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JJ's three-peat, economic woes among 2008 highlights

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - At the season-ending Sprint Cup Series awards banquet next week in New York City, Jimmie Johnson will be honored for his record-tying third consecutive championship. Johnson, who finished the season 69 points ahead of Carl Edwards, joined Cale Yarborough (1976-78) as the only drivers in NASCAR's 60-year history to win three Cup titles in a row.

Johnson's run to greatness dominated the circuit's 2008 headlines.

Jimmie Johnson's run to greatness dominated NASCAR's 2008 headlines.
Johnson ended the year with seven victories and 22 top-10 finishes, but his season started off sluggishly, as he held the ninth position in points after finishing 39th at Lowe's Motor Speedway in May. His turnaround began in July, when he survived the "tire fiasco" to win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He recorded victories in the final two races of the regular season - California and Richmond - to start the "Chase for the Sprint Cup" as the third seed.

Johnson won at Kansas, the third race in the Chase, and grabbed the points lead for the first time of the season. After Edwards wrecked at Talladega and suffered mechanical problems at Charlotte, resulting in poor finishes at both tracks, Johnson was well on his way to the title.

"Talladega was a big part of it," Johnson said. "At the end, when things kind of turned out like they have, I look back at a couple of parts. I look at Talladega. I look at Phoenix as a place where we went in, came off a bad race, and we needed to be aggressive. We had to get the job done. We had to send the message back to (Edwards') guys that this thing is far from over."

Edwards scored a series-leading nine victories, including wins in three of the last four races, but came up short of spoiling Johnson's historic feat.

BUSCHED

At the start of the Chase in September, Kyle Busch was considered a strong favorite to win the championship, as he held the top seed after scoring eight wins for the season.

Busch won the spring race at Atlanta, and gave Toyota its first victory in Sprint Cup competition.

In July, there was a lot of talk of Busch tying or surpassing the modern- era record for most wins in a season. Richard Petty (1975) and Jeff Gordon (1998) share the record with 13 wins. Busch held a 207-point lead before his total was adjusted to 5,080 for the Chase.

Busch, however, never became a title contender in this year's Chase as he finished 34th at New Hampshire and then 43rd at Dover. He ended the year 10th in points.

Roush Fenway Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports once again dominated NASCAR's premier series as Edwards (Roush Fenway), Busch (Gibbs) and Johnson (Hendrick) combined for 24 wins in 36 races this season.

TROUBLE AT THE TRACK

While Johnson ended the season with a monumental achievement, NASCAR was faced with the troubling economic times as teams had to lay off hundreds of employees and scramble for sponsorship dollars in 2009.

Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing combined for seven Sprint Cup teams at the start of this season, but after the recent merger between the two organizations, Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing has been reduced to four teams, with only two of them securing full sponsorship heading into next season. Ganassi's No.40 team ceased operation midway through the season due to lack of sponsorship.

Petty Enterprises sold its controlling interest to private investor Boston Ventures, and it is struggling to find full sponsorship for the No.43 car after General Mills left at the end of the season.

With full sponsorships averaging $20 million per year, roughly 30 teams have sufficient backing for 2009, while another 15 teams have secured at least partial sponsorship or no significant financial help.

"This isn't the first economic [crisis] we've had," NASCAR chairman Brian France said. "We've been in business 60 years. We've seen the energy crisis in 1972...9/11 wasn't that long ago. This is a very big economic downturn, but we're not going to change our business model because we're in tough economic times."

"We have been in the middle of talking to team owners about them realigning with one group or another should they think that a merger would be important. We play a role in that. We obviously understand the teams that are underfunded and face the biggest risk and are working with them to find a partner, find a sponsor."

In an effort to cut costs for teams, NASCAR recently banned testing at its sanctioned tracks for its three national touring and two regional racing series next year.

In addition, given the impact of the current economic downfall upon the big three automakers in Detroit, how much the manufacturers will be involved with NASCAR next season remains uncertain. The automakers are seeking a $25 billion bailout package from the federal government.

