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NASCAR Notebook for January 31st

by Dave Grayson
Saturday, January 31, 2009

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The continued economic uncertainty has left many NASCAR Sprint Cup team owners scrambling at the proverbial eleventh hour searching for sponsorship deals to shore up their 2009 plans. With the annual Speed Weeks in Daytona only a matter of weeks away, there are approximately 37 NASCAR Sprint Cup teams who are committed to running the entire 36 race schedule this year. However only 29 of these teams have secured the full funding they will need for the 2009 season. With that thought in mind let's take a detailed look at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series class of 2009

#00. DAVID REUTIMANN. AARON'S TOYOTA. MICHAEL WALTRIP RACING-MWR.

David Reutimann will return to Michael Waltrip Racing's #00 Toyota after driving the #44 in 2008. The team has sponsorship from Aaron's Stores for 18 races. There were reports that said Champion Mortgage and Dow Automotive may be coming on board to take up the sponsorship slack but there has yet to be an confirmation.

There appears to be three major positives for Reutimann's team for 2009. First there is a noticeable rise in Reutimann's confidence levels as a Sprint Cup driver and many series observers have placed his name on a short list of young drivers who could have a break out year in 2009. Secondly there's the arrival of a new crew chief, NASCAR veteran Rodney Childers, and could go a long way towards raising the driver's confidence levels to brand new levels. The third factor is a very noticeable improvement, that came in the latter half of 2008. in MWR's performance both on and off the track.

But there is a gray area here that could create some distraction for this team around the middle of the season. Reutimann's contract with MWR expires at the end of this year and he will likely become a high profile player in NASCAR's 2009 silly season.

#07. CASEY MEARS. JACK DANIELS CHEVROLET. RICHARD CHILDRESS RACING-RCR.

Casey Mears will be taking over this ride formally occupied by Clint Bowyer who will drive RCR's brand new fourth team in 2009. Jack Daniels returns as the primary sponsor and there is also a possibility that Direct TV will be on the hood for a few races although this hasn't been confirmed yet. Yet another major plus is crew chief Gil Martin. This is a tried and true team who made NASCAR's Chase For The Championship, with Bowyer in the car, for the past two years.

The gray area here will be the intense pressure to perform, along with media scrutiny, that Mears will have to deal with. He's coming off of a driving stint with Hendrick Motorsports where the moments of brilliance, with this high profile team, were few and far between. He finished 2008 with an average finish of 21st while only leading 85 laps.  Mears has a three year contract with RCR but he needs to leave his mark in Sprint Cup racing here and now. Here's a driver who needs a big break out year in 2009.

#09. BRAD KESELOWSKI-STERLING MARLIN-MIKE BLISS- KEN SCHRADER. MICCOSUKEE INDIAN GAMING CHEVROLET AND DODGE. PHOENIX RACING.

James Finch, owner of Phoenix Racing, is planning on running the entire 2009 Sprint Cup schedule with a variety of drivers in both Chevrolets and Dodges. For at least ten races this operation will be a driver development program for Brad Keselowski the young Hendrick Motorsports protégé who drives Dale Earnhardt Jr's Nationwide Series car. Because of Keselowski's contractual affiliation with Hendrick, Phoenix Racing will have to field Chevrolets for those ten races. The remainder of the season will have the team fielding a Dodge with veteran drivers Mike Bliss, Sterling Marlin and Ken Schrader.

The gray area here is sponsorship. Miccosukee Indian Gaming, Finch's long time sponsor on his Nationwide Series team, has committed to covering the cost of ten Sprint Cup races. Sponsorship for the remaining 26 events on the schedule is very much in the air with time running out.

#1. MARTIN TRUEX JR. BASS PRO SHOPS CHEVROLET. EARNHARDT GANASSI RACING-EGR.

This operation was one of the high profile business mergers of 2008 that put team owners Teresa Earnhardt, Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates under the same shop roof. The Truex team, led by crew chief Kevin "Bono" Manion,  is expected to be the lynch pin of this operation this year and, quite likely, will be the only EGR team with any chance of making the Sprint Cup Chase For the Championship.

However there are two gray areas here with the first one being a sponsorship issue. Bass Pro Shops are committed to sponsoring 23 races  which means EGR is going to have to come up with another sponsor for the remaining 13 races.

The larger gray area here lies in the fact that Truex will become a free agent after his contract expires at the end of this year. That means he will have to endure the possible distraction of a contract extension in the middle of the season. It will also mean dealing with the media attention due to his high profile status as a major player during the silly season.

#2. KURT BUSCH. MILLER LITE DODGE. PENSKE SOUTH RACING.

There are no planned changes for this team heading into the 2009 season. Busch reportedly signed a contract extension that will keep him at Penske Racing for many more years to come and crew chief Pat Tryson will also be back this year.

The team visited victory lane one time last year and had five top five finishes including a second in the 2008 Daytona 500. However their average finish was 21.359 and that indicates an up and down consistency level that will need to be addressed this year.

#5. MARK MARTIN. CAR QUEST-KELLOGS-CHEEZ IT CHEVROLET. HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS-HMS

Every NASCAR fan in the world should always pay attention to Mark Martin both on and off the track. Heading into the twilight of his iconic career, Martin is looking at one last shot at winning the Sprint Cup championship that has eluded him. HMS has provided him with a golden opportunity to accomplish this goal by giving him the keys to their #5 Chevrolet. This is a well established, and well funded, team backed with all of the resources that HMS is famous for. Making the total package even sweeter is the fact that the team will be led by Alan Gustafson whom many feel is on the fast track to joining the ranks of NASCAR super star crew chiefs. Martin is extremely happy, as well as focused, heading into the new season. Expect this team to be a serious contender. 

