It was rather inconceivable, at first, that Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth could go through the entire 2008 season without a win. And it remains far-fetched that they will not return to Victory Lane sometime in 2009. But four other drivers with lesser credentials and one venerable veteran returning to full-time status have more to prove and can do so by breaking into the win column, some for the first time, in 2009.
He appears to be the most hyped rookie driver in years, and he's got a pretty impressive resume to back up the hype. But that alone does not guarantee that Joey Logano will get to Victory Lane in 2009.
What does virtually guarantee it is the support staff surrounding him at Joe Gibbs Racing. Not only does Logano inherit a car with a rich winning tradition in the No. 20 Toyota formerly driven by Tony Stewart, but he inherits all that goes along with it. Most importantly for him, that includes crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who is eager to prove that he can help the rookie begin matching the hype in a hurry.
There will be growing pains, no doubt. Based on how he mostly struggled last year in Sprint Cup cars, it's doubtful he will get to Victory Lane anywhere close to as quickly as he did in his ARCA and Nationwide rides. There are those, in fact, who believe Logano would have benefited from some time in the Truck Series because the current trucks more closely resemble NASCAR's "new car" in terms of how it feels to the driver in the cockpit.
But if there is one thing Logano already has proven, it's that he's talented and a quick study. With the crafty Zipadelli pulling the strings behind him and all the other quality support that Toyota and JGR are going to mount in an effort to push him forward, it's only a matter of time until he wins his first Cup race. It may take a third of the season for him to progress up the learning curve, but after that it will be sooner rather than later.
It's been three years since Mark Martin won a Cup Series race. So when he accepted the two-year offer to drive Rick Hendrick's No. 5 Chevrolet, he made it clear why he said yes.
"The championship was not a consideration," said Martin, who has never won a Cup title. "Being sure that I was getting into something that had a chance to win meant everything."
Winning is still on Martin's radar, and now he gets back into equipment that can do just that. He last won a race in 2005 at Kansas while driving the No. 6 Ford for Jack Roush. The next season -- after Roush convinced him to return another year -- he went winless but finished ninth in points. That said, it was a time when Roush wasn't the Roush it is today. Matt Kenseth finished second in points in 2006, but Martin and Carl Edwards (12th) were the best the team could muster in the title hunt.
He's spent the past two years driving part time (24 races each year) for Ginn Racing and then Dale Earnhardt Inc. when the two teams merged, missing Victory Lane by 0.02 seconds in the 2007 Daytona 500. A Ginn car (at the time) nearly winning the Daytona 500? Only Martin could do that.
Martin is a perfect fit for Hendrick's No. 5. He gets in equipment that can win. And Hendrick gets a proven, steady veteran in that car -- something that's been missing since Terry Labonte retired. Labonte, by the way, won a championship and 12 races in the 5 car. And it should be noted his final victory in the No. 5 came after a three-year winless drought.
In his rookie season of 2007, Juan Montoya made short work at Sonoma and ran second to Tony Stewart at the Brickyard. The F1 transplant expected even better things in 2008, but his progress stalled slightly.
For the most part, he avoided the financial issues that forced longtime friend and team owner Chip Ganassi to shut down the No. 40 team, but personnel matters proved troublesome for Montoya; he had at least three different crew chiefs in one season.
Nevertheless, Montoya at times exhibited the ability that he can win on an oval, not just on a road course. He finished second at Talladega in the spring and survived both Bristol and Martinsville by averaging a top-15 finish in the four races. Now, with the reinforcements of his newly merged team, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Montoya will be the dark horse to find the light of Victory Lane -- and on an oval, no less.
Obstacles still await Montoya in 2009. He has only a half a season of sponsorship to date and after two years in a Dodge faces a manufacturer switch to Chevrolet. Still, Montoya remains high committed to the sport (he has continuously shunned offered to rejoin the F1 ranks), is not the least bit intimidated by the veterans on the track, and has not yet reached his full potential in NASCAR.
After his rookie of the year season, Montoya said 2008 was his year to make the Chase or bust. Expect him to burst through in 2009 and return to Victory Lane, and maybe more than once.
David Ragan's marked improvement -- he finished 13th in the 2008 point standings -- bodes well for the third-year driver. Obviously he's overcome the much-ballyhooed "dart with no feathers" beginnings and 2009 may prove to be the year he celebrates in Victory Lane.
Ragan posted six top-five finishes last year -- one less than Chase contenders Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton. Ragan had five top-10 finishes in the final 10 races of 2008, including a third-place run at Talladega to match his career-best showing. And while he doesn't garner as much press as other twentysomething up-and-comers in the Cup Series, Ragan did tally more points (1,260) during the '08 Chase than Kyle Busch (1,106) and Denny Hamlin (1,204).
Ragan also benefits from his surroundings. There are worse places to draw a check than at Roush Fenway Racing. And having Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray to lean on can't be a bad thing. The equipment, the know-how, the opportunity is there; it's time for the driver to take the next step.
In the end, Ragan will continue to prove that he has come a long way since that crash-marred, 42nd-place finish at Dover on Sept. 24, 2006.
Talladega, 2006. Brian Vickers storms to victory on the final lap, sprays champagne in Victory Lane, adds another win to the long list of those accumulated by Hendrick Motorsports. No matter that he spun out teammate Jimmie Johnson -- intentionally or accidentally, you make the call -- to do it. Vickers has never made any apologies, then or now. The record book says he's a race winner, and isn't that enough?
Well, maybe not. In the eyes of many fans, that victory came under decidedly contentious circumstances, and at best should have an asterisk attached, much like Tony Stewart's victory over Regan Smith at the same track this year. There are plenty of folks in the grandstand who aren't going to consider Vickers a winner until he goes out and does it again, this time without putting his front fender to another driver's rear bumper first.
And you know what? He might just be capable of doing just that in 2009. As lead driver for NASCAR's most improved organization, Red Bull Racing Team, Vickers appears in prime position to get career win No. 2 (and public perception victory No. 1). Under the leadership of general manager Jay Frye, Red Bull has hired better people and put better race cars on the track. Vickers showed plenty of flashes last year, with a pole and six top-10s.
Now it's time to cut out the crashes, mechanical problems, and speeding penalties that at times scuttled great runs. Vickers is right there, on the brink. Now all he has to do it put his nose to the -- well, maybe not. - nascar.com
Captain Thunder Has Created A New NASCAR Smart Phone App
"Captain Thunder's NASCAR News"
Click Here To Download The Most Complete NASCAR App Available Anywhere