Make no mistake about it, Rusty's a faithful and loyal member of Junior nation, the most dominant fan base in all of sports. So, this year, Rusty's going to add a new feature to his rants-n-ravings about the fastest sport in America, the JR prediction. There's a whole slew of folks trying their darndest to read the tea leaves and figure out how June-bug might do from week to week. Well, look no further, because here on HHR, the premier slightly-off-center sports blog on the inter-web, Rusty's going to tell you what to expect out of the 88. So, let's start with a season prediction.
2009's going to be an improvement for Junior, but it's also going to be a real put-up or shut-up year for his crew chief, Tony Eury Jr. Anyone who's anyone will tell you there's not a smarter guy than Eury Jr. in the garage. Junior's cousin knows how to set up a car and get into victory lane. The question is does he posses the skill to keep his driver motivated and battle through the 36 race marathon that is the Sprint Cup season. Junior's made no bones about the fact that he thinks the season might be too long. His finishing skills also lend fans to question his stamina in any race not involving restrictor plates. The question in 2009 is whether or not Junior and Junior can figure out a way to stay motivated and communicate to improve the 88's finishes. In 2008, Junior had the 4th highest driver rating, only bested by Edwards, Kyle Busch, and the eventual champion. The problem was that Junior had an issue finishing races and getting into victory lane. He only did so once at Michigan with a Eury fuel gamble at the end.
Courtesy of NASCAR.com
So, what does Rusty think for 2009? Rusty thinks they will figure out a way to improve the finishes. Last year was a transition for the 88 team. There was an intense amount of pressure. Even after winning the Budweiser Shootout and his Gatorade Duel, Junior faced immense pressure last year. This year, the pressure isn't going away, but I think it's really going to be reduced as compared to last year. Jimmie won an amazing 3rd straight title. In 2009, there's going to be so many other sub-plots, I think Junior can finally take a back seat to some other big names. Will Jimmie win a record setting 4th straight title? Will Jeff win a race? How will Tony Stewart do as an owner/driver? With the recession in full bloom, will anyone even show up to the races? Will NASCAR have 43 car fields at every race (Rusty doesn't think so after this week). All of this, to Junior's delight, I think, will take the attention away from the driver of the 88.
I think this will serve Junior well, and he'll have a much better season in 2009. I expect Junior to win at least 2 races, probably closer to 3 or 4. He'll compete at some of his normal tracks; Daytona, Talladega, Richmond. But he'll also begin to compete at some new places, too. I really think Junior is going to begin to improve on his road racing skills. I don't think he's going to win at Sonoma or Watkins Glen, but watch out, Rusty's pretty darn sure that he's going to be in the hunt. Look for him to get some top 10's and top 5's at some new tracks this year.
This coming season is not going to be a championship year for the driver of the National Guard/Amp Chevrolet, but it's going to be a building block towards one. Junior will win a championship on the Cup level before he retires. Mark my words, 2009 is going to be a huge building block towards that future title. Just remember where you heard it first.
Tomorrow: Daytona 500! BOOGITY BOOGITY BOOGITY!!!