Driver rosters for the elite teams in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup Series in 2009 are largely the same as last season.
But many fans might need a program to keep track of the NASCAR drivers among the sport’s second-tier teams for at least the first few races, including the Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Feb. 22.
That’s because there was widespread shuffling of drivers during the winter, in part the result of the teams’ mergers and cutbacks in the face of the slumping economy.
Yet despite all the changes, the same stock car racers who vied for the title in 2008 are expected to be the main contenders again this season, starting with reigning champion Jimmie Johnson.
The El Cajon, Calif., native won NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup playoff to capture his third consecutive title in his No. 48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, tying a 30-year-old record set by Cale Yarborough.
“All the teams that made the Chase will be back, and they’re the ones we’ll be racing,” said J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing. “Those teams aren’t going to miss a beat.”
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88), NASCAR’s most popular driver, also remain at Hendrick.
But even the Hendrick team made one change as veteran Mark Martin replaced Casey Mears, with Martin hoping to finally win his first title at age 50 in the No. 5 Hendrick Chevy.
Mears, in turn, moved to Richard Childress Racing and the Bakersfield native takes over driving the No. 07 Chevrolet that had been driven by the team’s Clint Bowyer.
Bowyer will now drive the No. 33 car for Childress, whose other drivers continue to be Kevin Harvick (No. 29) and Jeff Burton (No. 31). All three drivers made last year’s Chase.
Another powerhouse team, Roush Fenway Racing, will have the same lineup of Ford drivers as in 2008: Carl Edwards (No. 99), Greg Biffle (No. 16), Matt Kenseth (No. 17), David Ragan (No. 6) and Jamie McMurray (No. 26).
Edwards won a series-high nine races last year -- including the rain-delayed February race at Auto Club Speedway -- but finished 69 points behind Johnson for the championship. Biffle was third, 148 points behind.
Among the other Cup teams, it has been a merry-go-round of changes.
Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart left Gibbs to be an owner/driver at his own team, Stewart-Haas Racing.
So Gibbs elevated 18-year-old rising star Joey Logano to take over the No. 20 Gibbs Toyota. He’ll join Gibbs’ two other relatively young drivers, Kyle Busch (No. 18) and Denny Hamlin (No. 11).
Busch, of course, set the sport on fire during the regular season last year with eight wins. But he faltered early in the Chase with mechanical failures and finished 10th in the standings.
“Luck happened to bite us at the wrong time,” Busch said. “During the middle part of the year sometimes it was too easy to win a race. Then you could kind of see the luck wearing away and then, eventually, it was gone.”
Stewart, meanwhile, will drive the No. 14 Chevrolet for his new team. He also recruited Ryan Newman, last year’s Daytona 500 winner, from Penske Racing to be his other driver in the No. 39 Chevy.
That prompted Penske to hire David Stremme to take over the No. 12 Dodge and join teammates Kurt Busch (No. 2) and Sam Hornish Jr. (No. 77).
Elsewhere, Dale Earnhardt Inc. merged with the team of Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, and the combined team will field at least three cars in the Cup series this season.
Juan Pablo Montoya remains in the No. 42 Dodge for the new Earnhardt Ganassi Racing but assumes the Target sponsorship that had been on the No. 41 car driven for Ganassi last year by Reed Sorenson.
EGR also will have Martin Truex Jr. (No. 1) and Aric Almirola (No. 8), along with possibly a fourth car in some races with a driver to be named later.
Another merger occurred when Gillett Evernham Motorsports acquired Petty Enterprises, the team led by seven-time champion Richard Petty. The new team renamed itself Richard Petty Motorsports and its Cup drivers include Kasey Kahne, a two-time winner last year in the No. 9 Dodge; Elliott Sadler in the No. 19; and Sorenson driving the No. 43 made famous by Petty.
Californian A.J. Allmendinger also will drive at least a partial schedule for the team in the No. 44 Dodge.
Bobby Labonte, who left Petty after last year, now drives the No. 96 Ford for Hall of Fame Racing, a single-car team now being managed by Yates Racing.
In addition, Labonte will start the season with the points earned last year by Yates’ David Gilliland of Riverside.
The team said its other drivers are Paul Menard (No. 98), who switched from DEI, and Travis Kvapil (No. 28) for at least the first few races.
As for Gilliland, “David doesn’t have a ride right now” although he remains under contract with Yates Racing, team co-owner Doug Yates said recently. “Hopefully there’s something out there that we can put together for him.”
The Red Bull Toyota team will continue with Brian Vickers (No. 83) and Californian Scott Speed (No. 82).
Regan Smith, last year’s rookie of the year, will drive a limited schedule in the No. 78 Chevy for the one-car team Furniture Row Racing.
And Michael Waltrip Racing will field Waltrip’s No. 55 Toyota along with David Reutimann in the No. 00 and Marcus Ambrose in the No. 47.
