The 2007 NASCAR Nextel Cup season will not soon be forgotten. When it comes to memorable moments and historic crossroads, the season — which ends on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway — will be remembered for highs, lows and everything in between.
1. Jimmie Johnson puts together a championship run like no other. He has already won four of nine races in the Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship and could make it five at Homestead. All four of his Chase victories have come in a row and a fifth would give him five straight. That has never been done before, at least not in the modern era.
2. When Brian France began talking about something called the car of tomorrow project some years ago, nobody thought much about it. That’s because nobody thought such a bold move to improve racing would ever get beyond the argument fodder stage. This year, the program was actually implemented. It is one of the boldest moves in racing history.
3. Many people thought that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was just bluffing when he said that he was so disillusioned with his role at the team his father founded that he might move to another team. Bluff, schmuff. Earnhardt went free agent, talked to several teams and then signed with Hendrick Motorsports, ending months of drama. As a side note, he took the place of Kyle Busch, who may be the series’ best driver. Busch moves over to Joe Gibbs Racing.
4. The Nextel Cup series had been all Detroit iron since its birth in the late 1940s. This season, however, Toyota joined the show. Though many of the Toyotas that cruise the streets and highways of this country are built in this country, the company is based in Japan and viewed as a Japanese company. So far, fears that Toyota would romp off with victory after victory have proved false.
5. It wasn’t just foreign cars that elbowed their way into the Cup this season. Colombian driver Juan Pablo Montoya (left) drove a full season in the series. And by most measures, he’s done incredibly well. He has been competitive in equipment that has been less than competitive. He won a race as a rookie, but more importantly, he opened the doors to other foreign open-wheel drivers. Canadians Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier also have seen track time this year, and next season Scotsman Dario Franchitti will be in a car.
6. A year ago, Clint Bowyer looked like a pretty good young driver on a pretty good Nextel Cup team. This year, it looks like a star was born. Bowyer, of Emporia, Kan., drove solidly enough to make the Chase. Once in the Chase he did what special drivers do in those situations — he kicked it up a notch and made a run at a championship. It looks like he will end up third in points this season, and that makes him a member of the ruling elite.
7. Jeff Gordon was barreling toward a fifth Nextel Cup championship at 200 mph. He was driving fast cars and winning races. He wanted the championship and appeared to have what he wanted. Then came the Chase and his great season was trumped by Johnson’s incredible playoff run of four victories in a row. Gordon did nothing to lose the 2007 championship. He just got run over by his clone.
8. A team’s name used to be simple and self-explanatory, usually named after racing guys. Racing guys like Junior Johnson, Dale Earnhardt and Rick Hendrick. This year, team names got a bit more corporate. The reasons were money. Teams — top teams — brought in money people to help out with the costs of doing business in NASCAR. Roush Racing became Roush Fenway Racing. Evernham Motorsports became Gillett Evernham Motorsports. Several other teams are working on deals.
9. Claims that NASCAR is the fastest-growing sport in the country are having to be tempered this season. Television ratings are sliding downward and attendance at races continues to dip. The glass-half-empty people say the sport has plateaued while the glass-half-full people point to the fact that races are still drawing more than 100,000 fans just about every week.
10. Previous non-NASCAR locations also were in the news. A foreign country that welcomed NASCAR this season was Canada, where the Busch series raced for the first time. It was greeted by a large, enthusiastic crowed. New York City, meanwhile, said no thanks to NASCAR. Land which International Speedway Corp. had bought to build a track in New York was sold after red tape strangled plans.