As a NASCAR fan for the past six seasons, I must admit one thing: I will need a program for the upcoming season to remember who is driving what car, sponsored by which company, and for which team.
With all the changes in the offseason, I decided to take a look at each team that will feature a new driver and rank how well I think they will do in 2009.
By my count there are 10 drivers who will kick off the season in a new ride. Here is a look at how I think each team will fare in '09:
10. Regan Smith — Smith comes from the now barely functioning Dale Earnhardt Inc. (now Earnhardt-Ganassi) to an even more defunct team, Furniture Row Racing. I may catch some heat from Smith fans (I'm sure there are some out there?) for listing his as the driver least likely to succeed with his new team, but lets get realistic here.
Sure, Smith technically won the race at Talladega last year, but he was in a DEI car. DEI cars always perform well at restrictor plate tracks, and he didn't do so well anywhere else.
In 41 career Cup races, he has a goose egg in both top-fives and top-10 finishes, and averages a finish of 29th. He now moves on to a team that has had it's share of struggles as well, so I don't see Smith having an above-average season.
9. David Stremme —Stremme enters 2009 in the defending Daytona 500's team after a one-year hiatus from the Cup level. Another non-surprise here as we all figured Stremme's Cup career was over after he was released by Ganassi Racing in 2007.
After a season in the Nationwide Series, however, Stremme has clawed his way back to the sport's premiere league.
However, he got his ride in a team that has struggled recently, and a manufacture that appears to be on its way out of the sport.
In 75 career Cup starts, Stremme has managed only three top-10 finishes and zero top-fives. Entering 2009, Stremme has a possibility to contend for a few top-10s and maybe even a top-five here and there.
But bottom line, Stremme doesn't appear to have the talent to compete with the big boys every week, and may only have this season to prove it, before Penske looks elsewhere.
8. Reed Sorenson — Sorenson joins the newly created Richard Petty Motorsports from the newly created Eanhardt-Ganassi team. He brings with him a potential to be a great driver, as he has shown in the Nationwide Series, and at times in the Cup Series.
Sorenson loses my vote here because of the team he transferred to. Like I said above, until Dodge proves they can hang with the other three manufactures, their teams will always be below them. You almost wonder if Sorenson hasn't gotten the results because of his talent, or the team that he drove for.
Unfortunately, I think Sorenson would have been better at Earnhardt-Ganassi now that the team has decided to run Chevys.
In his 109 career Cup starts, Sorenson has managed 13 top-10 finishes and five top-fives, with an average finish of 27th.
OK, so he should do decent at RPM, but decent for that team is a 20th place showing in the points. Sorenson won't be above the top-20 in 2009, and therefore falls at No. 8 on my list.
7. AJ Allmendinger — Allmendinger joins RPM from a team that surprisingly booted him out the door to make room for a new driver, Team Red Bull. The move was a bit of a surprise because Allmendinger had actually began performing well near the end of the season.
Notice a trend in these ranking though? All the Dodges are at the bottom of the list. Allmendinger moves from a Toyota team that provided unreal amounts of funding to get the results they wanted, to the sport's most struggling manufacture.
RPM simply does not have the equipment to compete with the other teams on a consistent basis.
Allmendinger may have a decent year, but he first has to get through the first couple races to see if he will even be running full-time or not.
In 44 career Cup starts, Allmendinger has captured only two top-10 finishes and an average finishing spot of 28th.
If the team can manage to pull out a full-time sponsor for this car, he should finish ahead of teammate Sorenson, but not many others.
6. Casey Mears — Mears was formerly known as the, "Other Hendrick Driver," and unfortunately will now be referred to as the, "Other Childress Driver." A bit harsh? Might be, but it's the truth. Mears simply doesn't have the same talent that the other drivers at HMS had, nor is he on the same level as the other RCR drivers.
He should finish above the guys on this list, and possibly inside the top-20 in points, but is that really a successful campaign?
Mears' family has a rich tradition in IRL, but for some reason he has parked himself in NASCAR. He has proven at times that he can run near the top-10, but never seems to have the finishes his teammates produce.
In 216 career Cup starts, Mears has one victory (albeit a fuel mileage win), 42 top-10 finishes and 12 top-fives, with an average finish of 22nd.
