Editor's note: This is the first in a five-part series looking back on the 2007 Nextel Cup season and peeking ahead at 2008.
As we close the final chapter of the 2007 Nextel Cup season, it's time to look back and reflect upon the year that was.
NASCAR's highest level of racing was like a long-running play on Broadway: 40 weeks of action – but without a writer's or stagehands strike – with edge-of-the-seat drama as well as mind-numbing boredom at times, happiness and sadness, as well as plenty of achievement and disappointment to go around.
But no matter how circuitous the journey was, it ended with an outstanding finish and well-deserved applause for repeat champion Jimmie Johnson.
As we do every year at this time, here are my picks for the top-10 stories of 2007, with a few additional honorable mentions that can't be overlooked:
1. Bye-bye-bye, DEI: In one of the biggest driver moves in NASCAR history, Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced in May that after more than a decade of service he was leaving the company his late father had formed primarily to facilitate his young son's racing career. Years of battling step-mother Teresa Earnhardt, including an ugly fight in the media early in 2007 over control of the company, ended when Junior announced he would take his talent to Hendrick Motorsports for 2008. While Teresa Earnhardt refused to give Junior his fabled No. 8 car number, he'll start a new chapter next season with the No. 88, courtesy of retiring team owner Robert Yates.
As for DEI, while many critics predicted the shop would shutter its doors with Junior gone, the company appears in good hands with new director of global operations Max Siegal, and with drivers Martin Truex Jr. (who gets elevated to No. 1 with Junior's departure), Paul Menard, Regan Smith and a shared car of Mark Martin and Aric Almirola in 2008.
As for Junior, it's put-up or shut-up time. He'll be driving for the best organization in NASCAR and will have the best equipment and personnel in the business. He's longed for a Cup championship. Now it's on his shoulders to go do it. The question is, can he, particularly with new teammates Johnson and Jeff Gordon?
2. You ARE The Man: Jimmie Johnson proved last year's championship was no fluke by winning his second consecutive Nextel Cup title. And for those who thought there was no way Johnson could improve upon last year's drive to the championship (one win and four runner-ups in the final six races), he did so in a resounding way this year with four straight wins in the final five races.
While so much was made about Jeff Gordon's incredibly consistent season, with a 318-point lead heading into the Chase and a 5.1 finishing average in the playoffs, Johnson was a tick better with a 5.0 finishing average. Overall, Hendrick Motorsports dominated the year with an incredible 18 wins – half of the 36-race season.
3. Rest in Peace: This season saw the passing of former chairman Bill France Jr., the architect that took the sport from the regional, Southeast-based circuit his father founded and made it into a national phenomenon.
An extremely shrewd businessman, France brought 10 of billions of dollars in income into the sport through high-profile/high-dollar sponsorships, multi-billion dollar TV packages, the construction of several new race tracks, the expansion of the racing schedule – all which have helped make NASCAR the second-most popular spectator sport in the U.S.
While the jury is still out on some of the changes son Brian has made since he took over for the elder France four years ago, there's no question NASCAR wouldn't be anywhere near as big as it is today if it wasn't for Bill France Jr.
The sport also lost another star in his own right in early January when beloved Benny Parsons lost a courageous battle with cancer, shortly after Bobby Hamilton lost a similar fight at the far too young age of 49.
4. Car of Tomorrow: For the first time in its history, NASCAR competed with two different types of cars in the same season – the old body style that had been in existence for over a decade, plus the new-fangled Car of Tomorrow.
While maintaining two types of cars increased costs in the short term, the COT is expected to reduce costs in the long run. That's part of the reason why, after 16 races in 2007, NASCAR decided to speed up the introduction of the COT into a full-season effort in 2008.
Teams are slowly adapting to what Tony Stewart calls a "flying brick," which still has major problems with handling, particularly in the turns, as well as aerodynamics. But at the same time, the value of the state-of-the-art safety features built into the COT is something that is immeasurable. Numerous drivers took extremely hard hits and walked away with nary a bump or bruise.
5. Chase format changes: NASCAR chairman Brian France's "tweaks" to the Chase for the Nextel Cup format seemed to make things worse, rather than better. Jeff Gordon went through the first 26 races with uncanny consistency, but saw his 318-point lead wiped out when the Chase began – and with nothing to show for that effort when the playoffs began.
Adding 10 bonus points for each win in the first 26 races had little effect on the Chase itself. Expanding the field from 10 to 12 drivers seemed to water down the competition as 11th-ranked Martin Truex Jr. and 12th-ranked Denny Hamlin finished more than 550 points behind champion Jimmie Johnson.
France said there will be no changes for the format for 2008, other than the name being changed to the Chase for the Sprint Cup to coincide with the corporate name change of the series' title-rights holder.