HMS has Martin signed for all 36 races this year and 26 races in 2010. Next year Martin will share the ride with a "yet to be named driver" but you can bet the farm that driver is going to be Brad Keselowski.

#6. DAVID RAGAN. UPS FORD. ROUSH FENWAY RACING-RFR

Now here's a young, up and coming, driver to keep a sharp eye on during the 2009 season and this may very well be the year that he gets his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory . Many NASCAR observers will tell you that Ragan was one of the most improved young drivers in 2008. He proved that point be just barely missing the top 12 in points that determines the Chase For The Championship roster. He accomplished all of these accolades on the strength of six top five finishes and 14 top tens that calculated to an average finish of 15.026.

There are two major positives here. The first one is the fact that the team has a new, multi year, sponsorship contract with United Parcel Service. The second is the fact that veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig, who guided a young Kurt Busch to a Cup championship, will be returning to oversee Ragan's efforts this year.

There are two gray areas that could provide a source of distraction for Ragan this year. The first is the fact that he will become a high profile free agent because his current agreement with RFR expires at the end of this season. The second gray area is a mandate, that begins this time next year, that says NASCAR Sprint Cup owners can not operate more than four teams. RFR currently has five teams meaning one of their teams will be leaving the fold next year. This could possibly place some additional performance pressures on Ragan although it's not likely his team will be involved in this particular situation.

#7. ROBBY GORDON. JIM BEAM TOYOTA. ROBBY GORDON MOTORSPORTS-RGM

Robby Gordon's single car operation will make its debut as a Toyota team this year after switching from the Dodges they ran last year. However, via special arrangements, the team will campaign a Dodge in the upcoming Budweiser Shootout at Daytona. The really good news for RGM is the fact that they are fully funded for 2009 with sponsorship from Jim Beam and Menards Home Improvement Stores. This is an old school operation that is an owner-driver combination. The rebel with a cause concept was reported to be especially appealing to executives representing Jim Beam and was a major reason that made them want to resign with Gordon.

Outside of NASCAR RGM has an impressive record. This is especially true in the rugged world of off road racing. They proved that in recent days by placing second in the Dakar Rally in Argentina and winning this year's Laughlin Desert Challenge in Nevada.

However their NASCAR Cup operation, led by returning crew chief Kirk Almquist, has been a source of frustration for RGM in recent years. Certainly one of those reasons lies in the fact that they are a single car team which is a very tough row to hoe in the modern NASCAR era. One bright spot could be their new association with Toyota Racing Development which will offer them an impressive wealth of technical data. The other potential bright spot for this team will be the two road course events at Infineon Raceway and at Watkins Glen. When it comes to turning both left and right Gordon is a master on road courses.

#8. ARIC ALMIROLA. EARNHARDT GANASSI RACING-EGR CHEVROLET.

This is the second team from the recent merger of Dale Earnhardt Inc and Ganassi Racing presented by Felix Sabates. In 2008 Almirola was sharing the driving duties of DEI's #8 Chevrolet with veteran Mark Martin. That situation allowed the 24 year old driver to develop his skills under the watchful tutelage of a true NASCAR icon and mentor. Almirola made 12 starts in the Sprint Cup Series last year and scored one top ten and completed the season with a 24.833 average finish.

The 2009 status of Almirola and the EGR #8 Chevrolet will be based on sponsorship dollars. At this point the team doesn't seem to have any sponsors in place although EGR executives last week said they hope to be able to make an announcement soon regarding multiple part time sponsors for Almirola. The number of these part time endorsements will determine whether the team will run the full schedule this year or become a wait and see part time operation.

#9. KASEY KAHNE. BUDWEISER DODGE. RICHARD PETTY MOTORSPORTS-RPM.

This is the lead team coming from the recently completed merger between Gillette Evernham Motorsports and Petty Enterprises. The new organization has been renamed Richard Petty Motorsports. The name was a reported deal breaker with Richard Petty. But it's actually a very good idea because having King Richard's name in the forefront is a gold mine in terms of public relations and endorsement possibilities.

The 2008 consistency levels of this team ran up and down like a yo yo and that improving that situation will be a focal point this year. There were some definite bright spots last year that produced  two wins, four top fives, 14 top tens as well as a 16.225 average finish ratio. Some late in the year on track situations prevented this team from making the cut for the 12 man Chase For The Championship but improvement in overall consistency could rectify that in 2009.

Kahne, crew chief Kenny Francis and Budweiser will be together for at least two more years and that positive aspect will make them RPM's lynch pin. The only change here is the noticeable absence of All State Insurance. That's too bad because it means we will no longer be treated to those TV commercials featuring Kahne being stalked by those three lovely ladies.

#11. DENNY HAMLIN. FEDEX TOYOTA. JOE GIBBS RACING-JGR.

This is one your bonafide championship contenders for 2009. Hamlin's 2008 season included a win, 12 top fives and 19 top tens that calculated to a 14.308 average finish ratio. He and crew chief Mike Ford will remain in place for at least two more years. All four tiers of the FedEx business enterprises are on board along with Farm Bureau Insurance who will be the primary for two events this year.

#12. DAVID STREMME. VERIZON WIRELESS DODGE. PENSKE RACING SOUTH-PRS.

