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Changes in store as another racing season comes into view

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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Those of you buried in several inches of snow and locked in Old Man Winter's deep freeze will have a hard believing it, but the NASCAR season begins in less than five weeks.

By the time the first green flag of the season flies over the Daytona 500 on February 20, the sport will be already be in high gear.

NASCAR teams are furiously testing at short tracks around the country and preparing for next week's Preseason Thunder test session at Daytona before returning in mid-February for the start of Speedweeks 2011. And there's also plenty of prep going on in other disciplines of auto racing, including over in the IndyCar and sports car worlds.

Among the issues that have grabbed headlines in recent days and those that need to be resolved by the official start of the year include:

Changes to the Chase: An official announcement is expected to come during next week's test session in Daytona with all signs pointing to an expanded field for the 2011 edition of the Chase for the Sprint Cup with some kind of elimination-type element. Growing the lineup of Chase eligible drivers from 12 to 15 seems inevitable but exactly how NASCAR plans to create its desired series of "impact moments" during the 10-race playoff schedule is still unknown. Speculation is the sanctioning body will introduce a system of knockout points during the Chase, which officially eliminates drivers from title contention and then possibly resets the remainder of the field to tighten up the championship race.

NASCAR's Nationwide Series, won by Brad Keselowski last season, plans to eliminate Sprint Cup regulars from title contention. (Getty Images)  
NASCAR's Nationwide Series, won by Brad Keselowski last season, plans to eliminate Sprint Cup regulars from title contention. (Getty Images)  
Nationwide championship policy: NASCAR will also unveil its new policy regarding Nationwide Series championship eligibility that will ultimately eliminate Sprint Cup regulars from title contention. Drivers will be allowed to run the entire schedule in any of NASCAR's top three divisions but will have to declare their intention to run for only one championship in the Sprint Cup, Nationwide or Camping World Truck Series seasons. Last year's Nationwide champion Brad Keselowski all but confirmed what many expect the sanctioning body to make official next week by tweeting over the weekend "Needed a good laugh tonight after being ruled ineligible for both Shootout and NW championship in one loooong week."

Hendrick reshuffling takes shape: Rick Hendrick's decision to move around key personnel inside his organization, winner of the last five Sprint Cup championships, took many by surprise. But after leaving only the tandem of Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus intact, the new pairings among Hendrick's other three Cup squads are taking shape. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and former Jeff Gordon chief Steve Letarte are the pair taking most of the heat under the spotlight, but it's been so far so good for the new team. "I've always prided myself on being able to perform under pressure and I realize that comes with the territory working with Dale Jr.," Letarte told Sirius NASCAR Radio. "People expect him to win, people expect Hendrick Motorsports to win, I expect us to win. There are never any excuses in this business and you need to perform something that quite frankly last year, aside from Jimmie and Chad winning the title, we did not do as a company." Letarte, who spent the last five plus seasons working with Gordon, has been pleased with the early bonding and chemistry that he's forming with his new driver. "I've known Dale for a lot of years but we've never worked together until now," said Letarte. "It's important to me that we become friends and closer off the race track because I think that will help translate to our performance on the track. We've done a lot of that here in the offseason as well as talking at the shop and working together at the Goodyear tire test in Daytona last month. When we get to Daytona again in February for Speedweeks I have no doubt this team will be ready and I can promise you Dale is ready to win races and make the Chase so we can contend for a championship."

Rookie runs: While long-time sponsor Raybestos has dropped its backing of NASCAR's Rookie of the Year programs, there are a number of young drivers hoping to make their mark in the sport this season. Trevor Bayne is among the group, and after an impressive Nationwide season with Diamond-Waltrip and eventually Roush Fenway Racing, the talented youngster may get a shot to move into the Sprint Cup Series in 2011. Bayne is slated to run a full NWS campaign for Roush this season and after making his Cup debut for the legendary Wood Brothers team last November in Texas could add more than a few more starts in NASCAR's top division to his schedule. Bayne will run the first five races of the Cup season in the Wood's iconic No. 21 Ford including the Daytona 500 and pending sponsorship may make up to 17 starts for the team. "It's all about whether we can get the right funding or not, but I'm certainly grateful for the opportunity," said Bayne. "Running the new Nationwide car, which is a lot more like the Cup car, is going to help me a ton, that's for sure. I'm hoping it all comes together and I know it'll be a busy year for me but I'm ready." Team owner Eddie Wood said negotiations with several sponsors continue and he's hopeful an expanded schedule for 2011 will come together.

Stars aligning early in Daytona: Daytona's stock car Speedweeks doesn't officially begin until the Budweiser Shootout on February 12th but World Center of Racing will kick off the 2011 season two weeks earlier with the annual sports car classic Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. As usual the twice-around-the-clock endurance race attracts some of the top names from around the racing world including NASCAR. Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray, the defending Daytona 500 winner, and Juan Pablo Montoya and A.J. Allmendinger are among the stock car crowd set to do battle on January 29-30. "Why do I do it?" asked Allmendinger, who will make his sixth career Daytona 24 Hours start driving a Michael Shank Racing entry. "Well it's a lot of fun for one, and it's just so different from what we do in the Sprint Cup Series. But we're also going to win and not just ride around down there and have a good time. It's a prestigious race and world known, so I'd love to add a victory to me racing resume."

State of IndyCar racing: The IZOD IndyCar Series will hold a Tuesday press conference to provide an update on initiatives for the 2011 season. A formal announcement to no longer identify the series as the Indy Racing League is expected -- no surprise since all signage, logos and colors of the former IRL have been purged in recent months at the direction of CEO Randy Bernard. Las Vegas Motor Speedway will host the 2011 season finale on October 16.

Filling the Chili Bowl: The annual midwinter midget car spectacular is set this week when the 25th Chili Bowl Nationals take place at Oklahoma's Tulsa Expo Raceway. This year's event has already attracted 224 entries to compete on the quarter-mile dirt track housed inside the cavernous Tulsa building. There will be a little NASCAR flavor in the proceedings with J.J. Yeley, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Jason Leffler and Josh Wise on the entry list, which boasts representatives from 29 states as well as New Zealand and Australia.

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