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The real top 10 stories of 2008

A sparse crowd watches a Cup race at Michigan International Speedway on June 15. NASCAR used to regularly draw 160,000 spectators, but the the crowd was noticeably smaller. Track officials gave no crowd estimate in the area battered by the economy. AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

NASCAR has its list of the top 10 stories of 2008, and I have mine.

When NASCAR asked the media to rank the biggest stories of the year, it picked 17 stories from which the top 10 would be chosen. It also slipped in a powerful modifier: "competition" stories.

That way, two profound stories were ignored: the recently settled Mauricia Grant discrimination lawsuit, and the tailspin of the once-giddy economy that put NASCAR on the high horse from which it must now climb down, or fall.

Also omitted was the tire debacle at Indianapolis in July, which -- seems to me -- profoundly affected "competition" in the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.

You can view NASCAR's lists, original as sent out by NASCAR and final as ranked by other media people (I chose not to vote), elsewhere on this page.

But here, onward to my unvarnished top 10 NASCAR stories, looking back into the season just past and, in some cases, forward into the season to come.

I've listed them in countdown form, from least to most important.

10. Jeff Gordon's failure to win a race in '08 after winning multiple Cup races in each of his previous 14 seasons.

This one, likely caused by Gordon's chronic discomfort with the fitful handling of the new car, sort of crept up on us. By the time it became a real possibility, in the fall, it was buried under the avalanche of action among the front-runners in the Chase.

How far into '09 will the losing streak continue? Depends on Gordon's continuing adaptation to the new car. NASCAR certainly won't let the car be adapted to him.

9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s first year with Hendrick Motorsports.

This was supposed to be the movement that freed Junior from the mediocrity of the Dale Earnhhardt Inc. team controlled by his stepmother.

The debut was dazzling -- a win in the Bud Shootout, right out of the box. The assumption after that bright moment in February was that Junior would follow with another Daytona 500 win and at last soar to the expectations of Junior Nation.

But alas, the season would produce but one points win for Earnhardt, at Michigan in June. He made the Chase but finished dead last.

8. Ryan Newman's Daytona 500 win out of the blue.

Newman had gone two seasons without a win and had been somewhat inconspicuous through most of the 50th Daytona 500, when he got what he called "the push from heaven" from teammate Kurt Busch on the last lap.

For team owner Roger Penske, who had amassed 14 Indianapolis 500 wins, it was the culmination of 30 years of frustration trying to win America's other best-known race.

But that was the first and last we would see of Newman and Penske all season, as they splashed no more … at least until August, when Newman decided to leave Penske at the end of the season.

7. The tire debacle in the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.

Seldom, if ever, have NASCAR and long-running tire supplier Goodyear embarrassed themselves and annoyed their fans so thoroughly as at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 27.

Tires shredded and disintegrated so badly, so blatantly, that the usual claims of cuts from debris went out the window. No more than 12 laps could be run at a time under the green flag before a mandatory stop for tire changes or recurrences of the problems.

Lack of downforce by the new car was blamed by some; the diamond-ground, and therefore abrasive, surface of IMS was cited by others. Indy officials privately suspected "crabbing," slight sideways movement of the cars down the straights due to "axle yaw," which made the new cars cock a bit sideways in order to get them to turn through the corners.

6. Tony Stewart's release from Joe Gibbs Racing to form his own team in '09.

This was earthshaking on two accounts. One, Stewart had one more year on his contract with JGR, the team that had wooed him away from Indy cars and launched him to two Cup championships and 33 wins in 10 years. And two, Stewart is the first truly blue-chip driver since Darrell Waltrip to leave an established team to try to run his own operation.

The move was disastrous for Waltrip in the 1990s. Whether Stewart succeeds, with Newman as his teammate, promises to be an ongoing story in '09.

Although Stewart maintained throughout that building a new team on weekdays wasn't a distraction from driving for JGR on weekends, he won only one race in his swan-song season for JGR, at Talladega in October -- and that was controversial, in that rookie Regan Smith's apparent race-winning pass at the flag was disallowed because it came below the yellow line.

5. The meteoric rise and fall of Kyle Busch.

Seldom had there been by midseason a slam-dunk, thoroughly dominant, crowd-wowing, crowd-infuriating, shoo-in champion quite like Busch.

And then, it all fizzled.

He took his last taunting bow at Watkins Glen on Aug. 10, and the exaggerated counting of his wins on his fingers stopped at eight.

Oh, he recorded more wins in the Nationwide and Trucks series, for a NASCAR total of 21. But I'm old-fashioned. At the highest levels of racing, I count major league wins; I don't drop down and cherry pick from Double A and Triple A ball.

