DALE EARNHARDT JR.'S DEPARTURE FROM DEI FOR THE LAND OF MILK and honey and checkered flags at Hendrick Motorsports isn't the only major move that will reshape the NASCAR universe in 2008. Here are five other key changes worth monitoring.
1. Joe Gibbs Racing will switch its manufacturing support from Chevrolet to Toyota.
Toyota's maiden season on the Cup circuit was, well, disastrous. None of the seven Toyota-backed drivers registered a win in '07—in fact, they combined for only two top five finishes—and the drivers on Toyota's flagship team, Michael Waltrip Racing, struggled simply to qualify for races for most of the season.
But don't expect another poor showing from Toyota in '08, because the Japanese carmaker has joined forces with JGR, one of the elite teams in NASCAR. "This is like winning the lottery," says Jim Aust, the president of Toyota Racing Development. The Gibbs drivers may flounder early in the season as they adjust to their new manufacturer, but the upside is enormous for JGR for three reasons: Toyota officials are steadfastly committed to winning in NASCAR; Toyota's pockets are deeper than those of Chevy, Ford and Dodge; and it has a history of success in its second season in a racing series—with the Craftsman Truck Series and CART. "There's a bit of the unknown," says Greg Zipadelli, the crew chief for JGR's top driver, Tony Stewart, "but I think we've got the people here to go to Daytona [in February] and the first few races and be just as competitive as we've been in the past."
2. Kyle Busch will replace J.J. Yeley in Gibbs's number 18 car.
Is it possible that the big winner from Earnhardt's move to Hendrick could be...JGR? In a word, yes, because in order to make room for Little E, Hendrick released Busch from his contract. After being wooed by all the top teams, Busch, a four-time winner in Cup races, opted to sign with Gibbs, giving JGR in '08 three drivers who made the Chase in '07: Busch, Stewart and Denny Hamlin.
What remains to be seen is how well these three very opinionated, very emotional drivers can coexist. Stewart has had several on-track run-ins with Busch over the last two years, and Busch repeatedly has tangled with Hamlin. One thing appears certain: J.D. Gibbs, the president of JGR, at some point will have to assume the role of peacekeeper.
3. Mark Martin takes the wheel of Junior's old ride.
If there is one driver who would appear to be a near perfect fit to inherit the number 8 Chevy, it's Martin, the most respected veteran in the garage. The 48-year-old Martin will drive only a part-time schedule—he'll share the number 8 with rookie Aric Almirola—but he will be the unquestioned leader of DEI. Martin, a four-time runner-up in the standings, will mentor DEI's young stable of talent, which includes Almirola, Martin Truex Jr. and Paul Menard. His influence could be the key in transforming DEI into a Cup contender.
4. The CoT goes full time.
Next season the Car of Tomorrow will be used in every Cup race. In 2007 the CoT didn't run at the 1.5-mile tracks, which form the backbone of the 36-race schedule. This change should benefit one team the most: Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick, after all, has done more testing of the CoT than any other team, and that preparation showed last season when Hendrick won eight of the 16 CoT races—another reason to expect more Hendrick dominance next season.
5. The invasion of open-wheel drivers.
Next year three veterans of open-wheel racing—Dario Franchitti, Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier—will make their full-time debuts on the Cup circuit. Franchitti, the reigning Indy 500 winner and Indy Car champion, is saddled with the highest expectations. Driving the number 40 Dodge for Chip Ganassi—the owner who brought another Formula One star, and 2007 Rookie of the Year, Juan Pablo Montoya, into the NASCAR fold—Franchitti will be the early front-runner to capture Rookie of the Year honors.