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THE FIVE TO WATCH IN 2009
Tony Stewart: The temperamental two-time champion left Joe Gibbs Racing to be co-owner/driver of his new team, Stewart-Haas Racing. Stewart now drives the No. 14 Chevrolet and the question is obvious: Can he oversee a new team and still be competitive in the car?
Carl Edwards: If anyone can stop Jimmie Johnson’s title streak at three it would seem to be Edwards, the Missourian known for his back flips after each win. He had a series-high nine victory flips last year, including the Auto Club 500 in Fontana and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Kyle Busch: NASCAR’s bad boy has much to prove this season after collapsing during the Chase title playoff last year to finish 10th in points. Busch might not match his eight wins of last season, but the Gibbs driver is still a favorite to win his first championship.
David Ragan: The low-key Roush Fenway Racing driver narrowly missed the Chase last year but earned broad respect among his peers. Look for him to qualify for the Chase this season and win his first Cup race in the No. 6 Ford.
Scott Speed: Starting his first full season in the Cup series, the colorful Californian and former Formula One driver will pilot the No. 82 Toyota for Red Bull Racing. Whether he can win this year is debatable, but pay attention when he’s interviewed because it’s likely Speed will say something interesting.
-- Jim Peltz
*--* Date Race Time TV Track Saturday Budweiser Shootout 11 a.m. Ch. 11 Daytona Feb. 12 Gatorade Dual 150s 12:30 p.m. Speed Daytona Feb. 15 Daytona 500 11 a.m. Ch. 11 Daytona Feb. 22 Auto Club 500 2 p.m. Ch. 11 Auto Club (California) March 1 UAW-Dodge 400 12:30 p.m. Ch. 11 Las Vegas March 8 Kobalt Tools 500 10:30 a.m. Ch. 11 Atlanta March 22 Food City 500 10:30 a.m. Ch. 11 Bristol March 29 Goody’s Cool Orange 500 10:30 a.m. Ch. 11 Martinsville April 5 Samsung 500 10:30 a.m. Ch. 11 Texas April 18 Subway Fresh Fit 500 5 p.m. Ch. 11 Phoenix April 26 Aaron’s 499 10 a.m. Ch. 11 Talladega May 2 Crown Royal 400 4 p.m. Ch. 11 Richmond May 9 Dodge Challenger 500 4 p.m. Ch. 11 Darlington May 16 NASCAR Sprint All-Star 4 p.m. Speed Lowe’s Race (Charlotte) May 24 Coca-Cola 600 5:30 p.m. Ch. 11 Lowe’s (Charlotte) May 31 Best Buy 400 2 p.m. Ch. 11 Dover June 7 Pocono 500 10:30 a.m. TNT Pocono June 14 LifeLock 400 9:30 a.m. TNT Michigan June 21 Toyota / Save Mart 350 9:30 a.m. TNT Infineon (Sears Point) June 28 Lenox Industrial Tools 12:30 p.m. TNT Loudon 301 July 4 Coke Zero 400 9:30 a.m. TNT Daytona July 11 LifeLock.com 400 3:30 p.m. TNT Chicagoland July 26 Allstate 400 at the 3:30 p.m. ESPN Indianapolis Brickyard Aug. 2 Sunoco Red Cross 10 a.m. ESPN Pocono Pennsylvania 500 Aug. 9 Centurion Boats at the 10 a.m. ESPN Watkins Glen Glen Aug. 16 3M Performance 400 10 a.m. ESPN Michigan Aug. 22 Sharpie 500 10 a.m. ESPN Bristol Sept. 6 Pep Boys Auto 500 3:30 p.m. ESPN Atlanta Sept. 12 Chevy Rock and Roll 400 4 p.m. Ch. 7 Richmond Sept. 20 Sylvania 300 4 p.m. Ch. 7 Loudon Sept. 27 Dodge Dealers 400 10 a.m. Ch. 7 Dover Oct. 4 LifeLock 400 10 a.m. Ch. 7 Kansas Oct. 11 Sharp Aquos 500 10 a.m. Ch. 7 Auto Club (California) Oct. 17 Bank of America 500 11:30 a.m. Ch. 7 Lowes (Charlotte) Oct. 25 Subway 500 4 p.m. Ch. 7 Martinsville Nov. 1 UAW-Ford 500 10 a.m. Ch. 7 Talladega Nov. 8 Dickies 500 9 a.m. Ch. 7 Texas Nov. 15 Checker Auto Parts 500 11:30 a.m. Ch. 7 Phoenix Nov. 22 Ford 400 11:30 a.m. Ch. 7 Homestead *--*
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series kicks off its season with the 51st running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 15.
Last year: Ryan Newman won the 200-lap race on the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway in Florida, passing Tony Stewart on the final lap.
The race: Features packs of cars running nose-to-tail because NASCAR requires carburetor restrictor plates at Daytona, which cap the cars’ speeds but also keep them bunched together.
The week: The 500 is the climax to a week of racing at Daytona that starts Saturday night with the Budweiser Shootout, a non-points exhibition race that includes pole-sitters from last season.
-- Jim Peltz