Five key storylines to track in '05
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Outsiders often wonder why NASCAR's biggest race kicks off the Nextel Cup season, instead of ending it Super Bowl-style.
But for NASCAR's diehard fans, the start of each season is a certified holiday. It's an awakening; a celebration. What better way to ring it in than with the pomp and circumstance of the Daytona 500?
While fans focus on the magnitude of this one race, drivers and teams are focused not only on this one, but the 35 to come. A new season brings new hope. Everyone is tied. Everyone is on pace to make the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
It's time now to ring in the 2005 NASCAR season. And with it, five questions to which we eagerly await answers.
With Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace having announced this will be their final season racing full-time in NASCAR's highest division, fans, and competitors, are showing an outpouring of support.
"Those are two guys who have done a lot for this sport and help it get to this point," said Dale Jarrett, who's around the same age but not ready to hang up his helmet. "They're true racers. It's going to be hard to replace guys like that and I'm sure that was said back many years ago when my dad retired and Junior Johnson and David Pearson later and Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip."
Martin, known for most of his career as being somewhat stand offish, has made more time for fans and media and has softened his demeanor. Not surprisingly, this has made Martin a fan favorite during his competitive title bids the past two years.
The bond that he has always built with his crews has strengthened and, this year, many crew men declined raises and promotions from other teams so that they could stay together and give Martin a real chance to vie for the title.
"That meant so much to me," Martin said. "It's going to be a huge boost for us."
Wallace will retire with a solid legacy: 56 victories and the 1989 championship. But in an era when sponsors are craving for dashing, young spokesmen, Wallace found himself in unfamiliar surroundings when turnover at the executive ranks of his sponsor, Miller Lite, left him under serious pressure to perform and compete with the youngsters. Although he's run competitively, he went through a long winless streak and failed to make the first-ever 10-race dash for the title last season.
"I think the last year we've had some problems and we've had some bad luck bite us there, but we've got a great team and a great shot this year," Wallace said. "I really believe we can get it done."
In 2002, Roush Racing tried a similar shakeup, swapping crew chiefs and some key personnel between Kurt Busch and Mark Martin. The result was that Busch finished third in the points race and Martin battled Tony Stewart in a spirited finish for the title, eventually finishing second.
"We just felt like something needed to be done," Martin said of their decision. Martin said the team wanted to pair the young Busch with veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig and pair the veteran Martin with the younger Ben Leslie.
"I think it got some experience on my side and some fresh, new ideas on Mark's side," Busch said.
This season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and teammate Michael Waltrip are swapping entire crews and cars. The move isn't as much to even any imbalances, but more in hopes to rejuvenate both squads.
"Things change in the world," Junior said. "It doesn't stay the same forever. I don't understand what the big deal is. If it doesn't work, we'll change again. That's what you do, right? Right now it's going great."
If NASCAR had raced under its previous points system last season, Jeff Gordon might have title No. 5 already. Last year, NASCAR reset the top 10 after 26 races and let them duke it out for the last 10 races. However, if you added up the total points every racer accumulated over the entire season, Gordon had the most.
Disappointment? Sure. Dejection? Come on, it's Jeff Gordon. He begins every season a title contender and he's well aware of that fact.
"I thought we were knocking on the door to win No. 5," Gordon said of last season. "I feel like we've done well in our offseason and that we have an even better team right now than we did last year. I feel like things have gone well. You know when the chemistry is there and the pieces are put in place. And you know when they're not. Right now, I feel really good about where we are."
Hendrick Motorsports is still reeling from the loss of so many who died in a plane crash last year, but the organization has turned dedicating every race to those lost into motivation. The result has been a torrid pace set by Gordon and the guy who will possibly be his toughest competition, teammate Jimmie Johnson.
"They say before you win one you have to lose one," said Johnson, who won four of five races to close out the year. "I hope last year was that case for us. We put up a great effort."
With Matt Kenseth taking the title in 2003 and Kurt Busch winning last year's, the question becomes whether Roush Racing can stay on top. The key to the three-peat might just be Martin.
As defending champ, Busch has one strike against him -- defending champs normally experience some trouble because they've spent the offseason with appearances and not in the shop. The demands on their time are also very high during the season. It doesn't make it impossible -- Jeff Gordon pulled the repeat in 1997-98 -- but it makes it very difficult.
"The way that we are going to look at this season is it's definitely an opportunity to go against the odds," Busch said. "A champion hasn't repeated since 1998 due to the demands and the extra curricular things you do off the track."
Matt Kenseth is the type of driver that kills you with consistency, not necessarily dominance. Under the new NASCAR points system, though, consistency is only rewarded through 26 races. The final 10 is all about who's hot.
Martin has competed at a high level for several seasons now, knocking on the door consistently. He did it under the old points system in 2002 and he did it under the new one last season. This year, he's got his entire crew back and there should be a smooth transition into the season.
"I feel like I've invested so much in seeing Mark Martin win," team owner Jack Roush said. "I can't even describe how much it would mean."
For several years now, Kyle Petty has touted the beginnings of a return to success for Petty Enterprises. Each year it seems he believes the team is ready to start competing for top 15s, but each year they're closer to 35th.
This year, with the addition of Paul Andrews as crew chief, Petty believes that the communication among the team will be much better. He doesn't believe the team is ready to compete for wins consistently, but he hopes the team is on its way to getting there.
"We have to learn how to win," he said. "It's been a long time, and when you've been with teams that get out of the habit of winning you have to learn how to win. We're getting back to a point where we can be competitive.
"You don't come from 32nd and 35th to win, but we can get to a point this year where we could win and we could give away races this year. Once you start giving away races, then you can win races. We haven't been in a position to give away a race from a bad mistake or driver error or whatever it may be. We're probably closer to that this year."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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