A few ’06 predictions

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 7, 2006

We will remember the 2005 NASCAR season for many things-some good, some bad. It was the year of the retirement, and almost retirement, of two of the best drivers ever. We were introduced to Carl Edwards’ back flip and toothy grin. The 2005 season saw a type of driver movement that fans of racing had never seen before. Almost half the field will be in new rides in the new year. And it was the year of Tony Stewart climbing fences.

With the 2005 season in the books and less than six weeks before the beginning of the 2006 season, here are some things to look for during the upcoming season.

–Bobby Labonte will drive Petty Enterprises back into Victory Lane. Labonte moving over to the famous no. 43 car was one of the bigger surprises, in a year full of surprises. The combination of Labonte, Robbie Loomis, and Todd Parrott will give Petty the firepower needed to end a long winless streak.

–A large and talented group of talented rookie drivers will arrive on the scene this year. The Rookie of the Year award will be highly contested among Martin Truex, Jr, Reed Sorenson, David Stremme, Denny Hamlin, J.J. Yeley, Clint Bowyer, and Brent Sherman. These guys are not driving middle of the road cars either, all, with the exception of Sherman, are driving for high-profile teams.

–Speaking of Truex, don’t be surprised to see him push Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to wins in 2006. I don’t think there is a doubt that Junior will have a better year, but Truex will battle him for the best driver in the DEI stable.

–2006 will be the final season for Mark Martin, Terry Labonte, and more than likely, Ken Schrader. There could be more announcements as the year goes by, but those guys are hanging it up after the year. Both Martin and Schrader will end up in the truck series in 2007.

–Jeff Gordon will return to old form. Gordon had a terrible 2005 season, but came on strong toward the end of year with new crew chief Steve Latarte. Things will be back to normal in 2006 with Gordon being a threat to win every week.

–Toyota will officially announce plans to enter the Nextel Cup series in 2007. This announcement has been anticipated for a while now. Also look for some pretty stout teams to switch to Toyotas. Bill Davis Racing and Michael Waltrip have all but confirmed a switch in 2007. Look for Penske and Ganassi to be possible Toyota teams as well.

–Roush Racing will have a very tough time repeating the success of 2005. Half of the chase field drove for the Cat in the Hat and three of those finished in the top five. Roush will again be strong, but I don’t see the dominance like last year.

–An influx of drivers from other series will express interest in joining the good ole boys. Paul Tracy, an open-wheel star, is biting at the bit to land a cup ride and he will drive some Busch races next year. With the IRL, Cart, and Formula One all struggling for drivers and support, the best drivers will try to make entry into NASCAR.

Of course, the 2006 season will create more stories, successes, and failures as the season goes by, but these are scenarios to think about. Hang in there, testing at Daytona starts on January 9 and the Bud Shootout is only five weeks away.