Busch got shoved out of his last chance to win, at Bristol later in August, by Carl Edwards, and after that, it was his team that let him down. There were mechanical failures, and -- as often happens in the technological leapfrog of racing -- his Toyota just wasn't dominant anymore, because other teams regained the edge.

4. Carl Edwards show time, all the time, wire to wire.

No driver entertained the NASCAR public, as consistently, start to finish, as Edwards. He won early, he won in summer, he won late, he won three of the last four, he won at the wire at Homestead-Miami and he amassed the most Cup wins of the season, nine.

Even when he lost, he put on a show -- the prime example being his attempted "slide job" on Johnson at the finish in Kansas City on Sept. 28. He drove under Johnson with such force that he slid up and slammed the wall, and Johnson drove back under him to win.

Even Edwards' season-spoiling error at Talladega stood immediately as one of the most memorable mistakes in the crazed history of bump-drafting bedlam at that track. With 15 laps to go, Edwards made two mistakes in a split second. He bump-drafted teammate Greg Biffle in a corner, and he tapped Biffle just off-center of the rear bumper. They went out in the big one, and Jimmie Johnson slipped through and sailed on toward the championship.

3. Former NASCAR tech inspector Mauricia Grant's $225 million lawsuit against her former employer for racial discrimination and sexual harassment.

The case was settled this month for an undisclosed amount, but at the very least, a league struggling to diversify out of its mostly white, mostly male, mostly Southern past didn't need this enormous image hit.

Grant's lawsuit, which charged 23 instances of sexual harassment and 34 instances of race and gender discrimination by her peers and supervisors, raised questions about how sincere and how deep NASCAR's diversity efforts really are.

Grant said she was fired in 2007 for complaining about the harassment and discrimination. NASCAR said her firing was for cause and that she initiated some of the nicknames she was called.

In the settlement, neither side admitted liability or wrongdoing. So the larger questions about what really occurred never will be answered publicly.

Legally resolved or not, it's just not good residue to leave in the public mind.

2. Jimmie Johnson three-peats for the first time since Cale Yarborough 30 years ago.

This was the most celebrated season title won yet under the five-year-old Chase format. And it was the most ballyhooed Cup since Dale Earnhardt won a seventh in 1994 to tie Richard Petty's career total.

Fans who dislike the Chase claim Johnson's accomplishment was easier than Yarborough's was under the old, season-long, Winston Cup format of the 1970s.

But I was around for both three-peats, and I believe Johnson had a lot more competition that was a lot more intense, week in, week out.

Yarborough had a tougher time physically -- cars had no power steering and no cooling systems for drivers.

But in that era, not all top drivers ran the entire season with the championship in mind. Yarborough's only real competition in 1976 and '77 came from Petty and Bobby Allison, and in '78 from Waltrip.

1. Effects of the free-falling economy on the sport most sensitive to economics.

My No. 1 story of this year, and probably next year, and possibly the next, is just now passing through its harshest and saddest phase. Hundreds have been laid off from NASCAR teams and as many as 1,000 might be vulnerable before the economic downturn bottoms out.

One component of the economic collapse, the distress of the Detroit automakers, threatens to change the face of NASCAR more than any other event in the sanctioning body's 60-year history.

Public loyalty to American car brands long has been the backbone of NASCAR competition. The Ford-Chevrolet rivalry has been part of the very fabric of working-class American society, transcending auto racing.

Ford might not have to take a government bailout. But General Motors (with its Chevrolet brand in NASCAR) and Chrysler Corp. (Dodge) say they must have help and have begun getting it under strict conditions.

What if the much-anticipated "car czar" for a government bailout of Detroit should, somewhere down the line, forbid spending taxpayer money for NASCAR advertising and promotions?

Even without a federal mandate, economic sensibility already has reduced manufacturer spending in NASCAR, and the downward trend is likely to continue for a while.

Will NASCAR teams stay loyal to brands without big funding from Detroit? Or will they cave to financial pressures and sign with healthier manufacturers -- especially Toyota?

Will the fans -- already miffed that the new car is generic, carrying merely the logos of the manufacturers and slightly different basic engine designs -- accept an all-Toyota series, or a Toyota armada versus a weakened Ford fleet?

No one knows.

But teams got by with only a little backdoor support, and stayed loyal to brands, when the Detroit manufacturers pulled out in the 1970s. That could happen again, if the will is there.

All in all, a simpler, leaner, meaner, hungrier, more down-to-earth NASCAR could emerge. Like Wall Street itself, NASCAR had gotten too rich, too powerful, too reckless. It needed slowing down, a return to reality.

So maybe the stormiest story of this era in NASCAR will show a silver lining as it goes into next year, and the next.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.