You get the feeling that there’s a changing of the guard in NASCAR. If 2008 is any indication, veterans like Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth may be giving way at the top to a wave of young bucks- led among others by 30-and-unders like Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch.
It doesn’t end there. While Busch and Edwards have notched victories and achieved a measure of Cup success, there’s another pack looking to make waves in the NASCAR pool.
Here are 5 racers I see making headlines in 2009:
David Ragan- Some would say he’s already there. I will feel more that way when the Georgian gets a win or two and makes the Chase. Once described by Tony Stewart as a “dart without feathers,” Ragan was hailed by “Smoke” as the “Driver of the Year” in 2008. Mmmm, I’m not sure I’d go that far, although the case can be made Davey was the most improved.
With the support of a great team and good equipment, Ragan made a top 5 and 5 top 10s in his final 10 races. The #6 just missed the Chase, but if he keeps it up, we’ll be getting to know Ragan a lot better in 2009.
Scott Speed- Speed has already tasted success in the truck series, and managed to do a good job of staying out of trouble in his first 5 Cup races. The native of Manteca, California capped his run with a 16th place finish for Red Bull Racing at Homestead.
Speed will be 26 by Speed Week, but he looks all of 15. He’s cultivating a definite “off-center” look but when you think about it, it fights right in with Red Bull’s image. He replaces A.J. Allmendinger, with Ryan Pemberton directing from the pit box.
A.J. Allmendinger (pending a ride)- It seems to be ‘Dinger deserves a better fate than this. After getting benched earlier in the season, A.J. started showing signs of promise. The former open wheeler got kicked to the curb by Red Bull in favor of Scott Speed- which if you think about it- could give rise to a “Days Of Thunder” style rivalry. Allmendinger has shown a skill for getting a car in the race a la Joe Nemechek, but a few costly miscues have derailed his shots at success. A.J. finished a solid 11th at Homestead and averaged a 16.4 finish over his last 5 races driving the #10 GEM Dodge.
There’s seemingly a 100 places Allmendinger could go in 2009, at the moment I see nothing on Jayski, Yahoo, NASCAR.com or anywhere else that offers a clear idea- something difficult to discern out here on the Oregon frontier. The economic crunch has about half the potential field scrambling- including 2000 titlist Bobby Labonte.
Frankly, there’s a couple of guys I’d like to see A.J. replace, but at the moment, we won’t go there. I’m sure you have your ideas too.
Aric Almirola (also in a precarious spot)- This guy is the Rodney Dangerfield of NASCAR. He’s running a sweet Nationwide race in Milwaukee in 2007 and gets jerked for the driver he’s subbing for (Denny Hamlin) while leading the race. Then, he splits 2008 with Mark Martin at DEI. The scuttlebutt had the Army staying with Almirola to appeal to the Hispanic market, and next thing you know, they bolt DEI to get behind Ryan Newman at Stewart- Haas.
I don’t think anybody at Earnhardt- Ganassi should be buying green bananas with the current landscape as it is. It’s a shame, because Almirola acquitted himself quite nicely in 2008. Aric finished 8th at Bristol and was a contender in several races, even if his average finishes don’t reflect that. I have no doubt he’s earned the respect of the veterans by not having his ego write checks his car couldn’t cash.
Dark Horse Favorite- David Reutimann- If there is any justice in this world, “Beak” will continue his steady improvement in 2009. Pushing 40, he’s hardly a young gun- yet Reutimann is still relatively new to the Cup scene with success on the Nationwide level.
David could use a double shot of testosterone and better equipment, but he showed late improvement without use of the chrome horn and HMS money.
If you want a Cinderella story, Reutimann’s your guy.
Not yet ready for Prime Time- It is not by accident Joey Logano is MIA. In my humble opinion, he’s not ready. He’ll get his chance anyway. OK- unlike I said before- I’ll go there. I’m still waiting for David Gilliland and Paul Menard to show me why they belong here.
It’s a fine line that separates the next Gordon from the next Casey Atwood. Hopefully, all these guys will get 2009 rides along with the veterans who still belong and we’ll find out out on the track.