brett bowman

Brett Bowman Auto racing columnist

Though seemingly everyone is barking about the new DT-3 right rear tire rule mandated for all USAC National Sprint Car Series events, the new season, new rules and all, will kick off April 14.

That evening at Twin Cities Raceway Park in North Vernon, Ind., an offseason of preparation, painting and fine tuning on race cars will be showcased. The big question is: Who is going to be the driver to beat in 2007?

Looking at the preseason roster of drivers who will be making a full-time effort to chase the national championship, it will again be hard to bet against the Tony Stewart Racing stable of Levi Jones and Tracy Hines.

Last season, Josh Wise wrapped up his championship run with the team before heading south to pair up with Michael Waltrip Racing in hopes of competing in NASCAR. Jones has experience in points racing, having won the national title in 2005 driving for Scott Benic.

Those close to the sport are already laying down bets on how long it will take before Hines’ and Stewart’s egos come to the surface and the pair butt heads. Remembering when Stewart ran in USAC regularly, there was never any love lost between the two which made the announcement of Hines to replace Wise with the team interesting to say the least.

Earlier this year it was announced that Casey Shuman would be running the Yeley/Dooling No. 3J that Brad Sweet piloted in 2006 in USAC competition. Well, before the national points chase has begun, Shuman has been replaced by Ricky Stenhouse in the seat. That leaves Shuman, at least as of now, only in the Phillips No. 71 that was a semi-regular in 2006 at Kokomo with Kolt Walker behind the wheel.

Although the big-money teams of Stewart and Kasey Kahne look to be strong contenders, it wouldn’t be a bit of a surprise to see Brady Short in the thick of things. Short replaced Mat Neely in the Benic/Lucas Oils No. 2B and appears to be a talented driver who just needed a single break to step his program up to the next level.

The pairing of Darren Hagen and Jeff Walker could be a formidable combo as Dave Darland left the team at the conclusion of 2006. Dustin Morgan will be in the second of Walker’s entries, however with his lack of experience in the sprint cars, the talented youngster may still be a season or two away from making a serious challenge.

Darland will again be feeling his way with a new team after leaving Walker when it was uncertain whether or not the team would be able to field a pavement ride for this season. Dan Pace and Darland teamed up and the duo will make a strong challenge this season.

Pace has first-class equipment as evidenced by Don Droud’s making the A-main at the Knoxville Nationals in one of the team cars. The team also had Jon Stanbrough and Shane Cottle aboard their midgets and both were extremely competitive.

Cottle may be on the pavement more than previously anticipated after he proved to be a quick study in the Conto’s No. 4 pavement car. Should the Edison Motorsports team decide to chase all the dirt races and the pavement deal work out, Cottle could be a major player in the points chase.

No driver was better in the state last year than Jamestown’s Jon Stanbrough. He racked up 22 feature wins as well as his third track championship at the Kokomo Speedway.

Don’t expect Stanbrough to chase the title, however. He owns a successful fabrication business and he never seemed to be too comfortable on the pavement when he teamed with the Trucker’s team two seasons ago.

The Trucker’s contingent may well be in the mix though, as Shane Hollingsworth registered a pair of feature wins at Gas City last season with the team. This year with a season under his belt with the team and a new teammate in the form of Hunter Schurenburg, another talented young racer, all the pieces are in place for a stellar season.

I’ll still hang my neck out and predict the 2007 national champion will be from the Stewart team. The big question: Which driver to pick?

Barring something happening that would break up the team, it would be extremely hard to not choose Hines. Like him or not, the New Castle driver can flat out drive a race car on any surface. Unlike some drivers who you can pretty much count out on a certain track, Hines is always a challenge.

Jones, Darland, Brady Bacon and Short round out the rest of my top five.

Eldora postponed

The scheduled season opener for Saturday night at the Eldora Speedway has been postponed due to wet grounds.

With the amount of rainfall that affected the Midwest last week, the track and the grounds were in no condition for Eldora staff to attempt to work on the track to get it ready for this weekend.

The rain date will be posted in this column when it is released.

Brett Bowman covers auto racing for the Tribune. He may be reached at brettbowman29@aol.com or through the sports department.

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