Waltrip lines up big dogs

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 8, 2006

The final piece to Michael Waltrip’s 2007 puzzle fell into place Friday. UPS formally announced that they reached a two-year agreement to sponsor Dale Jarrett’s Toyota in 2007 for Michael Waltrip Racing.

This move is huge for Waltrip, it clears the way for him to field three teams full-time next season.

None will be competitive next season and there will be some missed races, but Waltrip is aligning himself with some heavy-hitters in the corporate world.

His own no. 55 car will continue to be sponsored by NAPA, Jarrett’s ride, the number of the car was not announced, will sport the brown of UPS, and the third car, no. 00, will share sponsorship of Burger King and Domino’s Pizza. The driver of the third car has not been announced, but we should know who will pilot that car in the near future.

I have been a critic of Waltrip this season; I think he is more interested in face time in front of the television cameras than winning races, but you have to be impressed with the operation that he has put together.

With the influx of Toyota’s teams next season, along with some expansion plans of existing teams, there will be close to 50 full-time fully-sponsored teams next season. With only 43 cars making each race, some big-time drivers and big-time teams will miss some races next season.

Could the addition of new teams and new sponsorship money be in the impetus for Brian France’s recent announcement that he was looking at tinkering with the chase format for the 2007 season? I think so.

Don’t be surprised if the qualifying process is changed as well. Guaranteeing starting spots for the top-35 in owners’ points could be changed or even done away with.

Tony Stewart came away from Daytona last Saturday night with the win and jumped two spots to land fifth in the points standings. This time last year, Smoke went on a tear after the Daytona race, winning four of six races.

The Home Depot team seems poised to make a similar run this year. Stewart fought some bad luck and an injury earlier in the year, but he dominated at Daytona and he is strong at the next several tracks.

At this week’s track, Chicago, Stewart has rung up four top-five finishes in five career races, including a win. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is the defending champion of this race, coming out of nowhere last season to win at the 1.5 mile track.

Junior has quietly climbed to third in the standings and looks to be solidly in the chase, a huge change from last season when he was struggling in 14th position and failed to make the show.

However, don’t look for Junior to repeat this weekend. There too many great intermediate teams and cars these days.

Kasey Kahne is bringing the same car to this track that has won four times already this year and Jimmie Johnson is always strong at these intermediate tracks. Greg Biffle will also run up front this week, however, my pick to win this race is Matt Kenseth. He is only eight points behind Johnson in the standings and he will win the race and take over the points lead this week.

Remember, the races changes networks and announcing crews this week. Look for the race at 3:00 on TNT with Bill Weber, Wally Dallenbach, and Benny Parsons.