Many NASCAR writers are already talking about 2009, and who can blame them? After all, without a miraculous comeback by Edwards (involving a lot of bad luck for Jimmie Johnson), this season is already over.
Should Kyle Busch be labeled the "preseason" favorite, if such things can even exist before you get to the postseason?
Well, of course, the answer is Yes!
1) He's still the same driver who dominated the regular season. As is par for the course for Kyle, his Chase performance has been dismal, but lots of it has to do with his attitude and the ethereal concept of "momentum".
Once he lost it and got down on himself and his teammates, his finishes suffered. We've seen it before ... not quite to this extent, but close. I expect a bare minimum of 5 wins next year, with the potential for 10.
2) Toyota supports their teams like no other manufacturer can and, considering the economic crisis hitting "The Big Three" (soon to be "The Big Two"?), the gap in support may very well widen next year. Expect JGR to continue to be the primary beneficiary.
3) Stewart is gone, which means even better resources likely to be available to Kyle. I expect him to emerge as the clear No. 1 at JGR, perhaps even ruffling the feathers of Denny Hamlin a bit, though I don't doubt Hamlin will also improve.
But wait ... really? No Way!
1) Why should we believe Kyle will ever stop melting down in the Chase? Who cares HOW well he does in the regular season until he proves he can handle the pressure of the Chase, mechanical failures or no.
2) Jimmie Johnson should be the favorite: he's won three in a row and was a hair's breadth from stealing Kurt Busch's championship in '04. How do you rank someone ahead of him until there's proof otherwise?
3) Hendrick and Roush clearly stepped up their game in the middle of the year. Shouldn't we expect them to be just as competitive as ever, regardless of economic conditions?
4) Besides, NASCAR is fixed. They've already decided next year's champion. In these tough times, the only way to bring the fans back is to crown Jr. (Please note sarcasm ... I don't want too many angry letters/comments!).
So what's the final decision?
If you ask me, if Kyle keeps his head about him and matures (he does have the capability), I expect him to learn from his mistakes in his previous Chases and finally seal the deal next year.
He's far from my favorite driver when it comes to personality, but I have loads of respect for his talent.
I think the usual contenders will continue to be there: Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards, and my darkhorse would be Denny Hamlin. I don't think next year's Chasers will look all that different from this year's.
So what do you think? It's never too early to prognosticate!