Driver David Stremme returns full time to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series  with PRS under considerably better circumstances than what he had with Ganassi Racing back in 2007. But there's some rather unique circumstances involving the team's new sponsor, Verizon Wireless, who is signed through the year 2010.

Back in 2004 the Nextel Corporation, later renamed Sprint following a corporate merger, became the new title sponsor of NASCAR's Cup Series. Under the terms of that agreement any competing wireless communications firms already signed with a race team were grandfathered into that agreement and were allowed to stay in place. However any new communication companies wanting to come into NASCAR would be denied. That policy also applied to any of the grandfathered companies who charged their corporate names due to a buyout or a merger.

For approximately a decade Alltel Wireless was the sponsor of Roger Penske's #12 Dodge. This past January 9th there was a formal announcement that said that Alltel had been bought out by Verizon which means that Alltel's grandfathered status in NASCAR will soon end. Alltel's logo will be allowed to remain on Stremme's car until the final details of the buyout are signed and sealed. Beyond that point the car will be officially identified and branded as "the Penske Dodge Charger."  Stremme will be allowed to promote Verizon Wireless via personal appearances and interviews but the Verizon logo cannot be placed on the car.

Stremme has decided to let team executives sort all of this out and has been spending his time with crew chief Roy McCauley preparing for the start of the 2009. This could turn out to be a dark horse team to watch in 2009. Remember this is the same organization that stunned everyone by winning last year's Daytona 500.

#13. MAX PAPIS. GEICO TOYOTA. GERMAIN RACING.

After several years in the Nationwide Series Germain Racing moves up to the Cup level with road racing ace Max Papis. The new team will run an 18 race schedule this year beginning in March at Las Vegas. Their Toyota Camry will be sponsored by Geico Insurance and includes a technical alliance with Michael Waltrip Racing.

#14. TONY STEWART. OFFICE DEPOT/OLD SPICE CHEVROLET. STEWART HAAS RACING-SHR.

Here's an organization that everyone is going to be watching. After ten years of driving the Home Depot car for Joe Gibbs racing, Tony Stewart now becomes an owner-driver for SHR. The new team will be coming out of the box with a strong sponsorship plan in place. Office Depot and Old Spice will share the primary duties for 17 races each with Burger King on the car for the remaining two events. Oh yes, leasing the cars and engines from Hendrick Motorsports is also a major plus.   

There are many racing observers who are saying not to expect a lot from this new team in 2009. But the one thing that has to be remembered here is the fact that every motorsports investment venture that Stewart has taken on has reached a high level of success. Don't be too surprised if this new venture finds victory lane in 2009.

#16 GREG BIFFLE. 3M-DISH NETWORK FORD. ROUSH FENWAY RACING-RFR

This is a team that has already garnered a lot of pre season attention. Biffle is really fired up and focused on winning that NASCAR title that he wants so bad. Biffle was the center of attention during last year's Chase and finished the season with two wins, 12 top fives and 17 top tens. He ranked third in the final standings and maintained an extremely healthy 12.59 average finish.  He signed a three contract extension with RFR last summer and so did long time sponsor 3M. Crew chief Greg Erwin will be returning to the pit box and that's more good news. There's already a lot of people saying that "the Biff is going to shine in 2009."

#17. MATT KENSETH. DEWALT TOOLS FORD. ROUSH FENWAY RACING.

If you listen very carefully to a Matt Kenseth interview you might get the impression that he's really not fond of radical changes. Long time crew chief Robbie Reiser was the lynch pin in Kenseth's racing career. It was a relationship that dated back to his mid west late model days and led to RFR's first NASCAR championship in 2003. 2008 was a year of radical change and distraction for Kenseth. It began when RFR gave Reiser a well deserved promotion and placed Chip Bolin in charge of Kenseth's team. Along the way there was a high profile riff with team mate Carl Edwards that had to be resolved. There was also the distraction of mid season contract negotiations which resulted in a multi year extension that was signed last November.

Last season the team surprisingly completed the year winless with an average finish of 16.158. They did race their way into the 12 man Chase For The Championship but finished 11th and were not title contenders during the ten race series.

Kenseth begins 2009 with more changes that includes new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer and a new spotter. The emphasis here will have to be making quick work of adapting to the new changes and get the team back in victory circle. That could come as early as the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana in February or Las Vegas in March. Kenseth has very good numbers at both tracks. It's safe to assume that he will return to the Chase line up for 2009.

#18. KYLE BUSCH. M&M'S TOYOTA. JOE GIBBS RACING-JGR.

The rowdy one returns to action with crew chief Steve Addington and enough sponsor resources, led by M&M's, to outfit two Cup teams. The green flag hasn't fallen on the 2009 season yet but the word championship is already being attached to this team.

When you consider last year's staggering numbers it's a natural assumption. Last year Busch ran events in all three of NASCAR's national touring series and won an astounding 18 races including eight of them in the Cup ranks. With the ten event Chase started last fall many racing observers were saying "why don't they just engrave his name on the Sprint Cup now and get it over with?" Much to every one's shock the Busch championship effort completely fell apart during the Chase events and the would be champion finished tenth in the final standings.

Busch will start 2009 by once again running full schedules in both the Nationwide and Cup Series. Look for more of the same performance levels from this team in 2009.

#19. ELLIOTT SADLER.  BEST BUY-STANLEY TOOLS DODGE. RICHARD PETTY MOTORSPORTS-RPM.

