Commentary

Hamilton simply the best in '08

You can argue if you want to, and that may even be the point of a year-end top-10 list, but the best racer in the world in 2008 was Lewis Hamilton. Jimmie Johnson, you ask? Not even top three, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: January 20, 2009, 12:14 AM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

The best of the best.

Not an easy thing to determine when talking about race car drivers, but I will boldly make an attempt to examine the facts and come up with the 10 best drivers in 2008 across all series.

You, of course, are welcome to disagree, as I'm sure many of you will. Whenever we start ranking drivers, disagreement and debate is guaranteed.

But here goes. My top 10 of 2008:

No. 1: Lewis Hamilton
The talented Brit made history and won his first Formula One title at age 23, becoming the first black driver to win an F1 championship.

Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton almost won the championship in his rookie season of 2007, losing to Kimi Raikkonen by one point. Hamilton got to experience that feeling from the other side in 2008, earning the title by one point over Felipe Massa.

Hamilton didn't earn as many victories as Massa (six to four) and Hamilton had only one win in the last eight events. But that's misleading.

His spectacular charge to victory in the rain at Belgium was taken away. Stewards ruled Hamilton cut a chicane late in the race, a controversial decision that came hours after the event.

It also caused a six-point swing in the points standings with five races to go. Instead of being eight points ahead, Hamilton's lead over Massa dropped to two.

Hamilton kept his focus and built a seven-point advantage heading to the final event after his victory in China. Massa gave it all he had in the season finale, winning his home race in Brazil. But Hamilton, knowing he needed one more spot, made a last-lap pass to finish fifth and clinch the title.

It was another example of Hamilton using his rare driving skill to do what he had to do when the pressure was on. At two other events in 2008 -- Monaco and the British Grand Prix in Silverstone -- Hamilton wowed fans with his amazing push to the front of the pack under difficult conditions.

Hamilton hit a barrier early in the race at Monaco and punctured a tire. Pit strategy and remarkable speed on the street course enabled him to win the race.

But it was a wet track at Silverstone where Hamilton proved how good he really is. Hamilton got the lead when his McLaren Mercedes team switched to intermediate wet tires after 21 laps.

When the weather worsened and he pitted again, the team elected to stick with intermediate tires rather than switch to the tires used for extreme wet conditions. It didn't matter. While drivers were spinning out all around him, Hamilton raced over the soaked course as if he were piloting a power boat.

Whatever doubts anyone had about his driving skills ended that day. It's clear his time as a racing champion has just begun.

No. 2: Tony Schumacher

Tony Schumacher

Yes, he only drives four seconds at a time and doesn't have to negotiate a single turn. If you think it's so easy, strap into one of these 8,000-horsepower rockets on wheels and see whether you can hold it steady without soiling yourself.

Schumacher had a season like no other in NHRA history to win his fifth consecutive Top Fuel title. He set a Top Fuel record with 15 victories, including 10 of the last 12 events.

And he continued to win after the NHRA shortened the races from a quarter-mile (1,320 feet) to 1,000 feet.

No. 3: Carl Edwards

Carl Edwards

He led the Sprint Cup series in victories (nine), top-5s (19) and top-10s (27). More importantly, it's the way he did it.

Edwards fell short of the championship, but he won three of the last four races, including the final event at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

He won at the start of the year, he won at midseason, and he won at the end. Edwards went all out on every lap, but the symbolic moment of his season came at Kansas Speedway when he gambled to try to win.

Edwards made a gutsy slide move on the last turn, sharply turning inside of Jimmie Johnson to attempt a pass for the lead.

Edwards slid up the track and brushed the wall, allowing Johnson to move back by him for the win. But Edwards gained a lot of respect that day for his determination and desire to win.

No. 4: Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson

The master of the Chase format made history by becoming the first man in 30 years to win three consecutive Cup titles, joining Cale Yarborough in the exclusive club.

An unprecedented fourth straight championship is a realistic goal, but some people believe Johnson (only 33) now has a shot at catching Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for seven career titles.

No. 5: Kyle Busch

Kyle Busch

Had he ended the season the way he started it, we'd be talking about Busch as the No. 1 guy on this list. He won eight of the first 22 Cup events but was winless in the final 14 races.

Nevertheless, it was a remarkable year for Busch in his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing. He won 21 races overall in NASCAR's top three series, including a season-best 10 Nationwide events.

No. 6: Felipe Massa

Felipe Massa

Things might have turned out differently for the little Brazilian if not for a terrible start to the season -- he failed to finish the first two races. That put Massa 14 points behind Lewis Hamilton.

It was one point too many. Massa won the final race for Ferrari, but it wasn't enough. Three consecutive finishes outside the top five in the final five events were the difference. But he earned a series-best and career-high six victories.

No. 7: Scott Dixon

Scott Dixon

The quiet Kiwi had the best season of his career, winning six races en route to his second IndyCar Series championship.

But this one meant a little more than the first one in 2003 because the 2008 crown came after the two American open-wheel leagues finally merged into one series, ending more than a decade apart.

Dixon's strength is his consistency and his ability to avoid mistakes in his Honda. He had 12 podium finishes in 17 events. He never finished lower than 12th and had only three races in which he finished outside the top 10.

No. 8: Robert Kubica

Robert Kubica

If you're not an F1 fan, you've probably never heard of Kubica. You will soon. The Polish racer, competing in only his second full season in F1, tied for third in the points standings.

For a guy not driving a McLaren Mercedes or Ferrari, that's doing something. He won the Canadian Grand Prix one year after suffering a horrendous crash on the Montreal road course.

Kubica (pronounced Koo-bit-sa) had seven podium finishes for BMW Sauber, including second-place showings at Malaysia, Monaco and Japan. The future is bright for the 24-year-old, fast-paced Pole.

No. 9: Cruz Pedregon

Cruz Pedregon

At age 45, Pedregon was 16 years removed from his one and only Funny Car championship. He hadn't finished higher than ninth in the standings in 10 years.

But somehow when the 2008 playoff began, "The Cruzer" found the magic of his youth and shocked the other contenders down the stretch. He won the final three events of the season and went to the finals in four of the six Countdown races after starting fourth when the playoff began.

No. 10: Donny Schatz

Donny Schatz

He won his third consecutive World of Outlaws sprint car title in 2008, earning 18 victories, including the prestigious Knoxville Nationals. Schatz made the move to Tony Stewart's WOO team in 2008 but won his first two titles for his family-owned team.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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