2009-02-05 / Sports

The 2009 Racing Season Is Here

By Gerald Hodges THE RACING REPORTER

Just because the economy is bad, doesn't mean NASCAR racing will be sub par. Hopefully, the lack of advance testing by all teams prior to the start of the 2009 season will tighten the field and make for better competition, especially during the early going.

Everyone knows that Jimmie Johnson, the defending champion is going to be strong, along with his teammates, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and possibly Mark Martin.

What I'd like to see is some unknown, or less funded driver have a breakout season.

Boy, it would be refreshing if Michael Waltrip, Robby Gordon, Martin Truex, Elliott Sadler or Casey Mears could come up with some winning combination that would put them on top of the points.

I'm not against the big boys, but it's sad sometimes to watch the also-rans work just as hard as the leaders and still finish way back in the field.

New faces in victory lane might convince some of the older fans that have left NASCAR into coming back.

Fans always love it when an underdog wins, and that's what I'm hoping to see this season.

Reed Sorenson, who will be driving the No. 43 for Richard Petty Racing is one of the drivers that might get his first Cup win. Sorenson gained the opportunity to drive the No. 43 car after Gillett Evernham Motorsports, with whom he signed following the 2008 season, merged with Petty Enterprises to form Richard Petty Motorsports.

"I guess the pressure is to get the No. 43 car back in victory lane," said Sorenson. "I think that's going to be the biggest pressure point on that. Once everybody on our team found out that we were going to be the 43, you could kind of tell in their eyes that it was something different than most of the other numbers that we could have had.

"There's a lot of history behind the number and Richard is a great guy to have around, and I think he is going to be around with us at all the races. He likes to be around the races and kind of sits back to see what is going on. He puts in his input and anytime anybody needs to talk about something, we can lean on him to talk to because he has a lot of knowledge to pass. He's pretty smart about this business so he is a good person to lean on."

But despite all the excitement surrounding working with a living legend, Sorenson understands the difficulties facing a young driver working with a new team. He also understands the difficulties caused by NASCAR's new restrictions on testing.

"This season is going to be good, but there are a lot of unknowns with the testing ban and not being able to test at a lot of these tracks," continued Sorenson. "We are kind of going in blind with me being a new driver with a new team. It hurts us not being able to go test at these tracks, so we are just hoping California and Vegas go well and that way, once we get to Atlanta, we will know what we have. But it's definitely going to be a challenge the first few races."

Other changes:

After a 10-year run with Joe Gibbs Racing that included two series championships, Tony Stewart starts his own team in 2009 - Stewart-Haas Racing. He'll drive the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet.

Joining Stewart at his twocar operation will be Ryan Newman, the 2008 Daytona 500 winner. Newman spent the last seven seasons driving a Dodge for Penske Racing. This season he'll be in the No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet.

Mark Martin returns for one more shot at an elusive championship. He joins a powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports team that has captured the last three series titles with Jimmie Johnson - and eight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships in all. Martin will drive the No. 5 Kellogg's/ CARQUEST Chevrolet.

Though not a driver move, Target will shift to the No. 42 Chevrolet driven by Juan Montoya. Target previously sponsored Montoya during his open wheel days in 1999 and 2000 when he won the Indianapolis 500.

Regan Smith, the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup Raybestos Rookie of the Year, will drive for Furniture Row Racing this season.

Scott Riggs was named driver for Tommy Baldwin Racing.

Meanwhile Bobby Labonte, the previous driver of the No. 43, will be driving the No. 96 for Hall of Fame Motorsports. Labonte has 21 wins and 113 top-five finishes in 547 Cup starts. The 2009 season will mark Labonte's 17th full year in Cup competition.

Larry Gunselman, a Washington State native, has formed a team for himself and a pair of veteran brothers, Geoff and Todd Bodine. He said last week that he's backed by a group of investors who are new to the sport and is still seeking primary sponsorship.

Gunselman said Todd Bodine would definitely drive at Fontana and Las Vegas, the second and third races on the schedule.

Bodine is the 2006 Truck Series champion, who also has 15 wins in the Busch Series and 228 Cup starts, with five poles, seven top-fives, and 21 top-10 finishes.

Geoff Bodine, who won the 1986 Daytona 500, but who hasn't made a NASCAR start since 2005, may drive at Daytona.

In order to make the field for the Daytona 500, he must qualify.

Weekend racing:

Sat., Feb. 7, ARCA REMAX Lucas Oil 200; starting time: 3 p.m. (EST): TV: Speed.

Sat., Feb. 7, NASCAR Bud Shootout; starting time: 7 p.m. (EST): TV: Fox.

Sun, Feb. 8, will be Daytona 500 Qualifying Day, the first step in making the Daytona 500 field. The two fastest drivers will start on the front row for Feb. 15's Daytona 500.

On Thursday, Feb. 12, the remaining positions will be determined in the Gatorade Duel at Daytona, two 150-lap qualifying races. The top 35 positions from the final 2008 car owner points standings from each Duel race and the two highest-finishing cars in each Duel race not among the highest-ranked 35 group are locked into the Daytona 500 field.

The balance of the 43-car Daytona 500 field is filled by the fastest remaining qualifiers who have not already earned a starting position, with the exception of the 43rd position, which is assigned to an eligible former or current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. If there is no eligible champion, the position is assigned to the next fastest qualifier not in the field.

Next week: History of the Daytona 500

Racing trivia question: Which driver has the most Daytona 500 wins?

Last week's question: Do you think Michael Waltrip should retire? Answer. Most of the fans said they didn't think Waltrip should call it quits as a driver unless he has a really bad year.

You may contact the Racing Reporter at: hodgesnews@earthlink.net.

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