This year's changes seemed to alienate fans, particularly Gordon fans who felt their favorite driver has now been robbed of a championship twice in the first four years of the Chase. If we go through another season like we did this year, perhaps the once-good idea of the Chase should end up being scrapped.
6. Brother, Can You Spare a Few Million: NASCAR saw numerous partnerships formed in 2007, particularly existing teams with new investors who have deep roots in other sports.
John Henry from the Boston Red Sox joined Roush Racing; George Gillett Jr. from the Montreal Canadians became primary owner of Gillett Evernham Motorsports; Jeff Moorad and Tom Garfinkel of the Arizona Diamondbacks bought out a majority controlling share in Hall of Fame Racing from NFL greats Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman; and Robert Kaufmann purchased a 50-percent stake in Michael Waltrip Racing.
Dale Earnhardt Inc., and Richard Childress Racing also formed an engine-building partnership. Other organizations rumored to be exploring future partnerships include Bill Davis Racing and Petty Enterprises. Also of note, long-time team owner Robert Yates retired at season's end, selling the team to son Doug.
7. Ohhhhhhh, what a (miserable) feeling: Toyota's entry into Nextel Cup racing was less than auspicious. Of its seven drivers, Dave Blaney finished the highest at season's end in 31st place, the only driver for the Japanese manufacturer to crack the top-35 this past season.
With the exception of Blaney, every other Toyota driver struggled greatly just to qualify for races, let alone be competitive in them. Worst among all drivers was Michael Waltrip, who qualified for only 14 of the season's 36 races. But Toyota will get a big boost in 2008 with the addition of Joe Gibbs Racing and drivers Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.
8. Opening the door to open-wheel: Juan Pablo Montoya made a better-than-expected debut in his rookie Cup season, finishing 20th. Most notably, he won at Sonoma in June. Although he struggled early in the season, Montoya became much more consistent in the second half of the year.
His success led to four other open-wheel greats making the decision to defect to NASCAR for next season: 2007 Indy Racing League champ Dario Franchitti from Scotland, former Formula One champ and 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner Jacques Villeneuve, fellow Canadian Patrick Carpentier and three-time IRL champ and 2006 Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr., a U.S. native.
9. Tuning In, Clicking Off: ESPN/ABC made its long-anticipated return to Nextel Cup racing, televising the last 17 races of the season. Unfortunately, the end result did not meet expectations of many fans, who complained about, among other things, too many commercials, too much missed action, poor camerawork, far too many on-air faces/voices, outrageous comments at times by analyst Rusty Wallace and studio co-host Brad Daugherty.
And that's just for starters.
Hopefully, ESPN/ABC will build upon this season to get better as we have them around for another seven more seasons. In the bigger picture, TV ratings for Cup broadcasts continued to slip – as did at-track attendance.
10. Pleasant Surprise: Clint Bowyer was the biggest young star to emerge in 2007. Not only did he make the Chase for the Nextel Cup, uncanny consistency made him a legitimate championship contender. He finished third in his first Chase. Bowyer also won his first career Cup race to start the Chase in New Hampshire.
Also having a big year was Martin Truex, Jr., who was DEI's lone representative within the Chase, who won his first race of the season (spring, Dover) yet never could seem to get on-track during the playoffs.
Gillett Evernham Motorsports had a horrible year collectively. Kasey Kahne struggled all year, barely making a top-20 finish (wound up 19th), while Elliott Sadler was 25th and Scott Riggs was dumped from the team with two races left to make way for his replacement Patrick Carpentier. … The highlight of the season for Kevin Harvick was his incredible win over Mark Martin in the Daytona 500. Harvick beat Martin by roughly one-fourth of a fender, if that. Unfortunately, Harvick could not sustain that success, ultimately finishing 10th in the final standings. … Kyle Busch was unceremoniously dumped from Hendrick Motorsports to make room for Dale Earnhardt Jr., but will start anew next season at Joe Gibbs Racing. … While so much was made about Jimmie Johnson's rally in the Chase, Matt Kenseth also improved dramatically. At one point, he was last in the Chase standings. However, the Cambridge, Wisc., native came on strong in the latter half of the Chase, including a win in the season finale at Homestead, to wind up with an overall fourth-place finish in the standings. … After winning three races in the first 22 events, Tony Stewart was virtually unheard of in the Chase. It didn't help that he had three playoff finishes of 30th or worse. … Bruton Smith purchased New Hampshire International Speedway, and now everyone is wondering if he'll move one of its two race dates to his racing palace in Las Vegas. … Mark Martin finished 27th, yet competed in just 24 races in his part-time schedule. Former Cup champ Bill Elliott also did a part-time schedule, competing in 20 races and finishing 42nd. … Last but not least, we say goodbye to Ricky Rudd, who is on his way to retirement. Thanks for 32 years of memories, 23 wins, 29 poles and nearly 325,000 miles traveled on tracks from Loudon to Los Angeles and everywhere in-between.
Tomorrow: Top moments of the year