Wednesday, February 10, 2010

6 Things to Watch in NASCAR

The 2010 NASCAR season begins in a few short days and there are many storylines that are generating buzz. Will the COT changes that NASCAR is implementing make racing more exciting? How about NASCAR encouraging drivers to show more emotion and personality? I can’t wait to see the restrictor plate races. With no bump drafting rules, which were lame anyway, it might look like a mosh pit at a Five Finger Death Punch concert. Has the Brad Keselowski-Denny Hamlin feud ended? I think it probably has but it’s a long season so a flair up down the road is almost certain. Is Kyle Busch Motorsports a contender in the Camping World Truck Series? KBM should enjoy a successful season and rack up a few wins. Busch suffered a setback when he lost sponsorship from Miccosukee Resort and Gaming for one of his trucks last week but finding a replacement sponsor won’t be hard to do. Busch is one of the most talented drivers in the series and is almost guaranteed camera time. Dale Earnhardt fans have a couple of new drivers to watch. Jeffrey Earnhardt, Dale’s grandson, will be running a partial schedule in the Nationwide Series for DEI. The famed #3 will return to the NASCAR ranks this season, also. Austin Dillon, who is Richard Childress’s grandson, will be running a full schedule in the Camping World Truck Series. He will be sponsored by Bass Pro Shops. As you can see there are lots of stories to watch in the up coming season but here are the top six things to keep your eyes on.

Will Junior finally win some races? This could be perceived as the top story to watch this season. Dale Jr. has won the award for Most Popular Driver the last seven years, so presumably he has the largest fan base. His images sell the most merchandise for sure. He will be in his third season with the powerful Hendrick Motorsports team and his first two campaigns have been awfully painful. Junior finished 25th in points last year, his lowest finish since he moved to NASCAR’s highest series full time in 2000. In reality, he hasn’t enjoyed a successful season since 2006 when he finished 5th. The Cash Cow of NASCAR hasn’t won a race since Michigan in 2008 when he pulled off a gift on fuel mileage to earn a trip to victory lane. Earnhardt Jr. will also run four races in the Nationwide Series, which he hasn’t scored a victory in since 2006, for his own team, JR Motorsports. Lance McGrew will remain his crew chief on a full time basis since taking over for Tony Eury Jr. and a few personnel moves occurred to strengthen the team. Junior says the team’s confidence has noticeably improved and is very optimistic for the coming season. Junior Nation is growing very restless and if Junior doesn’t produce this year, there may not be another chance, at least with Hendrick. An interesting fact, of no real importance, is that Junior’s voice is featured in the video game “Scarface: The World is Yours.”

What will happen with Danica Patrick? Patrick will run approximately 10-14 races for Dale Jr’s Nationwide team and will make her debut at the season opening race at Daytona. Her NASCAR races are sandwiched around her Indy Car schedule. NASCAR is praying that she does well because Patrick could be their personal ATM. Her success would draw in more viewers, especially women, which would open the door to sponsorship dollars. Regardless of her results, everyone will be watching her journey. The media is chomping at the bit to over analyze her every move. Can she win? How will she handle her first wreck? Is she too aggressive? Did she bite off more than she can chew? In this poor economy, NASCAR not only wants her to succeed, they need her to succeed. Queue the conspiracy theories. Here’s my question. How about those Go Daddy “Too Hot for TV Commercials”?

Can Jimmy Johnson win five Cup Championships in a row? Unfortunately for JJ, what should be the top story coming into the season, has been pushed to the back burner with all the other big headlines. Johnson signed an extension with Hendrick Motorsports but his crew chief Chad Knaus hasn’t yet. It’s going take a lot of money to keep the dynamic duo together but Hendrick always seems to find a way. Another downfall of winning all the time, the fickle fans are growing tired of him. For the record, I include myself as a fickle fan. I can turn on my favorite in a heartbeat. Earnhardt Sr and Jeff Gordon went through stretches where fans would rather see them crash than win another race or title. It seemed like NASCAR would tweak the Chase again in an effort to manufacture excitement at the end of the season but they resisted the temptation. JJ was named the 2009 Male Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press. Not bad for a racecar driver.

NASCAR is introducing the COT in the Nationwide Series. The Nationwide Series, formerly the Busch Series, has been known as Cup Light for many years. A handful of the Sprint Cup regulars routinely move down to the Nationwide races for additional seat time, testing purposes, or sponsorship commitments. NASCAR will unleash the new COT for a select few races, four actually, this season like they did years ago on the Cup level. The first race for the new COT is at Daytona in July. It will also run at Michigan, Richmond, and Charlotte. I think its going to be cool watching Ford Mustangs and Dodge Challengers on the track. Finally some actual sports cars. Too bad GM dropped the ball by not using the Camaro. This car change is supposed to help with costs and might bring in some new ownership blood, which is always welcomed by NASCAR.

Will the free agents find new homes and will it happen before the end of the season? Two A-list drivers were recently taken off the free agent list. Penske Racing picked up the option on Kurt Busch and hopes to keep him as part of the team long term. Kyle Busch signed an extension with Joe Gibbs Racing and should be driving their cars for at least the next three years. That still leaves some pretty big names, namely Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, and Kasey Kahne. Kahne and Harvick have both expressed their intention of looking elsewhere and both would be a good fit at Stewart/Hass if they decide to expand. I think Hamlin will stay put as he advanced up the ranks with Gibbs and I won’t be surprised if he receives an extension during the season. Some other free agents after the racing season include Jamie McMurray, David Reutimann, Elliot Sadler, Jeff Burton, and Paul Menard. Menard is a very attractive free agent as he has built in sponsorship from the family owned Menard’s chain of home improvement stores and you can’t race without sponsorship. The last couple of racers, I’d like to mention in this group are Scott Speed and A.J. Allmendinger. Those youngsters migrated over from the open wheel series and have shown steady progress as they get more seat time. Both, Speed and Allmendinger have the personality to attract a big fan base. There is definitely some top notch talent is available for the taking.

Who will win the Rookie of the Year? A better question might be who cares? For the first time since I started following NASCAR there is no rookie candidate to bring some excitement or intrigue to the races. Last year we got to watch the wunderkind teenager, Joey Logano. In 2008, the rookie class included numerous open wheel veterans attempting to make the jump to stock cars. Current stars Juan Montoya, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Kasey Kahne are all past winners of the Rookie of the Year trophy. Brad Keselowski was positioned to make a run at the award but then the stars aligned and he ended up racing in 15 events last season. Who does that leave us for this season’s class? Terry Cook, a 42 year young Truck Series veteran, has announced his candidacy in the #46 Dodge for Whitney Motorsports. By the way, Whitney Motorsports is a new team to the Cup Series. The other confirmed candidate is Kevin Conway. He’ll pilot the #37 Ford for Front Row Motorsports. Conway is 30 years old and his NASCAR experience includes 25 Nationwide events the last 6 years. He will be sponsored by ExtenZe though, so that could mean a couple entertaining commercials. I can see the ad now. Conway says, “Since taking ExtenZe, I no longer feel short changed at the race track. I have more confidence in myself and am not afraid to make the late moves.” No offense, but I don’t think SportsCenter is salivating for either of these guys.

So get ready to watch the year long soap opera known as NASCAR as it develops new and hopefully exciting storylines. Reach up one last time and pull those belts tight. Let’s go racing!

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