With the new season just days away, I wanted to take a quick moment in my first column of the year to make some wishes for the forthcoming campaign. Some will probably come true, some definitely won’t; so, before the madness begins anew under the lights at Daytona this Saturday night, and with the benefit of a two-month break from writing here are, in no particular order, my eleven wishes for NASCAR in 2011…
A Brilliant Daytona 500:
After pothole-gate, not even a heartstring-tugging victory for the then-beleaguered Jamie McMurray could fully make up for the two-hour patch job delay in the sport’s marquee race. The fiasco was enough to prompt a repave of the grand old two-and-a-half mile high-banked circuit and the result should be racing more akin to her sister superspeedway: Talladega. That will likely ensure 500 miles of turbulent, snarling chaos with the race likely decided in the final corner of the final lap. So how about fingers, toes and any other body parts you care to name, crossed for a 500 for the ages and why not a Michael Waltrip victory while I’m at it? The sport needs a strong start to 2011, no question…
Wins and more for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.:
This wish is little more than solid logic: the sport’s most famous son needs to become relevant – and successful – again. The switcheroo of teams, offices and crew chiefs at HMS sees Earnhardt get another fresh start with the talented Steve Letarte now assuming head wrench duties on the No. 88 Chevy. How this new marriage will work, time will tell, but given the way Junior has run these past couple years there’s no solid reason to suspect it will be a hit. That said, perhaps the proximity to the flawless five-time champ (the No. 48 and the No. 88 are now teamed in the same shop with the No. 24 moving in with the No. 5 team) will be just the boon the Joonbug needs.
A great return for Brian Vickers:
Brian Vickers only competed in 11 races in 2010 before having to step out of the car for unexpected medical reasons. Now back to health, Vickers is chomping at the proverbial bit to get racing again and it’s good to see him back. As erudite off track as he is competitive on it, the Red Bull racer should be a factor right from the drop of the green flag this year and he will be looking, no doubt, to make the Chase for a second time; he finished dead last in the 2009 iteration.
Another run at the title for the ageless wonder:
Following a five-win season and a sustained run at the championship in 2009, Mark Martin suffered through what can politely be described as a disappointing 2010. Now teamed up with Lance McGrew (who is no doubt ecstatic to be away from the Earnhardt Jr. craziness), Martin has another, perhaps final shot to win the title that has eluded him since the early days of Ronald Reagan’s first term in the White House. It’s hard to make the case that any driver “deserves” to win a championship — it’s top-level sport, suck it up –- but if ever there were a driver who’d fit this category, Mark Martin would be the man.
Wide Open Coverage:
I always enjoy the TNT segment of the season – short as it is – because it’s like a little oasis of calm in between Fox and ESPN. The side-by-side advertising they employ in their “Wide Open Coverage” of the Daytona night race is, for me, the template for how races should be broadcast. I’m realistic enough to know this isn’t going to happen anytime soon but I live in hope. I fully believe such a change would have a very positive effect on the TV ratings.
A Nationwide Championship for a Cup Driver:
With the announcement that drivers may only compete for points in one of the three top series, we will necessarily see an end to the trend of Sprint Cup drivers winning Nationwide Championships. All of which, it would seem, opens the door for the younger, up-and-coming drivers to make their mark. Watch out for one little irony though: a 13-year, 429-race Sprint Cup veteran will race for KHI in 2011 in the Nationwide Series and should have a very strong fleet of race cars at his disposal. So here’s hoping for a first Nationwide title for the ever-amiable Elliott Sadler or at the very least multiple wins for one of the sport’s true good guys.
This one is going to be short but sweet. I’m wishing for many less empty seats this season. Simply put, the attendance at NASCAR races is still pretty incredible given the length of the schedule but there were far too many gaps last year.
“Go, go, go” Go-Daddy Girl:
Danica’s initial foray into NASCAR was hardly what you could call a success. In 13 races in the Nationwide Series, she had an average finish of 28.0 with a 19th place at Homestead being her best result. Patrick is expected to run a similar number of races in 2011, and the good news is there’s only one way to go and that’s up. Love her or hate her, there’s no denying Danica is big news and in a sport with dipping attendance and falling TV ratings that can only be a good thing.
A New Champ:
What Jimmie Johnson has done this past half-decade has been little short of incredible, and Chad Knaus is right when he says his driver doesn’t get the full credit he deserves. Oh well; I guess Jimmie will have to make do with a beautiful family, more money than he can ever spend and a God-given talent at wheeling a stock car. Poor double J; that’s gotta be tough. More seriously, though, Johnson remains the driver to beat and it’s even money he makes it six for six this season. But after such relentless dominance, NASCAR really needs a new face at the top table in Vegas next November.
The extreme sport legend will race seven times in the 2011 Nationwide Series for Pastrana-Waltrip Racing. Can he make the transition? Already, Pastrana finished a credible sixth in the Toyota All-Star Showdown at Irwindale Speedway in his competitive intro to NASCAR. “This sport is so much fun, it’s super competitive, but I have so much to learn,” said Pastrana after the race before jumping into the stands to sign autographs and meet the fans. Here’s hoping he tears it up (not literally) and ends up running many more races in 2012 and beyond. NASCAR needs crossover stars and Pastrana is as big a name in motorsport as anyone.
Have at it — all over again:
For all the criticism of last year, I thought there was some excellent racing throughout the season and particularly as the Chase came down to the wire. So for my final wish before ten months of mayhem gets underway this Saturday evening, here’s hoping the drivers “have at it and have a good time” all over again this season.
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