First off, let me give myself a pat on the back for ALMOST getting the Super Bowl score correct for the second time in three years (and yes, I know my spread and total number of points mirrored the Vegas line, but I did not realize that until after I made the pick).
Secondly, Happy Groundhog's Day, an all important day where we figure out how much longer winter is going to last (and a groundhog's shadow is probably STILL more accurate than any meteorologist). Hopefully your life is not the same day over and over again.
And thirdly, on to the business at hand as we look at the drivers who will be running partial schedules during the 2009 Sprint Cup season. The rest of the preview will break down like this: the Mom N Pop teams tomorrow, 10 bold predictions on Wednesday, and Nationwide/Truck previews early next week.
I was going to do a What Really Grinds My Gears entry on the fact that NASCAR continues to allow teams to swap points (thus we have winning combinations such as John Andretti and Front Row Motorsports locked in to the Daytona 500, but not A.J. Allmendinger and the fourth RPM car), but I already complain about the sanctioning body too much.
We also deserve an explanation from NASCAR on how Hendrick is allowed to run a fifth car for Keselowski when Brad is going to be easily using up his rookie eligibility by running for James Finch, unless Hendrick outsmarted them and put the ownership of the 25 car in Finch's name.
A.J. ALLMENDINGER (at least the first five races and the Coke Zero 400)
Hometown: Los Gatos, CA
#44 Valvoline Dodge
Crew Chief: Sammy Johns
Owner: George Gillett/Ray Evernham/Richard Petty
As well as Anthony James Allmendinger ran down the stretch in the 10 (now 44) car, sponsorship difficulties currently have him pegged for a part-time schedule with Richard Petty Motorsports. After the rumors started flying during the holidays that Allmendinger was taking Elliott Sadler's spot in the 19 car, seeing him only slated for nine points races is a disappointment for those of us who were deeply impressed with the strides he made during his sophomore season in stock cars, and can't wait to see what is in store for 2009.
But all is not lost for Allmendinger. He is definitely running the first eight races, and with two off weekends thrown in, that gives the people at RPM until late April to pull sponsorship together to run more events.The economy may be in the toilet, but if Allmendinger runs as well as he did down the stretch for this team in '08, that may not be too tough of a sell. At the least, it would be difficult taking him out of the seat, and could force ownership to fire Sadler or Reed Sorenson in order to make room for AJ to run a full season.
MAX PAPIS (rookie) (18 races)
Hometown: Como, Lombardy, Italy
No. 13 Geico Toyota
Crew Chief: Randy Goss
Owner: Bob Germain
I was just doing some research on Papis' oval experience in stock cars. I knew it wasn't much, but Mad Max has one Nationwide start at Texas to his credit, and two Truck starts. Obviously, when this team takes to the track for the first time at Las Vegas at the end of the month, they will have a tough hill to climb.
This is Germain's first foray into the top level of NASCAR racing, and Papis is extremely green. Not to mention, running only half the races creates a disadvantage against the full-time teams who are at the track staying ahead of the curve each weekend.
But as luck would have it, Geico was forced to move to Cup by Nationwide at a great time (even if it meant giving the ride to Papis, who was sponsored by Geico at the Indy 500 a year ago, instead of Mike Wallace, which I thought was kind of a raw deal). While the 13 team will have to qualify on time each week, the perilous financial climate in the garage means they won't have to beat out too many well-funded operations to make the field. That will allow Papis to gain the all important seat time and potentially improve as the season progresses.
BILL ELLIOTT (12 races)
Hometown: Dawsonville, GA
No. 21 Motorcraft Ford
Crew Chief: David Hyder
Owner: Glen Wood/Len Wood/Eddie Wood
You know, it's actually kind of sad to see these legendary drivers of the '80s and '90s struggling both on the track and in the desire to hang up the helmet. In all honesty, Rusty Wallace has been the only one to get it right, going out while still at the top of his game. Don't get me wrong, Bill Elliott is a gentleman, class act, and was once a fine racer, but the time has come for him to move on in life. He said last year would be it, but here we are entering 2009, and Awesome Bill has agreed to drive for the Wood Brothers once again.
