Plenty of intrigue heading into Daytona
Will Jimmie Johnson four-peat? Will Tony Stewart succeed as an owner and driver? Will the economy rebound will Jeff Gordon? NASCAR Nation wants to know.
Appreciate what you have. Enjoy the little things. Make the most of whatever comes your way. If NASCAR has a theme in 2009, any or all of those ideas would apply. This year is about working together and getting through the tough times. It's true for the country; it's especially true for a sport that was founded on hard-working ideals and blue-collar roots.
Good things happen, sometimes the best of things, when adversity forces people to take a new approach.
And good things will happen this season; maybe historic things. Jimmie Johnson could win an unprecedented fourth consecutive Cup crown. Mark Martin could win his first championship in his last real chance to grab the brass ring.
And Dale Earnhardt Jr. could prove that his daddy wasn't the only championship driver in the family.
It's all possible in a new era for NASCAR, one that could surprise us almost every week. Big stories are blooming in 2009, but one stands out above all the rest.
Here are five stories most NASCAR fans will follow this season, and how those story lines might turn out:
No. 1: The economic crisis
From start to finish, this is the story. I could list this topic as Nos. 1 through 5 because it affects everyone involved in the sport, from team owner Rick Hendrick to the guy in the backstretch seats at Martinsville.
One team (Bill Davis Racing) didn't survive. One other (Wood Brothers Racing) is barely hanging on.
Close to 1,000 workers with NASCAR teams lost their jobs in the offseason. That's nothing compared to the number of fans who are out of work, wondering how they can afford to buy a ticket to a race.
So much has changed because of hard times. This story is 1A through 1E for 2009.
1A: Mergers -- Teams did what they had to do if they wanted to stay in business and try to thrive in the future.
Teresa Earnhardt and Chip Ganassi now are one Chevrolet team as Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Petty Enterprises joined Gillett Evernham Motorsports to keep The King's name in Cup as Richard Petty Motorsports. And Hall of Fame Racing has a new partnership with Yates Racing and a big-name driver in Bobby Labonte.
The new alignments were a necessity in a down economy, but will they make these teams better? In a time of uncertainly in the sport, these teams face more questions than answers. But at least all of them still have a chance to make it work.
1B: Auto Manufacturers -- All four manufacturers in NASCAR have cut back, but this has happened before and NASCAR adjusted.
No company is leaving the sport as long as it stays in business. In Chrysler's case, that's shaky. Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing, said during the media tour that no one knows if Chrysler will survive.
Penske has three Dodge cars and Richard Petty Motorsports has four, including the part-time ride for AJ Allmendinger. What would these teams do if Chrysler shut down in the middle of the 2009 season?
"That's something we would have to figure out when and if it happened," Cindric said.
1C: Car counts -- The question that comes up constantly is whether Cup will have 43 cars at each event. With so many independent one-car teams planning to run this year (a positive of the economic situation), it's looking more likely the 43 number will hold up.
But does it really matter? NASCAR doesn't need 43 Cup cars in the field to put on a quality show. The real question is how car counts will go in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series.
1D: Attendance -- It will be down at many events, but that's true for all pro sports this year. Speedway officials have lowered prices for some tickets and concessions. It's a buyer's market, and a great chance to see a race at a reasonable price, something that hasn't been true at many events for a long time.
1E: Testing ban -- Believe it or not, it's working. Teams are banned from testing at tracks that sanction NASCAR events, a cost-cutting move NASCAR announced at the end of last season.
Teams still can test at non-NASCAR tracks (like Rockingham or Texas World Speedway), but this rule has significantly reduced the amount of testing. Some teams saved over $100,000 per car just by eliminating testing at Daytona.
The rule isn't perfect, but it is doing what it was designed to do.
No 2: Jimmie Johnson going for the four-peat
Johnson has a good chance to do what's never been done and win a fourth consecutive Cup championship. Whether he does or not, NASCAR officials hope Johnson gets to the end of the season with a chance to do it.
If he stays in contention for the title all year, a lot of the media attention will turn away from the economy and focus on Johnson's historic quest.
No 3: Owner/driver Tony Stewart
The rule of thumb these days is it's impossible to own a team, run the business and still win consistently as a driver. If anybody can do it, Stewart is the guy.
Stewart has taken over a team (Haas CNC Racing) that was one of the worst in Cup. But Stewart Haas Racing has little resemblance to the team of the past. The power personnel in the key positions are better, not to mention the two drivers: Stewart and Ryan Newman.
Bobby Hutchens, one of the most respected guys in the Cup garage, is the new GM for SHR. He was part of four championship teams with Dale Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing before going to Dale Earnhardt Inc. Darian Grubb, a rising star on the pit box, left Hendrick Motorsports to crew-chief for Stewart. Tony Gibson left DEI to crew-chief for Newman.
That's a brain trust and drivers from five different Cup organizations pooling their knowledge. The partnership with Hendrick Motorsports, which supplies the engines, makes the transition a little easier.
Stewart has a huge fan base that wants to see this work. And NASCAR would love to see a new team emerge as a serious contender.
No 4: Will Jeff Gordon win again?
Are the good times over for one of the best drivers in NASCAR history? Gordon was winless last year, the first time that happened since his rookie season if 1993.
He has struggled at times adjusting to the new car, which has less downforce than the style of car Gordon guided to four Cup championships.
And he hasn't been able to keep up with Johnson, the man he helped bring to Cup. With fame beyond the sport, enormous wealth, a beautiful wife and lovely baby daughter, is life too good now for Gordon to race on the edge?
He says absolutely not. Gordon is only 37, prime time for many drivers. He's out to prove to the doubters that he still has what it takes to win a title.
No 5: Can someone surprise us?
If ever there was a year to expect the unexpected, this is it. For the final big story of 2009, I'll break it down to five subplots fans should watch:
5A: Mark Martin -- Fans love a sentimental story. Martin thought his quest for the elusive Cup championship was over, but he has renewed hope at age 50 as the new member of Hendrick Motorsports. He also has an excellent chance to win the Daytona 500, the other big goal he hasn't achieved.
5B: The two talented rookies -- Joey Logano is the most highly touted 18-year-old to come along in years. Competing in Cup is a lot to ask a teenager, even in the No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing.
But it's Scott Speed, the other rookie, who could bring the fans more excitement, on and off the track.
5C: Brian Vickers -- Don't count him out. Speed's teammate and the veteran driver at Red Bull could a have a breakthrough year in 2009.
5D: David Ragan -- His boss, Jack Roush, had this to say about his youngest driver: "David Ragan will be as good as anybody has been in this business. He's the real deal."
5E: Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- All NASCAR really needs to get through these tough times is for this man to win regularly and end the season with his first championship. Now that's a stimulus package.
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Terry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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