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Stewart will win races, but not this weekend

If the past week is any indication, we are in for a competitive and entertaining start to the 2009 NASCAR season on Sunday afternoon. The Bud Shootout last Saturday night and the twin qualifying races on Thursday, though won by the usual suspects, saw many lead changes and some wrecks, and were just plain fun to watch.

Kevin Harvick kicked the party off last Saturday night with a last lap pass of Jamie McMurray to earn his first visit to Victory Lane since winning the All-Star race in 2007, the same year he won the Daytona 500.

Jeff Gordon won the first qualifying race, and Kyle Busch took checkers on the second race Thursday afternoon. Other than the pole and outside pole, won by Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin, respectively, these two races were used to set the field for the big race on Sunday.

Kudos to Scott Riggs, Jeremy Mayfield and AJ Allmendinger for toughing it out and qualifying for the race by finishing eighth, ninth and 10th, respectively, in the Gatorade Duel races.

I think these first three races answered a few questions.

First, don’t worry about Tony Stewart. There were questions about how successful his new team would be this season. Listen all you Smoke fans, this team has been and will be ultra-competitive right out of the gate. The Haas organization that brought Stewart on as co-owner had some of the best equipment and facilities of anyone (save Hendrick), and now with Stewart’s influence, it will only get better.

Stewart will win races this season, and Ryan Newman, Smoke’s new teammate, will be competitive. They are basically an extension of Hendrick Motorsports and have top-notch staff. This will not be an encore of Michael Waltrip Racing.

Secondly, there will be huge opportunities for some of the “marginal” teams. With the current economic conditions reducing the amount of big-time corporate money, single car teams that scrap together enough to go racing can have success.

Jeremy Mayfield, operating his own car, and Scott Riggs, driving a car owner by super crew chief Tommy Baldwin, both made the race Sunday. Now, it is not unusual to have a couple of patchwork cars make the race, but this will happen all season.

Heck, Baldwin only decided a couple of weeks ago that he would field a team. He hired Riggs, who I think is a driver in need of a break, found some funding from Red Bank Ale and Quail Outfitters and showed up at the track. He is now guaranteed a quarter-million dollar payday on Sunday.

Lastly, Jamie McMurray is aiming to make it tough on Jack Roush in making the decision on which car to jettison after the season. With five teams currently, The Cat in the Hat must adhere to NASCAR’s four team maximum rule by the beginning the 2010 season.

At first glance, McMurray seems to be the obvious choice, considering the alternatives of Matt Kenseth, David Ragan, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle. But McMurray has been the strong Rousketeer early in the season. If he throws together a run like he did late last season, it could be “See ya” to Kenseth.

I will be surprised, but only mildly, if a Chevrolet doesn’t win Sunday. Gibbs’ Toyotas will be strong, but my pick to win is Mark Martin. Enjoy the race.