O.K., RACE FANS, YOU READY TO LIGHT THE WICK ON 2008? COME ON, LET'S GO. Here are my five predictions for next season.
1. The No. 1, absolute biggest story of the year is that the Car of Tomorrow has become the Car of Today.
There's an old saying in NASCAR: If it ain't broken, we'll work on it until it is. Well, this is what happened with the CoT last season. In the first CoT race, at Bristol last March, man, the racing was FAN-TAS-TIC. There was plenty of bumping and banging and passing, and the boys put on a great show. But in the other 15 CoT events, the quality of racing got progressively worse. It's as if the more teams found out about the car, the worse the racing got.
Teams will test these cars like the dickens this off-season, which could make for more exciting racing next year, when the CoT is used in all of the events. But you've still got to think that Hendrick Motorsports will remain the team to beat. In fact, based on how the Hendrick Chevys performed in the CoT at Talladega this fall, it sure looks like they'll be dominant in February at that other restrictor-plate track: Daytona. I really think Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and that new guy at Hendrick will be the drivers to beat in the 50th running of the Great American Race.
2. Speaking of that new guy, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going to win six races in 2008.
Next season will be a real opportunity for Junior to prove that he's not just a good race car driver, which he showed at DEI, but also that he's a great one. DEI did not keep up with technology like the other teams. Well, now that Junior's moving to Hendrick, he'll have more resources and support. Combine this with the fact that he is an excellent restrictor-plate racer—his daddy taught him plenty of lessons—and he'll have a great shot at winning his second Daytona 500.
3. Now that Toyota has joined forces with Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota will be a force on the Cup circuit.
We all know that Toyota had a rough start last season. But you've got to remember this: Two out of the three teams were startups, and the new teams and new manufacturer had to grow together. But they did get faster as the season progressed, so there's a foundation there. Next year Toyota will build the walls to that foundation with Gibbs, one of the class organizations in the sport. I expect Tony Stewart and the other Gibbs boys to be very, very fast right away in 2008. They should be real contenders to win at Daytona—if they can get past those Hendrick guys.
4. None of the open-wheelers coming to NASCAR in '08 will match the success of Juan Pablo Montoya in '07.
It's great for our sport that Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr., Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier will be competing in Cup racing next year. These guys have all been wildly successful in different open-wheel series, but, man, I just don't see any of them winning a race and knocking out six top 10 finishes the way Montoya did in his rookie year. You gotta remember that Montoya is a crazy talent, and he had pretty good equipment at Ganassi Racing. Hornish will probably be the best of the open-wheelers once he gets some laps under his belt, because he should have a real good car at Penske Racing. But overall, I think some of these guys might have a steep learning curve in NASCAR.
5. At some point next year the France family will have to make some big decisions.
Mark this down: New Hampshire is going to lose a race, and Las Vegas is going to gain a race. From a larger perspective, NASCAR executives need to do some soul searching about where their sport is right now. TV ratings were down in '07, and there were a whole lot of empty seats at tracks during the Chase. Is the CoT working? Is the Chase working? Does the schedule need to be revamped? These are serious questions that the France family needs to ponder. All that's at stake is the future health of the sport.