- Terry Blount, ESPN Staff Writer
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NASCAR wants to get its groove back.
The 2010 season is all about a new attitude. "This ain't your daddy's NASCAR" is so 2009. "This is your daddy's NASCAR" is the theme for 2010.
Things are changing. Well, maybe not everything.
Other than Jimmie Johnson possibly winning the championship again (no shock if he does), what NASCAR fans see in 2010 may have a much different look than what they saw in 2009.
This season is about racers racing with less interference from the joyless rule enforcers in the tower. NASCAR is going back to a Social Darwinism approach, a survival-of-the-fittest idea (within reason, of course) that more closely resembles NASCAR's roots.
It sounds interesting in theory, but how it actually plays out is anyone's guess.
Either way, it should be fun to watch. So here are our 10 topics on my 2010 watch list that could bring some entertaining moments:
1. The Daytona 500: The first race out of the gate always is NASCAR's signature show. But rule changes this year for restrictor-plate events could make this Daytona 500 the best show in years.
Strict rule enforcement on bump drafting is gone. Drivers can bump draft each other as they see fit.
Have at it, boys. And they can do it with a little more power. The restrictor plate between the carburetor and engine intake manifold being used at Daytona is the biggest opening since 1989, meaning the engines will have more horsepower.
That gives the drivers more throttle response, enabling them to change speeds more quickly, something they've begged for to improve the racing at plate tracks.
2. Wilder racing: Most rule changes affect the plate races at Daytona and Talladega, but NASCAR officials have made it clear that looser enforcement will apply across the board every week.
NASCAR chairman Brian France set the agenda: "We're going to loosen it up. This is a contact sport."
So be it. But how far will race officials actually let the drivers go on the track? Rubbin' is racin', but when does it becomes over-aggressive driving that's too dangerous to allow?
As always, it's still a judgment call. But NASCAR's message to the drivers is clear: "We might not judge it as harshly as we have in the recent past."
3. The spoiler: The rear wing that many fans hate is going away for good in late March when NASCAR returns to the rear spoiler, similar to the blade that sat on the deck lid of the old car for years.
The goal is to bring about better racing by giving the car more balance between front and rear downforce. It also should mean the car is less likely to get airborne.
Whether it improves the side-by-side racing is impossible to say until the drivers get on the track.
Texas in April probably will be the first spoiler race on a large speedway. But it will change things. The spoiler will help some drivers and hurt others. Some crew chiefs will adapt quickly and some will struggle.
Even if the spoiler doesn't make a noticeable difference in the racing product, it's still a game changer. It will make a few teams more competitive and a few others less competitive than they were with the wing.
4. Junior's Groove: Eyes always are on Dale Earnhardt Jr., but this is a pivotal season in his career. Either he rebounds and returns to competitive status or he repeats 2009 and starts to fade into racing oblivion.
I'm betting it's the former. Earnhardt is a skilled driver with quality equipment. Crew chief Lance McGrew is a pro who knows his stuff.
So it's really up to Junior to end his horrendous slump. It starts with a positive attitude and a renewed zeal to be the best.
5. Danica Patrick: NASCAR needed a spark and something that would bring national attention. Danica is it.
Patrick finally dips her feet into the NASCAR pool with a partial Nationwide schedule driving for Earnhardt's JR Motorsports. Could you have a bigger celebrity pairing?
ARCA's version of the Super Bowl comes this Saturday at Daytona, when Patrick makes her stock-car debut. Depending on how that goes, she might race in the Daytona Nationwide event on Feb. 13.
If not, her NASCAR debut will come in the shadow of Hollywood, at Fontana, Calif., the following weekend. If she races well, the sky's the limit. If she doesn't, NASCAR still benefits from the attention she brings.
6. Denny Hamlin: The experts believe this is Hamlin's year to shine. He finished 2009 on a roll, showed some moxie on the track in his feud with Brad Keselowski, and should challenge Johnson for the Cup crown.
But Hamlin will race the entire season with a torn ACL in his left knee. Doctors say he'll be fine. They say it won't affect him.
Really? What about those thousands of clutch pedal pushes? What if he wrecks and bangs his knee? Maybe one good leg is enough.
7. Kyle Busch: Is this the year the results match the talent? You won't find a more skilled guy behind the wheel than Kyle. But all that ability hasn't produced a Cup championship. Last year, it didn't even produce a Chase spot.
Maybe becoming a team owner in the Camping World Truck Series will help him mature a little. Or it could become a distraction for a guy who already has way too much on his plate with Nationwide Series races and some truck races.
Crew chief Dave Rogers, in his first full season with Kyle, will try to tame the beast.
8. Steve Addington: The man who couldn't tame the beast will now apply what he learned as Kyle's crew chief to the older Busch brother and try to help Kurt earn a second Cup title.
Addington is a quiet guy who wouldn't criticize anyone, but you know he'll feel some satisfaction if Kurt's No. 2 Dodge finishes ahead of Kyle's No. 18 Toyota in the 2010 standings.
9. Martin Truex Jr.: Remember him? Truex made the Chase in 2007 when he won his first Cup race and looked like a rising star.
But he was part of a decaying situation at Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2008 and would have left if he could have, but contractual obligations forced him to stay at the merged Earnhardt Ganassi Racing operation in 2009.
The Ganassi half of that merger -- Juan Pablo Montoya -- thrived. But the Earnhardt half -- Truex -- struggled, a typical outcome for a lame-duck driver.
Pat Tryson, one of the most respected crew chiefs in Cup, also joins MWR as Truex's crew chief. It all adds up to big things for Truex in 2010. That NAPA car never looked so good.
10. Jimmie Johnson: Last but not least. Johnson will attempt the incredible accomplishment of a fifth consecutive Cup championship.
If everything in the series were staying the same, why would anyone doubt him? But, as we said, everything isn't staying the same.
How will NASCAR rule changes and its relaxed attitude affect Johnson's driving style? How will he adjust to the spoiler?
He won his first two championships with a spoiler, so it could play into his hands. And no one is better at making adjustments on the fly than crew chief Chad Knaus.
NASCAR may get its groove back, but Johnson still may win the title. Some things change, some things stay the same.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.