Column: NASCAR gears up for 2006 season

Published 6:43 pm Saturday, February 4, 2006

By Staff
After few short months of non-competition, NASCAR heads back to the track next Saturday for the Bud Shootout and then the following Sunday, February 19, is the Daytona 500. Just because the cars have not been on the track since November, don't think the teams have not been busy. The guys behind the scenes, in the shop, have been working hard getting ready for the season.
I see the 2006 season holding just as many surprises and story-lines as the 2005 season did. Who will drive for Toyota? How the Car of Tomorrow perform in 2007? Which driver is under contract and when does that contract expire? Or does that really matter?
I thought it would be fun to take a stab at who I think will end up in the 2006 version of the Chase for the Championship. We are still two weeks away from the beginning of the season and 26 races before the field is set, but here it goes anyway.
After predicting the more than ten drivers would make the Chase the last two years, and being wrong both times, I am doing it again this year. Any driver within 400 points of the leader after 26 races is eligible to compete for the championship. With so many talented teams and drivers competing every week, parity is here and I think 12 teams will make the Chase.
My no-brainer picks are Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, and Jeff Gordon. These four guys will be near the top of the standings for most of the season. Gordon should be on a tear, with renewed focus, all season. Despite a horrible start last year, Kenseth was one of the best in the second half and this year he will put together two good halves.
My “Feel Real Good About” picks are Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Martin is retiring for the second time in 2006 and it will be his last shot to win that ever elusive championship. That seat will be in good shape when Todd Kluever takes over in 2007. Like Gordon, Junior is focused like a laser on success in 2006. He will make the Chase and win multiple races. A change of scenery should be good for Busch, but he better watch his Ps and Qs.
My “Straddle the Fence” picks include Elliott Sadler, Jamie McMurray, and Casey Mears. After falling to pieces in the second half, Sadler will benefit greatly from the addition Tommy Baldwin as crew chief. I think Baldwin is one of the best out there and he will make a difference in Sadler's success. McMurray will finally make the show after coming so close the previous two years. Like Busch, the change of scenery for McMurray will do him good. Mears will do what McMurray couldn't - get the No. 42 into the Chase. Mears confidence is sky high after solid finishes during the last five races last year. I think you will also see Mears in Victory Lane at some point during the year.
My “Are you crazy?” picks and the guys sitting in 11th and 12th spots are Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton. Hamlin is the real deal and will benefit from being Stewart's teammate. Burton and his car owner, Richard Childress, are due for a good season and I don't believe that Childress will get it from his other drivers.
Some of the big names missing from my lists are Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, and Kevin Harvick. Edwards will experience the sophomore slump and just miss the cut. Rumors about Harvick and Toyota have already begun and will haunt him all season and Newman will also just miss the cut.