- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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Many NASCAR prognosticators foresee a tough year for the industry. Money's hard to come by in the struggling economy, and multiple organizations -- even some formerly positioned among the elite -- have joined forces just to stay afloat. It stands to reason, too, that penny-pinching fans may be apt to stay home from the racetrack, and as a result venues nationwide have reduced ticket prices.
But amid eye-popping mergers and hundreds of layoffs, optimism still permeates the sport. Invariably at this time of year, every driver and every team is bursting with confidence that the coming year is theirs to seize.
This year is no different.
And as the 2009 Daytona 500 beckons, there are myriad reasons to watch.
Here are my top five:
5. Return of the Jedi -- Mark Martin is NASCAR's Yoda, the wise ol' wily and wrinkly (extrasensory-perceptive?) veteran the young Jedi Knights seek out for advice. Street-smart and appreciative of his disciples, Martin is among the most respected drivers in NASCAR history. Ask around; you'll see.
After spending the past two seasons splitting time between the cockpit and the recliner -- er ... pull-up bar -- Martin returns full-time in 2009, ultimately succumbing to six months of pestering from team owner Rick Hendrick.
Martin is charged with a unique task: break the trend of Hendrick Motorsports' fourth car. For years the No. 25 car failed to run on par with the other HMS teams, and in 2008 that trend shifted to the No. 5. But this year promises to be different. Never before has Hendrick assembled such a dynamic driving lineup: He has the best driver alive in Jimmie Johnson, the best driver ever in the minds of most of his competitors in Jeff Gordon, the most popular driver -- probably ever -- in Dale Earnhardt Jr., and now Martin.
"He's the most talented race car driver that there is," Gordon said of his new 50-year-old teammate. "I mean, the guy is just a natural and he works hard at it, and he keeps himself in great shape. You know, he's just very disciplined and dedicated and driven, a very competitive guy, and you put him in top-notch equipment and there's just no telling what he's capable of doing."
It'll be fun to see what he can do, no?
4. Smoke gets in your eyes -- After a decade at Joe Gibbs Racing that produced 33 victories and a pair of championships, Tony Stewart jumps ship -- diving headfirst into the team ownership pool.
Stewart's volatile personality and tenacious approach to competition -- refreshing to many fans in what has become a largely vanilla NASCAR world -- has garnered a large and loyal following, but at times has landed him in hot water with sponsors and the sanctioning body alike.
It will be quite interesting to watch his transition into organizational figurehead. He is a hands-on owner, and above all, a racer. And for that, his employees adore him.
Stewart says he doesn't plan to change one iota -- he'll still speak his mind when necessary, and says he'll still make mistakes -- but also understands the new responsibility that coincides with having one's name on the building. Hundreds of people depend on him now, on and off the racetrack.
One thing is certain: He must rely on the individuals he hired to run the show. He must concern himself first and foremost with the performance of the No. 14 Chevrolet. Leave the day-to-day dealings to GM Bobby Hutchens.
3. 99 Bottles of ... bubbly? -- Carl Edwards simply could not have performed better in 2008 ... and he still couldn't close the deal. Edwards produced the Sprint Cup Series' best season start to finish, bar none, but fell just short of Johnson in the championship hunt.
It's eaten at him all winter.
"I know that we finished strong enough, and, yes, it is motivating to have finished so close," Edwards said, diplomatically.
Is 2009 the year Edwards claims the big mint dish? Many folks think so. Despite Johnson's three consecutive titles, Edwards is the preseason favorite among the racing media (myself included). Crew chief Bob Osbourne returns, and Edwards' former Nationwide crew chief, Pierre Keuttel, joins the 99 as car chief. A very stout team, indeed.
It will be a dogfight all year long between the 48, the 99, the 18 and the 16, and dang fun to watch.
Edwards also got married in the offseason, to a doctor, and had, like, 95,000 people at his wedding. He thinks wedded bliss will make him an even a more focused driver.
"For me, first time I've ever been married, hopefully the only time, but it's just a neat feeling and different than I expected," he said. "Just having someone like Kate to be there and really be my partner, in a way I really hope, and I believe that it's going to be something that kind of grounds me and gives me a constant in my life and makes me a better race car driver or able to do my job better, focus more. I think it's going to be great."
It certainly hasn't slowed Johnson down any.
2. Dollars and sense -- The fluctuating economy is a compelling story no matter the industry, and for NASCAR -- one that depends so deeply on corporate America for its very existence -- it will be tracked closely all year long.
How might it affect competition? Lower car counts? Fewer personnel on the road, meaning more work for those who are? Sponsors' changing direction? And then there are the fans -- will they choose to stay home or take advantage of lower ticket prices?
From an economic perspective, 2009 will be a landmark year for the industry. The sport's brass opted to cut out testing at sanctioned tracks, which most owners said late last year has the potential to save them some $4 million this season. But how might it affect chemistry? Probably not terribly. It will, though, make Friday practices more important.
1. History lesson -- Breaking news: Jimmie Johnson has the opportunity to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win four consecutive championships and the fourth driver in history to win four Cup titles. The No. 48 shows no signs of slowing down, though many feel Edwards will derail Johnson's run at history.
Some folks wish JJ would suddenly spawn an attitude -- Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage has gone so far as to implore him to smack somebody upside the noggin. Not his style.
Other subplots receiving votes:
Something to prove -- Kyle Busch made a mockery of parity during the 2008 regular season, then fell to pieces when the money was on the table. A guy with that much talent, that level of equipment and knowledge, AND something to prove? Scary.
Main course -- We had Sliced Bread antipasti in 2008. Now its time for the main course. The Italian Stallion, Joey Logano, the most-hyped driver in NASCAR history, finally hits the racetrack full time. Living up to the hype won't be easy, but then again no driver has ever begun a career with better infrastructure behind him.
Back in the Sadler -- Elliott Sadler had an interesting offseason. He found out before Christmas he was getting fired, replaced in the No. 19 by AJ Allmendinger despite having recently signed an extension through 2010. Hence, he felt he had no choice but to threaten legal action to retain his seat. It worked and he kept his ride, but how will the wounds heal? Is the team united? Will this light a fire under everyone? Total soap opera ...
Five-time champ, finally? -- Is Jeff Gordon done? Some detractors think so, based largely on the fact the four-time champ failed to win a race in 2008, marking the first time he's gone winless since his rookie season in 1993. Certainly the No. 24 team has room for improvement. They have to learn to put together complete races. Gordon said time and again last season that they weren't doing so -- the car was great when the pit crew struggled and vice versa. And Gordon made his share of mistakes, too. But they're still a great team, and they enter '09 with a point to prove. It'll be fun to see if the (black!) No. 24 can reestablish excellence, and watch Steve Letarte grin at the haters. For the record: My prediction is they'll do it. Gordon might just win the Daytona 500.
New and improved? -- Teams have a full season's experience with the new car. Incessant complaining about an inability to pass showered the garage in 2008, but by the end of the season the competition improved quite a bit. Will that continue?
Junior ... -- Whatever Dale Earnhardt Jr. does is a story. Dude grows a beard and it's a headline nationwide.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.