This is the second team from the recent merger of  Gillette Evernham Motorsports and Petty Enterprises. It was also the most talked about team during the winter break for all of the wrong reasons. Last May driver Elliott Sadler signed a contract extension with Gillette Evernham that would have kept him in the car through 2010. However during the Christmas holidays Sadler learned, allegedly via the Internet, that he was going to be replaced by driver A J Allmendinger. An angry Sadler retained an attorney who threatened a breach of contract civil suit. There were also allegations that said the attorney was going to seek a legal injunction that would force the team to put his client back into the car because Sadler reportedly was not interested in a routine contract buy out. In the aftermath Gillette Evernham reinstated Sadler followed by a hilarious public statement that read "we are a family here and sometimes families fight." By the way all of this drama was going while Sadler was preparing for his wedding day.

Regarding 2009 Sadler had to spend a lot of valuable time making sure the wounds were healed and everyone on the team was back on the same page. The time would have been better spent developing communication and a sense of rhythm with his new crew chief Kevin Buskirk. The good news here is the sponsor program, from Best Buy and Stanley Tools, is rock solid. The bad news is this team has serious performance issues. A rather dismal 2008 only produced two top fives, two top tens and a 23.684 average finish ratio. This team desperately needs a break out year or Sadler may find himself once again spending the Christmas holidays dealing with contract issues.

#20 JOEY LAGANO. HOME DEPOT TOYOTA. JOE GIBBS RACING-JGR.

The young driver who will be filling Tony Stewart's former seat at JGR is currently being billed as "the best thing since sliced bread" by the racing media. Throughout his racing career Joey Logano has made quick work of finding victory lane in every form of racing he has entered. That streak started at age five and ran through last year when he won his first Nationwide Series race after only three starts in a JGR Toyota.

However that leap from the Nationwide to the Cup Series is huge and often easier said than done. Because of the ongoing media hype the 2009 expectations bar for Logano has been raised quite high. The really good news is he will have an excellent support base for his Sprint Cup debut led by Joe and J D Gibbs along with their long time sponsor Home Depot. Increasing that support group is super star crew chief Greg Zipadelli who guided Tony Stewart through two NASCAR championships. Logano will also have access to advice from team mates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Logano will likely call on Busch to advise him on the massive media hype that he will have to deal with all year long.

While 2009 will be a development year for Logano there will likely be some bright spots for this team especially during the second half of the season. He's got a better than great chance of winning NASCAR's Rookie Of The Year in 2009. Be ready for him in a very big way this time next year

#21. BILL ELLIOTT. MOTORCRAFT FORD. WOOD BROTHERS RACING.

The Wood Brothers recently announced plans to run nine races, beginning with the Daytona 500, in 2009 with former NASCAR champion Bill Elliott driving their #21 Motorcraft Ford. The team will only race at super speedway events because they feel that Ford's program is strongest at tracks 1.5 miles or longer in length. Whether or not this program goes beyond nine race will depend upon available sponsorship.

#23. MIKE SKINNER. R3 MOTORSPORTS CHEVROLET.

NASCAR Truck Series champion Mike Skinner will pilot this car, owned by Robert Richardson Snr, in the Daytona 500. The team bought five Cup cars from Dale Earnhardt Inc and plans to run the first five events of the new season. If they are within the top 35 in owners points after five races then plans will be made to continue. The team will eventually be centered around driver Robert Richardson Jr who currently has not been approved by NASCAR to race on tracks in excess of two miles.

#24. JEFF GORDON. DUPONT CHEVROLET. HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS-HMS

This four time NASCAR champion stunned everyone, including himself, by enduring a winless season in 2008. Some of the reasons for the lack of W's were harsh racing luck, mechanical failures and events where the team simply couldn't find the needed adjustments to fix an ill handling car. Despite all of this frustration the team still managed to score 13 top fives, 19 top tens, compiled an average finish ratio of 13.949, finished seventh in the points standings and collected over $5 million in purse money.

While Gordon clearly deemed a winless season as being unacceptable, you have to give him credit for keeping his cool. Instead of pointing fingers he, along with crew chief Steve Letarte, calmly placed their focus on identifying and correcting the problem areas. Look for a rejuvenated, and even more aggressive, Jeff Gordon to make quick work of getting back to victory lane. It may even come as soon as soon as the Daytona 500. This dynasty is far from over.

#26. JAMIE MC MURRAY. CROWN ROYAL FORD. ROUSH FENWAY RACING-RFR.

Of the five teams in the RFR stable it was the McMurray team that struggled the most in 2008. The only real bright spot from last year came during the final half dozen races when the team seemed to catch fire and lived up to its potential.

There are two major positives for this team this year. The first is veteran crew chief Donnie Wingo will oversee the team's operation. McMurray and Wingo worked together during their tenure with Ganassi Racing and the chemistry between them was very good. McMurray is reported to be ecstatic over the reunion with his former chief. The second positive is the fact that long time sponsors Crown Royal and Irwin Tools are returning so the team's finances are not going to be a problem.

But there are some gray areas here and one of them involves a very unique circumstance. McMurray's contract with RFR runs out at the end of this year and he will join a short list of high profile drivers who will fuel the annual silly season later this year. The unique circumstance lies in the NASCAR mandate restricting team ownership which becomes effective at the end of this year. The mandate states that team ownership will be limited to four cars. It's widely believed by many that RFR will release the 26 team at the end of this year based on overall performance levels displayed over the past two years. It's also widely believed that RFR will transfer ownership of the team to Yates Racing. The two organizations have a very strong alliance especially in the area of engine building.

#27. KIRK SHELMERDINE. SHELMERDINE RACING CHEVROLET.

