Dale Earnhardt Jr. will qualify for this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. His return to prominence on the track begins Sunday when he wins the Daytona 500.
Starting my annual predictions by mentioning the country’s most popular driver is not a cynical attempt to boost readership worldwide, though it probably won’t hurt.
And, no, I have not suffered a recent concussion, though senility is creeping nearer.
Earnhardt hasn’t won a Cup race since June 16, 2008, but team owner Rick Hendrick has vowed to do everything possible to give him a winning car and crew this year. No one will be happier to have the redhead winning again and in the Chase than most fans, Hendrick, NASCAR and every track owner on the circuit.
Another driver who’ll return to the Chase is Kyle Busch, who barely missed last year’s 12-driver, 10-race playoff despite four victories. Busch now has a fiancee and a new two-truck team in the Camping World Series, and he won’t be racing full time in the Nationwide Series, which he won last year. With another year of maturity under his helmet, he will be more focused on Cup racing.
After not picking Jimmie Johnson to win the Cup championship for the previous three seasons, I yielded and picked him last season. His reign ends this year, but he’ll get a more precious trophy when he and wife Chandra have their first baby in July.
The championship battle will be a wild one. Expect Kyle and Kurt Busch to battle for the top spot along with Mark Martin, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne in his new Ford.
But when it comes down to the end, it will be Kurt winning his second championship and Penske Racing’s first.
Penske will parlay being the only Cup organization to field Dodges this year into an advantage in the series.
One reason is that when NASCAR approves Goodyear tire tests, one car’s team is chosen from each of the four manufacturers — Dodge, Ford, Chevy and Toyota. As the only Dodge organization in Cup, Penske is guaranteed that one of its teams — with drivers Kurt Busch, Sam Hornish Jr. and Brad Keselowski, a rookie — will be picked. That will give Penske more testing data.
Dodge, which cut its racing involvement significantly a year ago for financial reasons, will have only Penske’s trio to focus on.
"I like it because it reminds me somewhat of a Formula One-style program, where they have all of their eggs in one basket," Kurt Busch said.
Joining Earnhardt, the Busch boys, Johnson, Martin, Stewart and Kahne in the Chase will be Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Juan Montoya, Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards.
Dropping out will be Denny Hamlin, whose damaged left knee will cause him to miss at least one race, and Brian Vickers, whose Toyotas will be hindered by throttle and brake problems.
• DRAG RACING — The NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series opens its season this weekend in Pomona, Calif., so I can’t delay making those picks.
Another championship reign will end when Al-Anabi Racing’s Larry Dixon stops Tony Schumacher’s run of six straight in Top Fuel.
In Funny Car, Ron Capps will earn the No. 1 spot for Don Schumacher Racing.
Greg Anderson will win his fourth Pro Stock championship in a season dedicated to the recovery of team owner Ken Black, a Las Vegan who suffered a stroke two months ago.
Go to lvrj.com/blogs/heavypedal for more insightful motor sports predictions.
Jeff Wolf’s motor sports column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0247.