IT WAS A YEAR OF FIRSTS IN NEXTEL CUP racing—the first foreign car manufacturer and first foreign-born driver to compete regularly, the first race for the Car of Tomorrow, the first Subway commercial for Tony Stewart—and one very significant second, as Jimmie Johnson's second straight Cup title (the last driver to win two in a row was Jeff Gordon in 1998) cemented his place among NASCAR's best. Now the hard facts of the '07 season are in the record book: the winners, the pole sitters, laps led, fastest laps, margins of victory, points and prize money. It's all history now, and you can look it up. Ah, but the soul of a season is not found in the agate type of a statistical roundup. This is racing, and it's all about what happens when things get up to speed and start rubbin' and bangin' against each other; when folks take the restrictor plates off their mouths, egos get to bump-drafting in the high groove and silliness goes three-wide. So, pull those belts tight and let's go for a spin through the most memorable moments of a historic season.
ON THE eve of what would prove to be the most turbulent and frustrating season of his career (page 64), Dale Earnhardt Jr.—NASCAR's most popular driver—sits down with SI for a candid give-and-take on what it's like living in Dale's world. Here are some highlights.
On computer racing games: "My Number 1 hobby—aside from just straight goofing off."
The best part of being a NASCAR driver: "Having so many days off during the week."
His favorite food: "Just a straight-ass plate of spaghetti."
The biggest secret he can reveal: "I'm a Barry Manilow fan."
WORD FOR THE DAY
AFTER YEARS of development and anticipation, NASCAR's newly configured Car of Tomorrow (engineered with the aim of increasing driver safety, promoting closer racing and cutting costs) makes its competition debut at Bristol on March 25. Kyle Busch puts his name in the history books as the first CoT winner and then promptly declares, "I can't stand to drive them. They suck." This would be a recurring theme as drivers—without being quite as blunt as Busch—repeatedly gripe about the ill-handling cars as teams struggle with their setups in all 16 CoT events.
OFF TO A FINE START
DURING PREQUALIFYING inspection for the Daytona 500, NASCAR officials discover an illegal fuel additive in Michael Waltrip's Toyota. NASCAR docks Waltrip (above) 100 points and suspends crew chief David Hyder (and fines him $100,000) and team director Bobby Kennedy. Also suspended for rules violations are the crew chiefs for Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Scott Riggs and Elliott Sadler. Total fines handed down in Week 1: $250,000.
THE WILD JUAN I
JUAN PABLO MONTOYA came to NASCAR from Formula One with a rep as a hugely talented—and notoriously aggressive—driver. At the Busch Series Telcel- Motorola 200 in Mexico City on March 4 the rookie fulfills the hype. On the twisting road course the former open-wheeler passes 18 cars in the final 26 laps en route to victory. He takes the lead for good when he spins out teammate Scott Pruett (far right), who calls the move "just lowdown, nasty, dirty driving."