Old school NASCAR fans will remember Kirk Shelmerdine as a veteran crew chief who called the pit road shots for Dale Earnhardt Snr and Richard Childress Racing. It was Shelmerdine who helped Earnhardt win 46 races and four NASCAR Cup titles. Following that stint Shelmerdine decided to put his driving helmet on again and, for the past several years, has been driving a self owned car in the ARCA ReMax Series.

In recent weeks Shelmerdine announced plans to run the entire 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. He has purchased some Toyota Camrys from the now defunct Bill Davis Racing. The serious issue here will be sponsorship. At this point in time there doesn't appear to be any.

#28. TRAVIS KVAPIL. YATES RACING FORD.

In 2008 it seemed that Travis Kvapil's Sprint Cup career with Yates Racing was practically on a week to week basis. The team had no permanent sponsors and spent the season picking up small sponsor packages on a race to race basis. There were even some weeks when the logo on the car's hood read Sponsor Yates Dot Com.

Despite those obstacles Kvapil had a healthy string of respectable races, including four top tens, last year and compiled an average finish ratio of 22.789. More importantly Kvapil kept the team well entrenched in NASCAR's top 35 owners points standings which guaranteed the team a starting berth in all 36 races last year.

Unfortunately things have not changed much for Kvapil and his team from this time last year. In fact the situation may have gotten worse. Kvapil and the 28 team are set to run the first five races with no registered owners points. The points he accumulated from last year has been transferred to the new member of the Yates organization: the #98 Ford that will be driven by Paul Menard. That shouldn't be too big of a problem because Kvapil is a rock steady qualifier. The big concern will be paying the bills following race number five. Yates Racing has already said that they cannot field the car long term without bonafide sponsorship.

#29. KEVIN HARVICK. SHELL-PENZOIL CHEVROLET. RICHARD CHILDRESS RACING-RCR.

It appears that systems are in go status for Harvick's team led by crew chief Todd Berrier. The primary sponsorship program, provided by Shell and Pennzoil, is also in place and there's no reason why Harvick and company can't pick up where they left off last year as major players in the Chase For The Championship.

The really interesting aspect concerning Harvick lies in the fact that his contract with RCR expires at the end of this year. It's anticipated that Childress will try to make quick work of getting a contract extension signed. But before that happens Harvick will likely become a high profile player in the always fun silly season.

#31. JEFF BURTON. CATERPILLAR CHEVROLET. RICHARD CHILDRESS RACING-RCR.

The only major change for Jeff Burton's team is primary sponsorship. Caterpillar will be on the hood this year. They are the replacement for AT&T who left the team after last year in compliance with the terms of an out of court settlement that stemmed from a lawsuit between AT&T and Sprint.

Burton had a banner year in 2008 finishing sixth in the points, with two wins and an average finish ratio of 12.816. The prospects of an equally successful 2009 is highly anticipated.

#33. CLINT BOWYER. CHEERIOS-BB&T CHEVROLET. RICHARD CHILDRESS RACING-RCR.

If one had to describe the prospects of Clint Bowyer's 2009 season with just one word then that word would absolutely be: CHANGE. Last year Bowyer drove RCR’s #07 Jack Daniels Chevrolet into the Chase For The Championship where he finished fifth in the final standings. This year he will be the driver of RCR's new fourth team: the #33 Cheerios-BB&T Chevrolet. For Bowyer everything will change this year including the car number, sponsor and he will be working with new crew chief Shane Wilson who will be supervising an entirely new over the wall team that the driver has never worked with before.

The one thing that hasn't changed here is the extremely high commitment to quality and performance that comes with being part of RCR. It's a safe bet that Bowyer will make very quick work in adapting to his new racing environment and the new team will be major players in the Chase just like the old team was last year.

#34. JOHN ANDRETTI. WINDOW WORLD CHEVROLET. EARNHARDT GANASSI RACING/FRONT ROW MOTORSPORTS.

This one may get a little confusing because it involves the latest chapter in the merger of Dale Earnhardt Inc and Ganassi Racing. When the two teams merged to form EGR they decided to run four teams in 2009. The #1 with driver Martin Truex Jr and the #8 with Aric Almirola came from the Earnhardt team. The #01 and #15 cars from Earnhardt were set aside even though both have usable owners points from 2008. The other two cars, in EGR's stable for the new season, came from Ganassi Racing. They are the #42 driven by Juan Pablo Montoya and the #41 with a to be announced driver and sponsor. Ganassi's former third car, the #40, has been set aside. However efforts to negotiate a contract with a driver and sponsor for the #41 were unsuccessful and it was widely believed that EGR was going to trim their operation to three cars for the start of the new season with hopes that they could land a sponsor for the #41 and race it later in the year.

The status of the #41 changed last Friday following the announcement of an alliance between EGR and Front Row Motorsports which is owned by restaurant entrepreneur Bob Jenkins. Last year Front Row ran the #34 in selected Sprint Cup races with driver John Andretti. Under the terms of the new alliance the EGR #41 is entered in the Daytona 500 as car #34. Front Row has obtained sponsorship for the race from Window World a North Carolina based franchise company that specializes in residential glass installation. Making the seemingly one race deal even sweeter is the fact that the #41/34 has Chip Ganassi registered as the legal owner of the car. That means the NASCAR owners points, earned last year by the #41, applies to the first five races of 2009.

The bottom line here is: the #34 of John Andretti and team owner Bob Jenkins has a guaranteed start in the 2009 Daytona 500. The EGR #41 will also have a chance to do a showcase, in hopes of attracting the right amount of attention, in the race. Whether or not this alliance extends beyond the Daytona race remains to be seen.

