I spent Christmas in Charlotte, N.C., with my family and several close friends from the NASCAR industry, dining on seafood and sipping vino and laughing like nobody was watching.
Miraculously, my son was content sitting in a high chair at the end of the long, lean table, hangin' with the boys, flirting with folks at an adjacent station with cheesy grins while shoving Dora fruit snacks into his face at warp speed. A blessed day, indeed.
The conversation at such outings always begins elsewhere -- anywhere else, even -- but invariably steers back to the same ol' thing: racing.
That's why the ladies sit at one end of the table and the guys sit at the other. It's like the eighth-grade Snow Court dance with more money and less hair spray.
The business executive asks the crew chief's thoughts on his team's chances for '08. The reporter asks the business executive to predict his year after so much change in 2007. The crew chief asks the reporter for the latest scuttlebutt and for his outlook on the myriad crew chief changes throughout the sport during the offseason.
The question is never truly answered. We're all over the map. But it did get me thinking: Who will come out of nowhere to be the breakout story of 2008?
Could be Casey Mears, given that he's firmly entrenched at Hendrick Motorsports and inherits one of the sport's most underrated crew chiefs in Alan Gustafson.
Could be David Ragan. He has a year of experience, and the Roush Fenway Car of Tomorrow program improved dramatically as the 2007 season progressed.
Could be Juan Pablo Montoya. He did more as a rookie than anyone could have fathomed.
But none of those guys are my choice. My prediction: David Reutimann.
Don't wipe your eyes. You read it right. David Reutimann.
I know, I know I'm crazy, right? Michael Waltrip Racing is awful -- at least it was in 2007 -- right? Expectation is low outside the MWR walls.
And I'm not saying Root will go out and make the Chase and contend for the Cup, but he won't be fighting for his top-35 life every weekend, either. He'll contend at times and surprise us with his overall effort.
And you can bet the farm that UPS' marketing department will activate the sponsorship with clever advertising. He has a genuine aw-shucks thing going on. It is enamoring, and it will make Reutimann recognizable to suburban mothers. Yes, that matters.
The personnel moves MWR made in the past few months promise much better results this season, too. Robert Kauffman's investment into the program was key. It gave Waltrip much-needed liquid cash. And Kauffman doesn't seem to be a meddler. He's in it for the investment, not to tell the crew chiefs what shock setup they should employ.
Then there's Cal Wells, a true racer and one of the nicest guys in the sport. He knows first-hand how quickly a team can nosedive when it's mismanaged. It happened to him. That experience will be of great benefit to Waltrip and MWR general manager Ty Norris in the quest to start anew.
The team needs to start anew.
A union has been established with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota to develop shock technology, according to Norris. This promises to pay huge dividends. The Car of Tomorrow offers few areas for competitive gains. However, Shocks are one area in which there are gains to be had.
Eric Warren has helped solidify an engineering department that was discombobulated for most of '07. MWR has hired and fired all offseason; the team let some 35 people go and brought in 45 others -- car chiefs, team engineers, tire specialists and a new fabrication shop manager.
It's time to shut up and put up. That leads to the most critical element: performance.
Enter crew chief Ryan Pemberton, arguably the most underrated crew chief in NASCAR. He left Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in favor of MWR and Reutimann, and Pemberton will almost certainly improve performance. The big concern is over-the-wall crew; MWR lost several crew members during the offseason.
It's easy to say it can't get much worse. There's some merit to that. But MWR is a year smarter, which, given the ridiculous obstacles it faced -- and truly didn't initially recognize -- this time last year, that may as well be 10 years smarter.
New people. New strategy. New attitude.
Here's hoping for better results, and a future Christmas dinner debate about how ridiculous it was that MWR waited so long to sign Root. Twice.
Will Santa bring Junior a championship next year? 88 in '08, Marty! Believe it!
-- Susan M., Georgia
I don't believe it yet, Susan. At this point, how can you?
On paper there's no question Earnhardt should contend -- he'll be using the best equipment in the sport, have the most funding and the best people and deepest information pool. But will it all come together just like that?
He still has to beat the 24 and the 48. And although Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are his teammates and the book is wide open, you can bet crew chiefs Steve Letarte and Chad Knaus want to beat Junior's crew chief Tony Eury Jr. The good thing about Earnhardt and Eury is they know all this. They're not naïve. They'll carry the proper perspective into the season.
The question is will it last?
The question that I've heard more than any other during this offseason is what will happen if Earnhardt doesn't win? How will he react and how will Eury react and how will Junior Nation react if Gordon and Johnson go out and win early and often, and Earnhardt doesn't run well?
An Irish gentleman asked me that at the Race of Champions two weeks back, walked right up to me in the hotel lobby and wanted the lowdown on Junior-to-Hendrick. "How's he going to do?"
I told him I didn't know, gave him my e-mail address and suggested he check back in two months.
I am a HUGE Brian Vickers fan and when I read your blog I couldn't stop laughing! I remember reading an old article on NASCAR.com about someone asking you if you guys were brothers, I was just wondering if you tell BV these stories?
-- Natalie, Milwaukee, Wis.
Indeed, Natalie. Sheriff BV read the blog and, per usual, got considerable satisfaction from my loss at his gain.
-- McKenzie Caldwell, Stanton, Va.
Merry Christmas to you, too, McKenzie. Thanks for the E-card.
I do tend to agree with your beef. It's unfair to guys like Reutimann or Vickers who started last season with no points and had to qualify into races via time trials -- and often failed to do so. That triggers the proverbial snowball effect. Once a team is outside the top-35 and an automatic spot in the race, it's damned difficult to get back in.
Handing Hornish a guaranteed position in those first five races is unfair to guys like Kyle Petty who scrapped and clawed for an entire season to earn a guaranteed spot.
But NASCAR likens the top-35 rule to home equity. Sprint Cup director John Darby told me to think of owner points as if it were $100,000 equity in a blue house -- just because you paint the house green doesn't mean you lose the equity. I understand the logic, but I don't think it's necessarily fair.
Hornish didn't earn his guaranteed position, but because he's been given it, other teams will suffer.
Here's hoping you get some new shirts and ties for Christmas. You need them.
-- Tim Sanders, Mountain View, Calif.
Sorry to inform you I got running shoes for Christmas, Timmy, not shirts. My wife did buy me some snazzy new ties -- just two -- and a couple pairs of pants at some Thanksgiving sale in Philly, but that's the extent of the new wardrobe. I haven't worn a tie in a month, but testing looms and I'll be back in the getup soon.
Jan. 7, 2008, the engines will officially roar again. Preseason Thunder at Daytona. Wow.
Thank you all for taking the time to read my drivel in 2007. Have a wonderful New Year. I'll try to do better next time.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.