(Can Tony Stewart repeat his dramatic 2011 Sprint Chup championship with a fourth career title this year?)
The first taste of the 2012 NASCAR season hits the track this week with Daytona’s Preseason Thunder test session. But it won’t be too long before the real campaign begins and the reality of the new year sets in.
After an off-season like none before full of personnel moves, team changes and sponsorship issues the NASCAR landscape has a much different look to it than it did at last November’s Homestead finale.
Taking into consideration the myriad of alterations here are the top ten stories that I’ll be most interested to watch develop this year when Speedweeks at Daytona rolls around in a little over a month:
The Impact of NASCAR’s Rule Changes on the Two-Car Draft
The majority of fans have spoken and the tandem drafting phenomenon as Daytona and Talladega has gotten a huge thumbs down. So to keep the customers satisfied, NASCAR is doing whatever it can to bust up the Noah’s Ark racing and return to the “traditional” restrictor plate racing pack style of competition. Adjustments to the rear spoiler, rear springs, size of the restrictor plate and most importantly the cooling systems will get a work out during this week’s Daytona test in hopes they will at the very least limit the two-car draft. The jury is still out whether anything but the wear of the track’s new pavement over time will have any affect on racing at Daytona or Talladega for years to come.
The Introduction of Fuel Injection to the Sprint Cup Series
Teams have tested NASCAR’s new EFI system that will replace the traditional carbureted engines for nearly a year. But until it is used in actual racing conditions the change remains a major variable for crew chiefs to figure out. Some believe it will have no impact others think fuel mileage and engine reliability will be majorly compromised. Still others don’t have any earthly idea of what to expect which adds an intriguing element in trying to handicap the field.
Tony Stewart’s Quest for a Second Straight Championship
Career Sprint Cup title number three came in dramatic fashion for Stewart last season when he edged Carl Edwards in a tiebreaker. After winning five races in the Chase and putting on a furious charge down the stretch to win the crown in such dramatic fashion the question becomes what can Stewart do for an encore? He’ll enter the year with a new crew chief in Steve Addington and old friend Greg Zipadelli in the Director of Competition role at Stewart-Haas Racing. The resources are there for Stewart to again challenge for the championship and add another Cup trophy to his collection.
The Carl Edwards Hangover Effect
When Denny Hamlin went down to the wire and lost the 2010 championship to Jimmie Johnson he never recovered from the experience. Now it’s Edwards turn to see if he can comeback from being so tantalizingly close to the top of the mountain. Edwards vowed to be back in title contention this season after losing last year’s prize by a whisker. His team is intact from a resource perspective but whether last season’s disappointment will drain Edwards and company mentally as it did Hamlin remains to be seen.
Will Jimmie Johnson Return to Championship Form?
The odds makers have already installed Johnson as the championship favorite despite his uncharacteristic performance last season when the five straight title run ended. Johnson appears motivated by the challenge to bounce back and start another consecutive championship streak. That might be bad news for his competitors who haven’t had to face a determined Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus for some time. The duo is very focused on proving they are still a formidable team.
(Danica Patrick will make her move to NASCAR in 2012 with a complete Nationwide schedule and ten Cup races)
Danica Patrick’s Full-Time Move to NASCAR
After dipping her toe into stock car racing the last two seasons Patrick begins the next phase of her career with a full Nationwide and partial Sprint Cup Series season in 2012. She’ll return to the JR Motorsports No. 7 entry and compete for the Nationwide title again under the tutelage of crew chief Tony Eury Jr., Patrick made some progress last year but will have to up her game big time to be considered a contender for the crown. However winning a race is not out of the question particularly at Daytona and Talladega where Patrick has been impressive in her short NASCAR career. The ten Cup starts for Tony Stewart’s team will be nothing more than on the job training for her full assault at NASCAR’s top series in 2013. Patrick will as always bring attention to herself and in turn the sport, but she will need to perform at a higher level or quickly feel the wrath of critics tired of the NASCAR version of “Tebow-Mania” that surrounds her.
Kurt Busch Joining Phoenix Racing
Busch gets the chance to “put the fun back in his career” with a program at Phoenix Racing that will include the full Sprint Cup Series schedule as well as a handful of Nationwide Series starts for the team. Team owner James Finch will give Busch decent equipment and support from his relationship with Hendrick Motorsports. But whether the former Sprint Cup champ’s considerable talent behind the wheel is enough to elevate the team up to another level will be tested. Of course there’s also the challenge for Busch to maintain his composure and emotion through the inevitable tough times that always face a small independent operation like this one. Some believe Busch will win races and contend for a Chase spot while others don’t see him lasting the full year with the 51 car. Either way it will be fascinating to watch unfold.
Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. Finally Win?
Love him or hate him – and there are thousands of fans on both side of that equation – NASCAR’s popularity rides a lot on Junior’s exploits. He enters the new season winless since 2008 and determined to end that drought. Earnhardt’s performance was greatly improved last season when his first year paired with new crew chief Steve Letarte ended up in a Chase berth, his first playoff appearance in three seasons. Was it a flash in the pan or something Earnhardt can build on for this year? Earnhardt contending for wins, a spot in the Chase and a championship is good for NASCAR both inside the sport and with mainstream sports fans.
The On-Track Product and Overall Competition
I’ve gone on record calling last season the best in NASCAR’s sixty-plus year history. A championship decided by a tiebreaker was the icing on a cake that saw close competition, entertaining storylines, lots of drama and an overall exciting season in 2012. There were a few stinkers along the way but a year that saw eighteen winners and five first time trips to victory lane has set the bar pretty high. All of the off season personnel maneuvering along with the plate racing rule changes and introduction of fuel injection have infused an unknown element into the coming year. Will it live up to last season’s banner campaign?
The Impact of the Business of NASCAR
Sponsor issues and the lack of corporate funding have significantly impacted all three of NASCAR’s top divisions. The contraction in the garage area more than likely will continue until the economy turns around and more companies are capable of spending money in the sport. But other business issues such as television ratings and their ramifications to a new broadcast deal being negotiated in two years to the sanctioning body reclaiming its digital rights to widen the sport’s exposure online and through digital devices will all have a major bearing on where NASCAR is headed in the immediate and long term future.
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