Darrell Waltrip doesn't like what he's seeing. When 2007 rolls around, he points out, the NASCAR landscape will be altered. There will be a new television contract in place (say hello to ABC and ESPN) and a significantly reconfigured model of car out on the track (get ready for slower speeds).
"But what about 2006?" asks Waltrip. "Everyone in NASCAR is pointing to 2007 as the year everything changes. But I think there need to be changes next year."
Waltrip sat down with SI to discuss the upcoming Nextel Cup season. Here's what the three-time champion, who'll be calling the first half of the '06 season from the Fox booth, sees in store for his favorite sport. > > > > > > > >
SI: It's never too early to start thinking about who's going to win the championship in 2006. Who do you like?
DW: I don't see anything changing from 2005. I even think it'll probably be the same 10 guys in the Chase. Jeremy Mayfield will probably be the last one to slip in, and then, like this year, he'll do nothing in the last 10 races. Dale Jarrett is not getting any better, so I don't think he'll make it in. Elliott Sadler isn't getting it done either.
Right now I'd go with Jimmie Johnson to win the title. He's good at Talladega, he's good on the short tracks and he's good at places like Charlotte, so he's set up well to be strong in the Chase. His only equal is Tony Stewart. I think it's going to come down to those two guys again.
SI: Do you think Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. can rebound from their struggles of '05?
DW: To me Gordon is like Tiger Woods. Even when Gordon's not at his best, he still wins. But man, Gordon cannot run a lick unless he's in front. In traffic he's dogmeat. He's certainly got the ability to turn it around, but that team has got to figure out the car's setup better.
Dale Jr. and his team need to catch up in every area of their company--in the motor department, the aero department and the chassis department. They've got a ton of work to do this off-season. It'll help that Junior is buds with Martin Truex Jr., who'll be his teammate. For whatever reason, Dale Jr. and Michael [ Waltrip]'s relationship went sour, and they weren't helpful with one another. Martin and Junior will help each other, but I doubt Junior will be a contender in 2006. He just hasn't shown me anything in a long time.
SI: What young driver has a chance to surprise the field in 2006?