It’s NASCAR time |

It’s NASCAR time

Well, the 2008 NASCAR season is finally here, beginning with this weekend’s first official points race at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. There are more than a few changes on and off track his year and I’ll try to hit the highlights as we head into another exciting 37 weeks of racing.

This year launches the 50th anniversary of racing at the Daytona International Speedway. Nearly 60 cars entered the inaugural race in 1958; only 31 were still running at the finish. Johnny Beauchamp was originally declared the winner of that first race, but Lee Petty, who was given second place, protested the decision. NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. spent three days looking at lots of film and photos before declaring Lee Petty the actual winner of the first Daytona 500. Cameras have been a part of the finish line ever since, according to NASCAR historian Buz McKim.

It is also the 60th anniversary of NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing), a sport that traces its roots back to running moonshine in the southeastern United States. NASCAR is now the second most watched regular-season sport on television. Last year NASCAR races took the first or second spot on TV for 21 of 36 weekends, averaging seven million viewers for Cup races and 12 million viewers on weekends when all three major series raced at the same track. Average attendance at a NASCAR event was 120,000 in 2007 and 17 of the top 20 highest attended events were NASCAR events.

Several series have changed sponsors, resulting in name changes. Nextel is out in the Cup series, having been purchased by Sprint: the series is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The Busch Series is a thing of the past: it’s now the NASCAR Nationwide (Insurance) Series. The Craftsman Truck Series retains the same name, at least until Craftsman’s contract expires in 2009.

And locally, the NASCAR Autozone Grand National West Series is now the NASCAR Camping World Series, combining the Grand National East and West tours under one banner, although they still race on opposite halves of the country. The West division will debut at Roseville’s All American Speedway on March 29th, in a race promoted by local race shop Bill McAnally Racing (BMR).

The Car of Tomorrow (COT) is now the Car of Today. The COT was featured in a number of races last year, in preparation for its use full-time this season at all Cup series races. New engine packages, designed to reduce costs, will also be introduced this season in the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck series.

All money collected from fines issued during the season will now go to the NASCAR Foundation, instead of a season-ending points fund awarded to drivers. If incidents during last weekend’s practices and racing are any indication of what’s to come, that charity stands to gain a bunch of money!

You had to be on another planet last year if you didn’t hear that NASCAR’s favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was leaving DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc.), a company started by his late father, for greener pastures at rival Hendrick Motor Sports (HMS). It’s no secret that Junior and his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt (who has been in charge at DEI since her husband’s death), don’t have the best of relationships and after attempting to negotiate a better deal at DEI, Junior announced mid-season that he would be driving for family friend Rick Hendrick when his contract with DEI expired at the end of the 2007 season.

Junior will join NASCAR Cup champions Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, along with teammate Casey Mears, at HMS, driving the #88 National Guard/Amp Chevrolet. Although many fans might disagree with the move, I think Junior will receive top quality equipment and support from HMS, giving him a great opportunity to win his first championship; I predict he will take home the trophy at season’s end. If you missed last Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout, Junior won that non-points race for his new team, his first victory since Richmond in May 2006.

That familiar #8 Budweiser car is now the #8 U.S. Army Chevrolet, piloted by veteran Mark Martin, who will share seat time with young Aric Amirola, who has previously raced in the Craftsman Truck Series. The Budweiser sponsorship has shifted to Kasey Kahne and the #9 Dodge. Kyle Busch, who left HMS for Joe Gibbs Racing, will be driving the #18, sponsored by M&Ms, which left the #38 Yates Racing Ford. Yates just signed Experian Consumer Direct and as its primary sponsor for the first seven races of this season. Casey Mears moves from the HMS #25 team to the #5 Kellogg’s/CarQuest Chevrolet, Kyle Busch’s former car number.

Another big change is the switch at Joe Gibbs Racing from Chevrolet to Toyota. Last year was a freshman season for Toyotas in Cup racing and they didn’t do nearly as well as expected, so the switch at Gibbs was a surprise. However, if recent test times and Michal Waltrip’s qualifying run are any indication of Toyota’s future in NASCAR, this could be a breakout year for the manufacturer.

There’s a crop of new rookies at the Cup level this year, including four drivers more familiar with Indy cars than stock cars. Patrick Carpentier will drive the #10 Valvoline Dodge for Gillette Evernham Motorsports, Dario Franchitti (reigning Indianapolis 500 champ) will be behind the wheel of the #40 Dodge Journey Charger for Chip Ganassi Racing, Sam Hornish Jr. will pilot the #77 Mobil 1 Dodge for Penske Racing and Jacques Villanueve (a Formula One champion) will drive for Bill Davis Racing (BDR) in the #27 Toyota sponsored by BDR.

This weekend’s racing starts with the Craftsman Truck race Friday night on SPEED channel at 4:30pm. The Nationwide Series runs Saturday, airing at 9am on ESPN2 and The Sprint Cup Daytona 500 broadcast begins at 11am on Sunday. Champion Jimmie Johnson has the pole position, with Michael Waltrip in second spot on the front row.

Breaking News: You heard it here first: Bill McAnally Racing has signed 2006 Grand National West Series champion Eric Holmes to drive the #20 NAPA Toyota this season. Moses Smith is returning to BMR and will pilot the #16 HASA Pool Products car and the best news of all, in my opinion, is the signing of Austin Cameron, former BMR driver and 1998 Grand National West Series Rookie of the Year, to drive the #18 NAPA Car Care Toyota. Cameron has quite a winning history with BMR and it is awesome to have him back on the track in a BMR race car again.

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