The Woods, who have gone from a respectable team at the beginning of this decade to struggling to hang on at the end, have decided to return to running a partial schedule, something they did pre-1980s. The plan is to run Daytona, and mainly 1.5 milers after that. This may not be such a bad thing, because Elliott brought home a solid 12th place finish at Homestead in November. While the sun appears to be setting on a great career for Bill Elliott, hopefully the same is not being said of the Wood Brothers in the near future. One of NASCAR's lasting legacies still has a spot in this sport in my opinion.
REGAN SMITH (12-plus races)
Hometown: Cato, NY
No. 78 Furniture Row Chevy
Crew Chief: Jay Guy
Owner: Barney Visser
Smith won Rookie of the Year honors in 2008 by nothing short of default, as everyone else either was too busy wrecking or packing their bags as fast as possible to get back to open wheel. While the Cato, NY native did not have any top tens, he stayed out of trouble and posted several solid outings, improving as the season moved forward. For a rookie, that is all you can ask. But by not being spectacular, Regan was an easy choice for Teresa Earnhardt to let go when she had to merge DEI with CGRWFS.
2009 sees Regan Smith pairing up with the Furniture Row team, which has run the past three full seasons out of Denver. Not Denver, North Carolina. Denver, Colorado. This is a team with limited resources, and their job is made more difficult by being located two time zones away from NASCARolina. Stepping back in light of the poor economy will turn out to be a bright move for this team, as they can better focus on performing well in the dozen or so races they plan to enter. Pairing up with Smith may be a smart move as well, seeing how he is yearning to prove that he is deserving of a full-time ride.
TRAVIS KVAPIL (at least the first five races)
Hometown: Janesville, WI
No. 28 Ford
Crew Chief: Ben Leslie
Owner: Doug Yates
I'm just going to put it out there that I am not pleased with the way Kvapil has been treated by Doug Yates this offseason. I know money talks in today's world, but Yates has frankly treated him like dirt. We were under the impression for a couple months that Kvapil was going to run no matter what in 2009, as sponsorships were still a tough sell for the 28 team. Then Ask.com hooks up with Hall of Fame Racing, they place a call to Yates, and before you know it, Bobby Labonte has taken your ride, points, and crew chief (in addition to another sponsor, Academy Sports, that was apparently going to back Kvapil in a few races this year).
The plans currently call for Yates to run Kvapil in at least the first five races, and move on from there based on sponsorship. But with two seemingly full sponsored cars, Yates should make an effort to put Kvapil out there full-time in 2009, even if they only acquire sponsorship for a few events. He owes it to Travis. Kvapil, who had several strong outings a year ago and nearly finished in the top 20 in points, revitalized Yates Racing, and is the reason people like Paul Menard came calling.
BRAD KESELOWSKI (rookie) (10 races in the 09, seven in the 25)
Hometown: Rochester Hills, MI
No. 25 GoDaddy.com/No. 09 Miccosukee Resorts Chevy
Crew Chief: Lance McGrew (No. 25)/Marc Reno (No. 09)
Owner: Rick Hendrick (No. 25)/James Finch (No. 09)
I've said it before and say it again, Brad Keselowski is proof that the system is not broken. A young, extremely talented young man stuck with a middling, poorly funded team, who may not be the prettiest or most media savvy person in the world can still get a break. This year, 2009, will see Keselowski's first serious foray into Cup competition, and considering the fact he will be running up to 17 races, Rookie of the Year is a strong possibility.
Obviously, Brad will have great equipment in the seven races he races in the famed Hendrick No. 25. And Lance McGrew has been around with the team for a while, so he can show the future of Hendrick Motorsports the ropes of Cup competition. As for the races with James Finch, it will be intriguing to see how Keselowski responds to equipment that may not be the greatest, although Finch's 09 has been known to hold its own from time to time with the best in the business. There was a rumor that Hendrick would provide engines for the Keselowski/Finch collaboration, but that has not been substantiated. We'll get to see how Brad performs out of the gate right away as he will be behind the wheel of the Finch machine during Speedweeks.