#36 SCOTT RIGGS. TOYOTA. TOMMY BALDWIN RACING-TBR

Veteran NASCAR crew chief, and former successful Nationwide Series team owner, Tommy Baldwin surprised a lot of people recently with his announcement of plans to form a single car team that will run the entire 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. The team will campaign Toyota Camrys this year with five year NASCAR veteran Scott Riggs behind the wheel. Baldwin will take on the unique dual role of team owner and crew chief. There has been no official announcement yet regarding primary sponsors but it does appear that several companies are interested with State Water Heaters and Hunt Brothers Pizza being mentioned the most. Both of these companies have been involved with Scott Riggs in the past and reportedly really likes the driver.

#39. RYAN NEWMAN. U.S. ARMY CHEVROLET. STEWART HAAS RACING-SHR         

Defending Daytona 500 champion Ryan Newman enters the next phase of his NASCAR career driving for owner and team mate Tony Stewart. Veteran Tony Gibson, formally of Dale Earnhardt Inc, also joins the team as Newman's crew chief. The U.S. Army will be the team's primary sponsor for 23 races. The search continues to obtain sponsors for the remaining 13 races although there has been some speculation that says Burger King may take up some of that slack.

The sponsor situation here has a little bit to do with the state of the economy and a whole lot to do with the timing of Newman's contract signing. The negotiations went well into the fall of last year before they were finalized and that delay created some timing problems in terms of notifying potential sponsors that Newman was now officially on board. For example the sponsor deal with the Army could not be finalized until late October.

Speaking of the Army: they traditionally issue their promotional contracts on a year to year basis. That means that Newman and the #39 team will have to, as the Army likes to say, “be all that they can be" right from the beginning to insure they have that sponsorship for 2010.

#41.  CHEVROLET. EARNHARDT GANASSI RACING-EGR.

First off revert to #34 John Andretti to review the status of this ride. After you complete your review then formulate your own opinion. Following that you will be pleasantly surprised to discover that you probably know just as much about this situation as EGR President Steve Lauletta. With the exception of the upcoming Daytona 500 this car has no driver or sponsor. Lauletta claims that the process of selecting a driver will continue past the start of the season and the car will be returned to race status if they can find a sponsor. Sadly all this situation has become another source of embarrassment for Teresa Earnhardt, Chip Ganassi and his partner Felix Sabates.

Recently there was an announcement that said Ganassi was going to loan the #41's car number to owner/driver Jeremy Mayfield's new Toyota team. However the team's owner points will remain Ganassi. 

#42. JUAN PABLO MONTOYA. TARGET CHEVROLET. EARNHARDT GANASSI RACING-EGR.

This is the third full time team that stemmed from the recent merger of Dale Earnhardt Inc and Ganassi Racing. At the start of the new year this ride only had part time sponsorship with Wrigley's Gum. However EGR's #41 had full sponsorship from Target Stores but no driver. On January 20th it was decided to transfer the Target sponsorship to the #42 with Wrigley's remaining as an associate sponsor.

Montoya's NASCAR career is highlighted by one win each in the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series. Both of those wins occurred on road courses and critics were quick to point out that a former Indy Racing League champion and Formula One driver should excel on a road course. The team's oval track performance has not been as strong as it needs to be. In 2008 Montoya finished 25th in the Spring Cup driver points. In 36 starts he only had two top five and three top ten finishes that calculated to a 23.421 average finish ratio. This team really needs a break out year in 2009 to help elevate EGR's status in Sprint Cup racing.

#43. REED SORENSON. DODGE. RICHARD PETTY MOTORSPORTS-RPM.

This is another result from the recently completed merger between Gillette Evernham Motorsports and Petty Enterprises. It guarantees that the historic car #43, with King Richard Petty's name attached to it, will remain an active participant in NASCAR racing.

22 year old Reed Sorenson will drive the car this year in hopes that his new ride will become the career making launch pad that he's been looking for these past few years. In 2008 Sorenson drove for Chip Ganassi Racing with marginal results. He finished 25th in the driver's standings. His year was highlighted by only one top five and two top ten finishes with an average finish ratio of 26.395.

2009 sponsorship for the car seems to be on a piece meal basis but that's really not very surprising considering the current economic climate. Making rotating appearances on the hood of the car this year will be the United States Air Force, Paralyzed Veterans Of America Dot Org, Valvoline, McDonalds and Super 8 Motels. It's not certain if all of these sponsors have signed for enough events to cover the entire 36 race schedule.

#44. A J ALLMENDINGER. DODGE. RICHARD PETTY MOTORSPORTS-RPM.

The fourth entry from the newly formed RPM is a part time ride with former open wheel racing champion A J Allmendinger in the driver's seat. Allmendinger is scheduled to run ten races, plus the Budweiser Shoot Out, with Valvoline on the hood. Anything past that will depend on available sponsorship.

Last year there were countless stories regarding the influx of prominent open wheel drivers coming to NASCAR which was often termed "the open wheel invasion." Last year Allmendinger was driving for Red Bull Racing and the effort really came to life during the last half of the season. He was designated as one of the few open wheel drivers capable of making the NASCAR transition. In a move that still amazes many observers Allmendinger was released from the ride late last year. If he can come on strong right from the start with RPM then it's very possible that he can pick up some more sponsorship and create something impressive.

#47. MARCUS AMBROSE. LITTLE DEBBIE SNACKS TOYOTA. JTG DAUGHERTY RACING.

