2004 NASCAR Preview: Is Change Good?
With the ’04 Nextel Cup season, we’re about to find out
By AL PEARCE/AutoWeek
Jimmie Johnson has the talent, witness six poles and six wins in only 75 career starts. (Photo by Actionsportsinc.com)
Good morning, boys and girls. Welcome to NASCAR 101. This is a 10-minute undergraduate course, a primer to prepare you for 10 months of corporate- and TV-driven stock car racing. There is no syllabus or reading list, and no final exam. If you endure these few minutes, we figure you’ve already suffered enough.
First, the changes that separate NASCAR ’04 from the other 55 seasons. Later, we’ll explain why Jimmie Johnson will win this year’s championship:
>>> A new France is calling the shots. To the utter surprise of some and the chagrin of others, 41-year-old Brian Z. became chairman of the NASCAR board and CEO last September. He is NASCAR founder Big Bill’s eldest grandson and Bill Jr.’s only son, but any resemblance between them and “Little F” is strictly unintentional. (Little needs much help, but he has started well by surrounding himself with good people and asking their counsel.)
>>> There’s a new series sponsor in the house. After 33 years with R.J. Reynolds and its flagship Winston brand, NASCAR struck a 10-year, $750 million deal with Nextel. Two factors led to RJR’s withdrawal: The annual $40 million sponsorship became prohibitive as the industry was battered by lawsuits and downturns, and the 1999 Master Tobacco Settlement Agreement made it tough on Reynolds to use sports to advertise its products. So instead of free smokes at every track, we’ve been promised better cell service in those quaint little backwoods like Pocono, Loudon, Rockingham, Martinsville and Watkins Glen. (Maybe, but just wait till some NASCAR minion gets jacked-jawed for shouting, “Can you hear me now?’’)
Ryan Newman is probably Dodge's best hope to win the title. (Photo by Actionsportsinc.com
>>> A new system will determine this year’s champion. Other than giving five more points for a win, the system will reward drivers as it has since 1975. But only the top-10 and others within 400 points of the leader after 26 races can win the Cup. They will start the 10-race Chase for the Championship “playoff” separated by five points and earn points as always. The idea is to ensure some semblance of a points battle in the fall, when pro and college football and the World Series hog the headlines. (Run for cover if Junior goes from 410 ahead after Richmond to 125 behind after Loudon.)
>>> The schedule is new, too. The beloved Labor Day weekend date at quaint and traditional Darlington (South Carolina) Raceway has gone to the cookie-cutter California Speedway at Fontana. It was done (no disputing this) to suit the TV and marketing wonks who lack a sense of history. In turn, NASCAR gave Rocking-ham’s annual fall date to Dar-lington for a mid-November race. And there is no letup in the ongoing fight over a second Cup date between Texas Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith and NASCAR.
>>> Teams fielding the Ford Taurus model are finally happy. They have a new nose and tail, new cylinder heads and, by extension, new optimism. Sure, a Taurus won the last Winston Cup in ’03, but the nameplate didn’t exactly wow ’em along the way. (The only top-10 Ford driver was champion Matt Kenseth.) High-profile Taurus owners Jack Roush, Robert Yates and the Wood Brothers wanted help two years ago but didn’t get it until this year. “Chevys had us by 15 to 20 hp last year,” Roush said. “Maybe we’ll see more parity by the end of the year. The aero changes will give us a more competitive downforce and drag package.”
>>> NASCAR hopes new aero-dynamic rules create better racing. Cars will run 32 of the 36 Nextel Cup races (the four at Daytona Beach and Talladega the exceptions) with shorter rear spoilers and softer Goodyear tires. Spoilers now measure 5.5 inches, down from 6.25 inches. The change will reduce downforce, which will trim speeds and create more stability. That will force drivers to actually drive their cars instead of simply aiming them.
How will that impact Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons? Some expect veterans like Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace, Sterling Marlin, Mark Martin, the Burtons and the Labontes to adapt quicker. After all, they raced in the “old days,” when stock car racing wasn’t simply an oversized video game. Others say younger drivers—ones who don’t know any better—won’t be as skittish when cars become a handful. “Guys with experience and finesse will be better off,” Roush said. “It’ll be a breath of fresh air.” Martin, a NASCAR regular since 1988, warned against assuming that. “Mostly it’ll benefit the best teams because they always adapt quicker,” he said. “Don’t read too much into it, because they’re subtle changes. But they’ll bring racing back to where it needs to be.”
