAR reward the driver who was leading in the points after 26 races. Right now you could lead the points after the race at Richmond and then start the Chase the next week in 12th.
4. Juan Pablo Montoya will be competitive
How good is Juan Pablo Montoya? He is simply great.
And this is the perfect year for him to enter Nextel Cup with the Car of Tomorrow coming in. The Car of Tomorrow will level the playing field for him a great deal. Nobody has any time in these cars, so Montoya won't be racing against drivers with years and years of experience in that type of car. It's a brand-new animal and it should help put him right in the mix.
Let's face it, he's one of the best drivers in the world.
5. Rules infractions might slow to a crawl ... finally
You know, cheating's really too harsh a word. Let's call them rules infractions. Whatever you want to call them, NASCAR has apparently had enough.
Suspending the crew chiefs for Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Scott Riggs and Elliott Sadler -- not to mention taking away points -- sent shock waves through NASCAR. The penalties were very, very stiff for very, very minor things -- things I don't believe added any real performance advantage to any of the cars.
So why did they do it? I think the teams thought some of the changes were so minor that they wouldn't get caught. I think many teams do it. They'll think twice about it now, though.
NASCAR has essentially said it isn't going for any cheating, minor or major.
The Evernham teams of Kahne, Riggs and Sadler did things so small, it's almost unreal. Kenseth's Roush Racing team did something so small it couldn't have made a difference. None of these alterations was going to help them win the race.
Still, if it's not legal, you have no excuses.
Former Cup champion Rusty Wallace is the lead NASCAR Nextel Cup and Busch Series analyst. You can check out all things Rusty at his constantly updated and upgraded Web site at rustywallace.com.