Australia's Marcus Ambrose, or "Kangaroo Meat" as he's affectionately called in the garage area, is rapidly becoming one of NASCAR's most popular drivers. 2009 will bring him the racing opportunity of a life time because he's joining the Sprint Cup Series full time. Ambrose will drive the JTG Daughtery Racing Toyota. The team has a technical alliance with Michael Waltrip Racing.

It also seems to have plenty of financial support. Little Debbie Snacks will be the primary sponsor this year. There's also strong part time sponsor support from Kingsford Charcoal, Clorox and Bush's Baked Beans.

There's an interesting aspect to the Little Debbie sponsorship. The company is owned by the Seventh Day Adventist Church who has a policy regarding their business ventures during the time period between sundown Friday to sundown on Saturday. During that time period, out of respect to the religious sect's beliefs, the race team will have to completely cover the Little Debbie logos on the car hauler, remove all company logos from the race car and team members will have to wear non Little Debbie attire.

#48. JIMMIE JOHNSON. LOWES HOME IMPROVEMENT/KOBALT TOOLS CHEVROLET. RICK HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS-RHM.

The ultra strong combination of driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus returns with their focus on a major goal: create NASCAR history by winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship for the fourth consecutive year. Aside from some very minor personnel changes, the team is virtually intact from last year and they've got a better than good chance to win that fourth title.

Johnson and Knaus are signed with RHM through 2010 but it's doubtful that Rick Hendrick is going to wait until next year to negotiate a contract extension. It's highly possible that the talks will start later this year and don't be too surprised if you hear that the negotiations involves one of those RHM special "for life" contracts similar to what they have in place with Jeff Gordon.

#50. STANTON BARRETT. NOS ENERGY DRINK CHEVROLET. BARRETT MOTORSPORTS.

NASCAR driver, and famed Hollywood stuntman, Stanton Barrett plans on running at least five Sprint Cup events this year starting with the Daytona 500. Nos Energy Drink will be the primary sponsor.

In addition to driving race cars, as well as crashing cars in many famous Hollywood films, Barrett is also an accomplished artist and recently opened his own art gallery in New York City.

#55. MICHAEL WALTRIP. NAPA TOYOTA. MICHAEL WALTRIP RACING-MWR.

MWR displayed some highly noticeable improvement during the final months of the 2008 season and Michael Waltrip is hoping that his team can carry that momentum into the new season especially during the Daytona 500 where he's enjoyed a high measure of success. Waltrip is also very excited about veteran crew chief Robert "Bootie" Barker calling the shots from the pit box this year. Long time primary sponsor Napa also returns with the team and that's going to mean another year of those hilarious television commercials.

The one question here is: will 2009 be his last year as a driver? During a January 20th press conference at Daytona Waltrip said "my goal is to win some races this year, run up front so I don't have to say this is my last year. But if I don't do those things, If I can't compete at the level that (team mate David) Reutimann does, or what Napa expects then I probably won't get to do this again in 2010."

#66. TERRY LABONTE. WINDOW WORLD TOYOTA. PRISM MOTORSPORTS.

Prism Motorsports is owned by former NASCAR driver, turned TV broadcaster, Phil Parsons and partner Randy Humphrey. The team recently announced that NASCAR champion Terry Labonte will drive their new Toyota team in the Daytona 500. Labonte has the past champion's provisional available and would be number two in line, behind Tony Stewart, for the guaranteed starting berth if the car does not make it though the qualifying races. The Daytona 500 effort will be sponsored by Window World. The team is seeking full time sponsorship to run the full 2009 schedule. Dave Blaney will take over the driving duties after the Daytona race.

#77. SAM HORNISH JR. MOBIL 1 DODGE. PENSKE SOUTH RACING.

Sam Hornish Jr made team owner Roger Penske proud by delivering three Indy Racing League championships as well as winning the 2006 Indy 500. But so far all that talent has not been converted into a promising NASCAR career. Hornish had a dismal 2008 with no top five or top tens and a 27.865 average finish ratio. All through last season the team frequently slipped in and out of NASCAR's top 35 owners points ranking. Despite last year the Penske organization insists they are still behind Hornish and are looking forward to a much improved 2009 season.

Mobil 1 returns as the team's primary sponsor this year. There also a three race sponsorship deal from the Triple A  Auto Club and a two race sponsorship package from Penske Trucking.

#78. REGAN SMITH. FURNITURE ROW CHEVROLET. FURNITURE ROW RACING.

Regan Smith raced for Dale Earnhardt Inc last year and won the NASCAR Raybestos Rookie Of The Year title. However the merger of DEI and Ganassi Racing left him as the odd man out and his team was discontinued. It was recently announced that Smith will take over the #78 Furniture Row Chevrolet. Unfortunately economics only has the team running a planned 12 races beginning with the Daytona 500.

#82 SCOTT SPEED. RED BULL ENERGY DRINK TOYOTA. RED BULL RACING.

Following a stint in Formula One racing, Scott Speed came home to America to take on stock car racing. He spent much of last year in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series where he won a race and combined that with multiple wins in the ARCA ReMax Series. This year he'll be a full time Sprint Cup driver with the #82 Red Bull Toyota team and is expected to give Joey Logano a serious run for the NASCAR Raybestos Rookie Of The Year title.