So how could he be more successful moving from the sports most dominant team to a sub-par one? I'm not saying he'll be extremely successful, just that he should fare better than the four above. I'd say he finishes top-20 in points, but nowhere near the Chase cut-off.
5. Ryan Newman — Newman enters unknown waters in 2009 as he joins friend Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing. He is the defending Daytona 500 champ and left a team where he received the nickname of "Rocket Man" for all his poles won.
The bad news: 43 poles in his career, but only 13 wins. So obviously he can get the car up there during qualifying, but doesn't do so well holding those positions once the rest of the field join him on the track.
In 260 career Cup starts, Newman has 13 wins, 106 top-10 finishes, 63 top-fives and an average finish of 20th. But that is his past 260 races, we are interested in the next 36.
Newman will have a good year in his new ride. Things may be rocky at first for these teams as they adjust to new people, but with Hendrick equipment, they will have the speed needed to run up front. Not to mention he has owner and teammate, Stewart next to him to help with adjustments and such.
Newman has the potential to be a top-15 car in 2009, the interesting thing will be whether or not he lives up to that potential.
4. Paul Menard — Menard is another DEI orphan, and brings his family sponsorship to the No. 98 Yates Ford. With that sponsorship, he was also given the points to the No. 28, and a guaranteed spot in the first five races of 2009.
So who's out there thinking, "Why in the world is Menard No. 4 on this list?" (Settle down you six Menard fans!)
I really feel that Menard has the ability to be a top-15 driver, and with Roush equipment, he may be the driver to bring Yates back to Victory Lane. If not, the man next in the count down could be the one.
Menard has 75 career Cup starts. In those starts, he's managed just two top-10 finishes and one top-five, with an average finishing spot of 26. I feel, however, that Yates is a much better fit for this young driver and that with the man below as his teammate, he will only improve as a driver.
A top-15 finish in the points is not out of the question for Menard and this team.
3. Bobby Labonte — Labonte leaves behind a struggling Dodge team (now known as Richard Petty Motorsports) to join a struggling Ford team. He does so, however, actually running under the Hall of Fame Racing banner.
Labonte is a past champion, he knows his way around these tracks and could be contending for a Chase birth in 2009. I know that sounds a bit crazy, but it's really not. The cars that Labonte are driving are—more or less—the same ones that Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle are visiting Victory Lane with week in and week out.
Labonte brings this team exactly what it needs: A past champion with experience and know-how to get the job done. He has 546 career Cup starts, 21 wins, 113 top-fives and 197 top-10 finishes. I really think this team has done an amazing job bringing in someone of Labonte's caliber and will do nothing but get better from here on out.
2. Mark Martin — Martin is yet another former DEI driver entering 2009 with a different team. (That's three on this list by the way!) He also begins 2009 doing something he said he wasn't going to do: running a full season.
It's no surprise that Martin is near the top of this list. He joins the sports most powerful stable in HMS, and with his experience will have no problem adjusting and competing immediately for top-10 finishes each weekend.
Mark it down, Martin will make the 2009 Chase. Will he win? Probably not, but he will make it.
Martin has been in the sport for 26 years! He has 722 career Cup starts and 35 wins. He has finished in the top-five 243 times (that's 34 percent for those of you who dislike math) and in the top-10 396 times (an amazing 55 percent of the time!)
Martin will hit the pavement in 2009 at full steam and will compete in his first full season since 2006. He proved his capability in barely there DEI cars, and now has all the equipment he needs to qualify and finish well.
1. Tony Stewart — Stewart takes over as owner of his own team, from Gibbs Racing. Some people might think I'm crazy for listing Smoke as the No. 1 driver on this list, but I have no doubt that he will get the job done (and done well) in 2009.
Will he win a championship? No, but he will make the Chase. A bold prediction, I know, but Stewart has everything it takes to be a top NASCAR driver: he is a past champion, which guarantees him a spot in at least six races, he has the experience and now he has HMS equipment.
Stewart has 356 career Cup starts. In those starts he has 33 wins (that's nine percent of the time he takes the green flag), 129 top-fives (36 percent), and 207 top-10 finishes (58 percent).
Granted, all those starts and finishes were in a Gibbs car, but I have no doubt that Smoke will continue his success at his own team, and therefore I have listed him as my top driver in a new team for 2009.