Kurt Busch looks to be Ford's top contender. (Photo by Actionsportsinc.com LAT Photographic)
With few exceptions, this year’s lineup of drivers, owners and sponsors is similar to last year’s. The Ray Evernham/Bill Elliott Dodge is the only top-10 team with significant changes. After racing for 28 years—full-time for 21 of them—Elliott will run a limited schedule. Veteran teammate Jeremy Mayfield and rookie-of-the-year candidate Kasey Kahne will run the full 36-race schedule for Evernham Motorsports.
Defending champion Kenseth enters his third year in a Roush Ford. Johnson returns in a Hendrick Chevy, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a DEI Chevy, Jeff Gordon in a Hendrick Chevy and fifth-ranked Kevin Harvick in a Richard Childress Chevy. Sixth-ranked Ryan Newman returns in a Penske Dodge, Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte are back in Joe Gibbs Racing Chevys (minus Joe), and 10th-ranked Terry Labonte is back in a Hendrick Chevrolet. In each case, the driver/crew chief pairing remains unchanged from last season. In fact, except for 14th-ranked Wallace and 16th-ranked Robby Gordon (each has a new crew chief), the second-10 in last year’s points return with the same owner and crew chief.
“On one hand, it’s been years since NASCAR went into a new season with so many changes,” Richard Petty said. “New CEO, new sponsor, new points, new fuel supplier [Sunoco replaces Unocal], different rules and a way different schedule. On the other hand, most of the teams are about the same as last year. I think everybody expects to be better this year, including my teams.”
The ’04 rookie class is uncommonly strong. Reigning series champion Brian Vickers (in a Hendrick Chevy) is among five Busch Series graduates with solid rides.
The others are Scott Riggs (MBV Chevy), Kahne (Evernham Dodge), Johnny Sauter (Childress Chevy) and (unless his recent DUI becomes an issue) Scott Wimmer in a Bill Davis Dodge. Ex-Craftsman star Brendan Gaughan (Penske Dodge) joins them for what should be a memorable rookie battle.
Despite NASCAR’s relatively healthy outlook, several teams face an uncertain season. DEI has reduced its unsponsored No. 1 Chevrolet team to part-time status. The once-formidable Morgan-McClure Chevrolet needs backing for Kevin Lepage. The Ultra Dodge for Jimmy Spencer and the Roush Ford for Jeff Burton also need sponsorship help. Going into the Daytona 500, owners Travis Carter, A.J. Foyt, Junie Donlavey and owner/driver Brett Bodine have no solid plans for 2004.
Jeff Gordon (24) or Dale Earnhardt Jr. could win the '04 Cup. (Photo by LAT Photographic)
It is folly to expect anyone outside last season’s top-10 to win the ’04 title. Although Ford teams expect to improve, none of their drivers seems capable of succeeding Kenseth to the head table. Dodge’s best hope is Newman, undeniably fast but just as undeniably inconsistent, and not even a new points system will help that. Which leaves Chevrolet drivers as the championship favorites.
Most odds favor ex-champions Jeff Gordon, Stewart and Bobby Labonte. (But this question remains: How will Joe Gibbs’ absence impact the Stewart/Greg Zipadelli and Labonte/Michael McSwain relationships?) Officials desperately long for Junior, their poster boy for everything they think is cool about NASCAR. Alas, they will have to wait.
We say Johnson and Jeff Gordon will finish 1-2. The difference will be less than 25 points, leading France and NASCAR president Mike Helton to gloat over the relative success of their contrived points system. Why Johnson instead of, say... everyone else?
1) He has the talent, witness six poles and six wins in only 75 starts. Granted, everybody has talent or else they wouldn’t be there. But the tiny margin from one driver to another looms large over 36 races.
2) Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are a potent pair, witness their fifth- and second-place points finishes in two years together. Don’t mistake their quiet, low-key manner as passive uncertainty. They know exactly what they want and how to get it.
3) As a teammate and team co-owner, Gordon is an enormous resource. He and Johnson work better than many teammates, and their like-minded approach to Cup racing is almost surreal. Neither holds back anything from the other.
Last year's champ Matt Kenseth has a shot at a repeat. (Photo by Actionsportsinc.com
4) Team owner Rick Hendrick knows what it takes. He has won five Cups, three Craftsman Truck Series titles and last year’s Busch Series championship. Whatever he is doing, it’s working.
5) Johnson’s No. 48 Lowe’s-backed team returns intact. Except for minor changes, they have been together for all of Johnson’s poles and wins, and both top-five finishes. At a time when consistency and confidence are crucial, this team has both.
6) Under last year’s system, Johnson was second in points. Under this year’s, he would have been first. All told, he has two wins, seven other top-fives and seven other top-10s in his last 20 starts at the 10 tracks in this year’s Chase for the Championship.
7) Heads, Johnson. Tails, Gordon.
Heads it is.