OPINION: My top 12

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 2, 2007

The official start of the 2007 Nextel Cup season is a week away with the running of the Budweiser Shootout. The biggest race of the year, the Daytona 500, is the following week. It is hard to believe that we are about to go racing again, isn’t it?

With the season upon us, I thought this is as good a time as any to make my predictions of the 2007 Chase participants. The number of drivers will increase to 12 this year from 10 last year. I am also going way out on a limb and giving you my picks for the final top-12 at year-end.

So, with the beginning of the season a week away and the end of the season nine months away, here we go.

12. Casey Mears. Hendrick Motorsports and the no. 25 is the new ride for Casey after spending his entire Cup career with Chip Ganassi. Mears has been on the edge of a break-out season and after finishing last season in 14th position, the change to Hendrick equipment will be worth at least two positions.

11. Jeff Burton. Burton was the come-back story last year with Richard Childress Racing. He broke a massive non-win streak with a checkered flag at Dover last September. With Cingular changing its name to AT&T, Burton and his team will be dealing with sponsorship questions, but Richard Childress will handle the business end and Burton will make the Chase again in 2007.

10. Denny Hamlin. The Virginia native came out of nowhere last season, his rookie season, to win two races and finish third in the final standings. The sophomore slump rears its ugly head this season for Hamlin, but his still makes the Chase and finishes in the top-ten.

9. Elliott Sadler. Robert Yates Racing was a sinking ship and Elliott jumped off last season and landed with Ray Evernham and Dodge. Sadler performed admirably during the last half of the season in the ride that Jeremy Mayfield nearly destroyed. Given a full year in the no. 19, Sadler will be back competing for the title.

8. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Junior will struggle through the beginning of the season and go through the spring. The unsettled contract situation with DEI and the “deadbeat owner”, his step-mother, Teresa Earnhardt, will affect Junior in a negative way.

Tony Eury’s job will be as important as ever early in the season. The contract will be agreed on and Junior will be given control of a portion of the company and he’ll barely make the Chase.

7. Jeff Gordon. Many have speculated if fatherhood will soften Gordon, some have even speculated that the arrival of Gordon’s first child might shorten his career. Don’t think so. The guy can drive and he’ll win a couple of races and scare the entire chase field before fading down the stretch.

6. Matt Kenseth. Mr. Personality is the only possible Chase repeater from Roush Racing. The Cat in the Hat’s other chaser from last season, Mark Martin, has semi-retired for the sixth time and will not make the Chase. However, Matt will not be the only Roush racer to make the field.

5. Kevin Harvick. For the first time since many of us have followed racing, GM Goodwrench will not have a car in the field. Shell Oil is the new sponsor for the no. 29. Harvick won lots of races last season and ran away with Busch championship. He will not compete full time on Saturdays this season, but will field up to 3 teams each week from his own shop. RCR puts two into the field again.

4. Jimmie Johnson. There has not been a repeat champion since Jeff Gordon in 1997-98. This season will not break that streak. I would rather be lucky than good, and Johnson’s fortunes last season were unbelievable. Being good improves your good luck, but Jimmie’s skill and fortune will not lead to a championship this season, he’ll have to make due with a fourth place finish and winning a handful of races. Poor guy.

3. Greg Biffle. The Biffster was a big disappointment last season, but will come back strong in 2007. One thing I will not miss about Biffle—you will not see him throwing lettuce in Doug Richert face in that silly Subway sandwich commercial. As part of Roush’s annual house cleaning, Richert moved to Toyota and Pat Tryson comes on board as Biffle’s new crew chief.

2. Kasey Kahne. The Heart-Throb battles all the way to Homestead but loses the championship by less than 10 points during the final race. K-Squared will again lead the circuit in wins, as he did last season when he won 6 races. Close, but not this year. Kasey will win his championship soon.

1. Tony Stewart. Smoke paid some guy 200 grand to make sure he lost weight in the off season, shedding 25 pounds is what Stewart got for his money. His will have a mad on from not making the Chase last season. Mark up trophy number three for Stewart and trophy number four for Joe Gibbs. I just hope Smoke stops climbing fences after wins; I don’t want to see them pick up pieces off the track after he falls from 25 feet.