Well, I did it. I can't tell you how, but I was able to sneak into Speedweeks. Rusty's dream since I was a kid has been to be down here for all the hoopla leading up to the 500. This year, not only did I make it, but I'm going to be able to report on the interweb about everything I'm seeing and hearing. And as observation number one, let me say I'm already sick and tired of hearing about that stupid gopher or groundhog or whatever the devil he is.
Anyway, as all of you NASCAR fans get ready for your big 500 parties, Rusty's gonna try and get the real scoop from Daytona, and tell it like it is.
First, though, thought I could take a minute to give you a few predictions about the season. Namely, who's hot, who's not, and who might just barely scrape by this coming year.
So, without further adieu, and back by popular demand, here's Rusty's predictions for 2009.
Green Green Green
Hendrick Motor Sports - Rick Hendrick has put together NASCAR's version of the dream team for 2009. With four-time champion Jeff Gordon leading the way, Hendrick now has Gordon, reigning champ and three-peat phenom Jimmie Johnson, fan favorite Dale Jr., and the newest old addition, the sports elder statesmen and perpetual bridesmaid, Mark Martin. Even with Gordon unable to find victory lane, and Jr only finding it once on a fuel gamble, HMS had a strong 2008. With the addition of Martin, and Jimmie showing no signs of letting up, Hendrick is going to be the team to beat week in and week out, this year. They've already begun to prove it. All 4 have posted in the top 12 on the speed charts with the old fart even qualifying for the front row. In years past, after a strong showing in Daytona, HMS can tend to get off to a slow start, but don't let that fool you. When it comes crunch time, and in the biggest races, the #5, #24, #48, and the #88 will be in the hunt. And they may for the first time qualify every driver for the Chase.
Jamie McMurray - This might come as a surprise to a lot of folks, but Jamie Mac got HOT at the end of the season, and I ain't talking about looks. In the last six races of the season, the driver of the #26 only finished outside the top 10 once (38 at Martinsville). At the very end of the season, he rattled off three consecutive third place finishes. Roush is no slouch, and while Kenseth or Edwards might get all the glory, don't forget the #26 is the last Roush team to win a championship, as the #97 driven by Kurt Busch in 2004. Whether or not last year's momentum can be carried into this year is the real test, but look for Jamie Mac to continue to surprise people in 2009. DARKHORSE BABY!!!!
Tony Stewart - Predictions about Tony Stewart are going to run the gamut, this year. In 2008, Tony parted ways with the team, sponsor, and crew chief that got him two NASCAR championships (Gibbs, Home Depot, and Tony Zipadelli). He teamed up with Hass to form Stewart Hass Racing, and then lured Ryan Newman over to join his new two car team. He'll drive the #14 sponsored by Old Spice and Office Depot, while Rocket Newman's slated to drive the Go Army #39. Some people think Smoke's going to blossom since he'll be in complete control, while others think he's gonna struggle like most first time owners. Ole Rusty's not so sure, either way, but is pretty sure it'll be a roller coaster ride. He won't go winless, but Newman will. He will have some rough times, and he'll have a streak once or twice where he will look unstoppable. Ultimately, the move will be a good one, but it's going to take a season or two to iron out the kinks. Look for the #14 to struggle to make the Chase. He'll be a bubble team come August/September, but might be able to squeeze into it with a strong finish at Richmond. Barring that, Tony's going to be on the outside looking in.
Michael Waltrip - 2008 was not pretty for the two-time Daytona 500 champion, and Rusty's pretty sure 2009 might be even worse. The driver of the #55 Napa Toyota only saw two top 10 finishes last season; a runner up finish at Dover, and a 10th place finish at New Hampshire. Waltrip has struggled mightily since coming over to Toyota and forming his own team two years ago. He's even failed to qualify a few times. Ever since he crawled from his roof hatch during his last victory burnout in Alabama, a host of things has kept Waltrip from victory lane. Though lately, a vast majority of those "things" could be blamed on sub-par equipment. With tougher economic times now a reality, a owner driver situation like Waltrip's for a team already struggling might just prove untenable. Rusty would hate to see the affable and always marketable Waltrip not behind the wheel, but I can see the writing on the wall. I think this might be the end of the Waltrip legacy.
Tomorrow: Rusty Razzes the Rookies