This year keep your eyes open for…

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 26, 2008

It&8217;s hard to believe, but the 2008 NASCAR season will kick off in just two weeks. The Budweiser Shootout is Feb. 9, followed by the Gatorade Duel on Thursday the following week. Daytona Speedweeks wrap up on Feb. 17 with the 50th Daytona 500. I am ready to get things kicked off and the season to begin.

There will be huge stories worth watching entering the 2008 season. New teams driving new cars, new drivers and the Car of Tomorrow in every race are some of the stories that we know of right now. As usual, there will be more developments as the season progresses, but here are four things to watch for as the season begins.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It&8217;s put up or shut up time for Junior. Hendrick Motorsports, by far the strongest company in the garage, is the new home for Junior. Coming off a winless 2007 season and not making the Chase for the Championship, Junior will have much to prove this season. Tony Eury, Junior&8217;s crew chief, has already predicted a minimum four-win season for the new No. 88 team. If Junior doesn&8217;t win a race in the first five races of the season, you will hear grumblings about his ability, not his equipment.

Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota

The biggest acquisition last season was Toyota&8217;s conversion of Joe Gibbs Racing from Chevrolet to Toyota. With a stable of Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, I don&8217;t think there is much doubt Toyota will win for the first time in cup racing next season. This move will also make Michael Waltrip Racing, Red Bull Racing and Bill Davis Racing much more competitive. I&8217;m not so sure those teams will visit Victory Lane, but I cannot fathom JGR going winless in 2008. Although Washington Redskins fans may not agree, although some may, but it will be good to see Joe Gibbs back in the garage on a regular basis next season.

The open wheel invasion continues

Last season, Juan Pablo Montoya entered the sport with mixed results, finishing 20th in the final standings while winning at Sonoma. On his heels comes Dario Franchitti with Chip Ganassi Racing and Sam Hornish, piloting a third car for Roger Penske. Gillette Evernham Racing hired Patrick Carpentier to drive the No. 10 Dodge and Jacques Villeneuve comes on board with Bill Davis Racing in the No. 27 Toyota. Obviously, there is not a slouch among that group, so there must be something in NASCAR that they couldn&8217;t get in Indy Car, F1 or any other open wheel series. There have already been whispers that Dan Wheldon is looking to make the move to stockcars in 2009, most likely with Ganassi.

Title Sponsor Changes &8212;Again

The premiere series in racing will have its third title sponsor in the last five years. The Winston Cup became the Nextel Cup. Now the Nextel Cup series becomes the Sprint Cup series. Unlike the first change, this change came about because of Sprint&8217;s merger with Nextel a couple of years ago. For the first time in 25 years, there will be no Busch series. The &8220;Saturday Racing League&8221; will now be known as the Nationwide Series. It was tough getting accustomed to Nextel Cup, but I will have a tougher time with this change. To make it three for three, Sears has already informed NASCAR that 2008 will be the final season that its Craftsman brand will sponsor the truck series.

By no means will this list all-encompassing, I am sure another story or ten will overtake our attention as the season progresses.

See you next week when I tell you who will make the Chase and who the 2008 Champion will be.

Jeff Findley is a BNI News contributing columnist.