BIG NEWS FOR STEWART, NEWMAN

The 2008 season was a memorable one for Tony Stewart, as the two-time Cup champion announced in July he'll merge with Haas CNC Racing next season to serve as both driver and owner of the newly-formed Stewart-Haas Racing. Stewart ended his 10th year at JGR by finally capturing his first Cup victory at Talladega.

Ryan Newman won the Daytona 500, giving Penske Racing its first restrictor- plate victory. Newman and Penske, however, announced they would part ways at the end of the season, with Newman later being named the second driver at Stewart's new team.

Stewart and Newman will both drive Chevrolets next year.

BAD BLOOD

Busch and Edwards sparked a rivalry in August at Bristol Motor Speedway. Edwards nudged Busch aside and grabbed the lead with 31 laps to go as he won the Sharpie 500 for the second year in a row. A frustrated Busch retaliated at the conclusion of the race by intentionally bumping Edwards. But Edwards responded by driving into the right side of Busch's car, spinning him around.

Busch enjoyed his best season so far in his first year with JGR. However, it's not without his own share of controversy, particularly stemming from the incident in May at Richmond International Raceway when he spun out Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in the final stages of the race.

Meanwhile, Edwards and Kevin Harvick engaged in a verbal and physical altercation last month in the Nationwide garage at Lowe's Motor Speedway, stemming from an accident Edwards triggered the week before at Talladega.

BIG-NAME STRUGGLES

Earnhardt, Jr., in his first season with Hendrick, snapped a 76-race winless streak in June at Michigan, but it turned out to be his only points-paying victory of the year. Earnhardt, Jr. began the year by winning both the Budweiser Shootout and the Gatorade Duel at Daytona.

Hendrick announced Mark Martin will join the organization in 2009, replacing Casey Mears in the No.5 car. Mears will take over the Richard Childress Racing No.07 Chevrolet, as Clint Bowyer moves to a fourth entry for RCR, the No.33.

Perhaps the season's biggest surprise was a winless Jeff Gordon, who failed to record a victory for the first time since his rookie season in 1993. Last year, Gordon scored six victories and finished second to teammate Johnson in the championship standings.

Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick were also winless this year.

YOUNG GUNS

David Ragan was arguably the most improved driver in Sprint Cup, as the second-year driver finished 13th in points with 14 top-10's. Regan Smith won rookie-of-the-year honors, but doesn't know his ride status for next year. Smith drove the No.01 Chevrolet for DEI. However, the merger of DEI and Ganassi into a four-team organization and a lack of sponsorship for the No.01 car has made Smith a free agent.

Open-wheel stars Dario Franchitti, Patrick Carpentier and Jacques Villeneuve made the switch to NASCAR, but their careers in stock-car racing appear to have been short-lived. Franchitti was relieved from his driving duties when Ganassi closed shop on his No.40 team. He returned to IndyCars later in the year. Carpentier was released from Gillett Evernham Motorsports, and Villeneuve lost his ride at Bill Davis Racing after he failed to qualify for the Daytona 500.

Sam Hornish, Jr., another open-wheel veteran-turned-NASCAR rookie, started in 34 of 36 races for Penske this season, but failed to qualifying for Homestead. He's expected back with the team next year.

IN OTHER NEWS...

Away from the track, NASCAR had its share of news in 2008.

The sanctioning body unveiled its upgraded substance-abuse policy in September, to include random testing beginning in 2009. All drivers, crew members and even race officials will be tested prior to the start of this coming season, and will be subject to random tests throughout the year.

The Car of Tomorrow ran the full Cup schedule this year, but driver safety concerns, such as unsafe carbon monoxide levels inside the cars, continued to be addressed. Soaring temperatures at Michigan and Sonoma, California in June prompted NASCAR to monitor heat and carbon monoxide inside the COTs.

Former Nationwide Series official Mauricia Grant filed a lawsuit against NASCAR for $225 million, claiming incidents of sexual harassment and racial discrimination.

Before you know it Speedweeks 2009 will be here in February, and likely the biggest topics of discussion will be Johnson's quest for a record fourth- straight series championship, and the economic recession and its effect on the sport.

Nonetheless, the 2009 season should be filled with plenty of memories, surprises and disappointments, as usual.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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