Off the track he may become a serious contender for Kyle Busch's "Rowdy" title. He's been known to display some brash arrogance at times and that will likely give Red Bull Racing a bad case of indigestion. He's also proven that he's capable of displaying on track temperament as well. A case in point occurred last year during the ARCA ReMax Series' final race. Speed's anger with a fellow competitor resulted in two wadded up race cars, a disqualification and more importantly the loss of the series' championship. If these patterns continue he will become the new darling of the racing media.

#83. BRIAN VICKERS. RED BULL ENERGY DRINK TOYOTA. RED BULL RACING-RBR.

This is a team to watch in 2009 and it could be a major break out season for Vickers and RBR. The team came on strong last year during the second half of the season and finished 2008 with four top five and six top ten finishes. They ranked 19th in the driver's points standings and had an average finish ratio of 19.947.

This year the team will be supervised by veteran crew chief Ryan Pemberton and that's another major positive. Yet another positive was the recent announcement that said  Mighty Auto Parts will join the team's sponsorship program this year.

#87. JOE NEMECHEK. NEMCO TOYOTA.

After being released from the #78 Furniture Row Motorsports ride last year, Joe Nemechek is returning to his roots and will re establish his own team: Nemco Motorsports. The team plans to run the full schedule in both the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and the Nationwide Series. NASCAR veteran Phillipe Lopez has been hired as crew chief for both teams. While no formal announcements have been made regarding sponsors, Nemco said it's confident that they can make the first 12 races and expect final sponsorship agreements for the entire year to be in place soon.

#88. DALE EARNHARDT JR. AMP ENERGY DRINK-MOUNTAIN DEW-NATIONAL GUARD CHEVROLET. HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS-HMS.

NASCAR's most popular driver is locked and loaded for 2009 with all key personnel and sponsors returning in an effort to win the Sprint Cup championship that he so badly wants.

Also returning will be his crew chief, and cousin, Tony Eury Jr. For the past several months many NASCAR observers have been saying that it's time to end this relationship. Many times last year there were heated discussions, overheard from the team's in car radio system, that indicated they weren't getting along. There were also a few questionable pit strategy decisions that many felt was a major contributor to Earnhardt's slide to 12th in the final Chase For The Championship standings. Team owner Rick Hendrick is reportedly satisfied that these issues have been resolved but you can safely bet that he'll be listening on their radio transmissions on race day.

Here's some exciting news for the members of the Junior Nation. The Las Vegas based Sports Book Dot Com has picked Earnhardt to win the Daytona 500 placing him at five to one odds.

#96. BOBBY LABONTE. ASK DOT COM FORD. HALL OF FAME RACING-HOF.

This new team configuration may be remembered as one of the prominent off track stories from 2008 simply because no one saw it coming. On January 13th Hall Of Fame Racing announced an alliance with Yates Racing. It was at first perceived as another NASCAR team merger in the name of financial survival. That initial announcement was followed by the big surprise of Labonte signing with HOF. That announcement was followed by the even bigger announcement that said the team landed a 29 race primary sponsorship from Ask Dot Com the famed Internet search engine. The remaining seven races on the schedule will be sponsored by Academy Sports + Outdoors and Texas Instruments/DLP.

Labonte spent the last four seasons driving Richard Petty's famed #43 Dodge. However late last year it was becoming apparent that Petty Enterprises, along with team majority owner Boston Ventures, was not going to be able to land a 2009 sponsor for Labonte. Concerned about his future Labonte asked for, and received, a release from his contract. At the time everyone was betting the farm on Labonte taking over the #41 ride with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Labonte is notorious for being very careful about what he says to the racing media. He did concede that he had talked to EGR about the #41 ride but never said a word about his talks with HOF.

HOF's relatively short history has been nothing but a character study in frustration with very few bragging points. Last December there were rampant rumors that the team was in the process of selling off its equipment and preparing to close their shop for good. The alliance with Yates Racing, the hiring of Labonte and the creation of one of the best sponsorship packages in NASCAR was all accomplished within a period of three weeks. That's what makes this story so remarkable.

Making the deal even sweeter is the fact Yates has decided to transfer the owner's points from their apparently non operative #38 car to the HOF team. The 38's points were well entrenched within NASCAR's 2008 final owner's standings and the acquisition of them will guarantee HOF and Labonte a starting berth in the first five races of 2009.

#98. PAUL MENARD. MENARDS FORD. YATES RACING.

After a two year stint with Dale Earnhardt Inc, that garnered very few highlights, Paul Menard felt it time for a change and, in late November, announced that he was joining Yates Racing. Making that move with him will be his long time primary sponsor, Menard's Home Improvement Stores, which is owned by his father, John Menard.

The new team will acquire the owner's points from Yates #28 team which will guarantee them starting berths in the first five races of 2009 because the 28 team finished 2008 well entrenched within NASCAR's top 35 in owner's points. The points transfer means that  Travis Kvapil, driver of the #28, will have to race his way the starting field on qualifying speed. The Kvapil team is scheduled to run the first five races of the new season. What happens after that will be dependent on the resolution of severe sponsorship issues.

#99. CARL EDWARDS. AFLAC FORD. ROUSH FENWAY RACING-RFR.

If anyone can stop Jimmie Johnson for winning a fourth consecutive points championship in 2009 this is the man for the job. Carl Edwards fought Johnson tooth and nail for the championship last year. Had it not been for a major crash in last fall's Talladega race we could have been introducing Edwards as the reining champion.

The only major change for Edward's team for 2009 is the fact that Aflac Insurance will take over the primary sponsorship duties. Keep a sharp eye on Edwards this year. Many observers are already saying he's going to be the new NASCAR champion.

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