NASCAR ends on down note
Despite Johnson’s history-making achievement
By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards opened the 2008 season intent on knocking Jimmie Johnson from the top of NASCAR.
They chased him all year, but never quite caught him.
Despite a combined 17 Sprint Cup Series victories, the challengers came up short in the end when Johnson won his record-tying third consecutive championship. He never bothered to contemplate what tying Cale Yarborough’s 30-year-old mark would mean, but in the whirlwind media blitz since Sunday’s season finale, little things have happened to help Johnson appreciate his accomplishment.
Encounters with Mike Ditka and Cris Carter at the ESPN Studios this week humbled Johnson, as both NFL greats took time to praise his effort.
"When people like that notice what we have done and compare us to other teams in sports history, that’s special," Johnson said. "I’m so proud to be a part of this and so happy for the team and myself."
It’s a celebratory conclusion to another long season, one that started with the usual hope and anticipation only to end shrouded in the uneasiness of the economic crisis.
The season ended just days ago, but NASCAR teams are in the midst of mass layoffs because the crisis has forced car owners to tighten their belts. The staff reductions have creeped toward the top teams and crippled the smaller organizations.
Bill Davis Racing is down to just a handful of employees as it seeks 2009 sponsorship, and Michael Waltrip Racing joined Petty Enterprises and The Wood Brothers as organizations that have let go from 18 to 30 employees in the past few days.
And Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing have not been immune: All three NASCAR super teams have reduced their staffs to trim their hefty budgets.
"Obviously, it’s very difficult ... on our whole industry," said NASCAR chairman Brian France. "But we will come out of this. We will do our part with the rest of the sports and entertainment (business) to weather the storm. We’ve been here before and it’s never fun. It’s never easy. But we will get through it."
It won’t be easy. Sponsorships are hard to come by, at-track attendance is down and the Big Three automakers are in dire trouble. NASCAR will do what it can to help — and so far has suspended all 2009 testing — but is not considering shortening the schedule, races, or three-day race weekends.
Despite the depressing end to the season, there were plenty of highlights:
• The emergence of new stars Busch and Edwards. Both drivers came storming out of the gate and never looked back, as Busch won 21 races across NASCAR’s top three series, and Edwards won three of the final four Cup races as part of his series-best nine victories.
But what initially looked to be a three-man battle for the title never materialized. Mechanical failures at the start of the Chase relegated Busch to a 10th-place finish, and Edwards struggled in two races to fall so far beyond Johnson that his frantic final push hardly helped. He finished second in both the Cup and Nationwide standings — despite sweeping the season finales in both series.
• Toyota rebounded from its dismal first season in NASCAR, largely behind the addition of Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin combined to give the manufacturer 10 Cup wins, and JGR won the owner’s championship in the Nationwide Series.
There was also improvement at Red Bull Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing, where David Reutimann won the pole for the finale. And Toyota was still successful even after NASCAR throttled the manufacturer’s edge over the competition through a late-summer change to engine specifications.
With Chrysler, Ford and General Motors struggling financially, Toyota showed it could become unbeatable before long.
• Stewart, after two championships and 33 victories, decided to leave JGR following a successful 10-year run. After contemplating a contract extension for several months, he explored the market and found other compelling offers.
He took the one that handed him 50 percent ownership in Haas-CNC Racing, and the Haas part is one of the few things that will remain the same next season. Stewart Haas Racing has new drivers in Stewart and Ryan Newman, new sponsors and new personnel. The move also returns Stewart to Chevrolet, which has been a longtime supporter of his racing programs.
The owner-driver role might be one Stewart is slow to adapt to, especially if he struggles on the track next year. But he’s eagerly anticipating the new venture, and it took some of the sting off of his final disappointing days at JGR.
• Not every open-wheel driver is as good as Juan Pablo Montoya, which was proven this year when a handful trying to make the switch to NASCAR flamed out.
Jacques Villeneuve didn’t qualify for the season-opening Daytona 500, and the former Formula One champion hasn’t been seen since. Dario Franchitti was back in IndyCars by the end of the summer when Chip Ganassi folded that slumping team because of a lack of sponsorship.
Patrick Carpentier was let go from Gillett Evernham Motorsports before the end of the season, and Sam Hornish Jr. lost his bid for rookie of the year when he failed to qualify for the season finale at Homestead. Meanwhile, Scott Speed hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire in his handful of starts for Red Bull Racing.
•Getting a victory became more difficult, as former series champions Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth both went winless on the season. Gordon had not been shut out since his 1993 rookie year, and Kenseth last went winless in 2001 and finished 11th in the standings.
It took Stewart until the 30th race of the year to make his only trip to Victory Lane, and there were no first-time winners this season.
Twelve drivers shared the 36 race wins, and Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman were the only non-Chase participants to win this year.