After ten long months, 35 grueling races and 10,383 laps run, we’re left with just 400 miles (267 laps) to decide if Tony Stewart will win a third Cup crown in nine years, or if Carl Edwards will win a first ever title after eight years of trying. We’ll find out soon enough this weekend; but after the checkered flag flies at Homestead, whoever wins doesn’t deter us from running slap bang into the racing free months of deep winter. So, I figured in one of my final columns of the year, I’d take a quick peek at twelve things that are in store for us NASCAR aficionados in 2012:
Once we’re all squared away at Homestead-Miami, the final checkered flag will bid not just adieu to the 2011 season but also to that rock of engine building: the carburetor. Of course, fuel injection is hardly a new technology – in fact, it’s about three decades old – but for this sport, it’s a major adjustment. This change has been coming for awhile, so it’s good to see NASCAR progress more toward the modern era, and if nothing else, at least the stock cars will now be closer (that being something of a nebulous term) to what you can buy in your local showroom. What impact this will have on the racing remains to be seen, but my guess is things will be business as normal.
Danica, Danica, Danica. It’s a name we’ll be hearing even more of in 2012 as the erstwhile golden girl of the IndyCar Series — from a marketing perspective, if not actual results on the track – takes to stock car racing full-time with a run at the Nationwide schedule. Experienced head wrench Tony Eury, Jr. and team should help smooth over some of the transition, but it will sure be interesting to watch the puke-green, GoDaddy-colored Chevy compete week-in, week-out.
The question is can she do what Sam Hornish, Jr., Dario Franchitti and, to some extent, Juan Pablo Montoya have failed to do and really make a success of the transition from open-wheel to stock car racing? Either way, I doubt it will be boring.
The Return of the Rock:
In some senses, the return of NASCAR racing to Rockingham Speedway is a sure sign that sometimes things can go back to the way they were even when you don’t expect it… cough. Labor Day weekend at the Lady in Black, anyone?
From 1966 through 2004, the Rock played host to 78 Cup races and a further 42 Nationwide races before being shuttered for what seemed like ever. Now under new ownership, the Rock is back at least with a Truck Series race. Let’s hope the fans come out and show their support! Then, who knows? Maybe one day soon we’ll see a Cup race back in the cradle of stock car racing.
The Dreaded Two-Car Tandem:
At the four restrictor plate races this season, we’ve been subjected to the new NASCAR dance move – the two-car tango. It’s something that has rightly provoked the ire of NASCAR fans and stoked the online chat rooms for weeks at a time. Whether or not there is anything that can be done prior to the Daytona 500 (and you can be sure, they’ll try with testing) remains to be seen, but this is a blight I hope to see eradicated in 2012. Yes, you can make the case that the long lines are no better. But for me, they are. The two-car tango sucks.
Dale Junior makes a run:
Whether Dale Junior wins this weekend in South Florida – and my guess would be not – I’m going to make the not really so bold prediction that there is much more to come in 2012 from NASCAR’s favorite son. Just the other day, Earnhardt commented that he didn’t want the season to end, such is the cohesiveness between crew chief / cheerleader Steve Letarte and the much analyzed and discussed Sprint Cup veteran. Yes, it’s been awhile since Junior swung into Victory Lane, but I’m betting we’ll see it at least twice next season. After struggling through his first few years with the sport’s mega-team, expect a lot more from “JuneBug” in 2012.
Will Sprint Renew?:
Just two years remain on the 10-year, $750 million dollar title sponsor deal for Sprint. The big question is will they will re-sign or resign? It’s not exactly a trade secret to say Sprint has struggled some against their biggest cell phone competitors, so it remains to be seen if a number that will likely be in the region of a billion dollars for a similar length encourages their renewal. Yes, there’s no question NASCAR can be a huge vehicle for a title sponsor but does Sprint have the inclination and the dollars to pony up for a new deal? Despite optimistic statements, I’d say this one is very much in the balance and you can be sure if Sprint doesn’t look like they’ll renew by midway through 2012, the powers that be in Daytona Beach will start looking for someone new.
A sport so driven by the almighty sponsor dollar is always susceptible to tough times in parlous economies — this fact is reflected in the number of cars who will have split sponsors next year. In some cases, drivers will have four, even five or six, different paint schemes across the balance of the year as team marketing departments struggle to make ends meet. You only need to look at the fact that Matt Kenseth has no primary sponsors for 2012 as a sign that the economy is still a factor. Only a handful of drivers have the same sponsor across each race (for example: Hamlin with FedEx and Truex Jr. with NAPA).
What’s the Point(s):
Typically, when a change is in the offing in the points structure (or indeed another major part of the sport) we get an early warning balloon from NASCAR so that by the time the announcement is made, it’s already old and oft-discussed news. So here’s hoping once the season ends, we’ll see a slight tweak to the Chase format rewarding wins within the final ten races. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again until I’m Petty blue in the face – the system, as is, is asinine. If wins are at such a premium prior to the Chase, why on earth aren’t they in the actual final ten races? I’m foreshadowing here a little but here’s hoping NASCAR announces this change at some point over the cold, bleak non-racing winter.
Five-Time Bounces Back:
You can be sure Chad Knaus is already working on next year. In fact, I’d imagine he’s already worked out exactly why the dominant team of the last half-decade created little more than a whimper in the 2011 Chase. Everyone (me included) figured Double J would be right in the mix until the final race this Fall; instead, Johnson has nothing to race for but pride this weekend. It will, I’m sure, be a strange sensation for the five-time champ, whose closing dynasty will undoubtedly last for decades as one of the great achievements in NASCAR history. Regardless, this team is too strong and this driver is too skilled not to think we’ll see anything but a strong bounceback in 2012: a sixth title is very much a possibility.
A New Champion:
Before Johnson gets that chance, it’s instructive to note that we will have a new Cup champion this year for the first time in, well, seemingly ever. With the sport still at something of a crossroads (attendance, TV numbers, sponsor woes, etc.) the new titlist will have an important role to play in evangelizing the sport we all love. Luckily, either Cousin Carl or the much less irascible Smoke should do NASCAR proud; so, like watching Johnson bounce back, watching them try and ratchet up interest in the sport should be fun.
Cup Regulars without Rides and the future of Red Bull Racing:
And finally, after Kasey Kahne’s strong form in the Chase (albeit as a non-participant) and the heartwarming win for both driver and indeed the entire Red Bull organization at Phoenix this past weekend, the future of the company still remains very much up in the air. Hopefully, investors will step up and keep this team alive, but I’m not holding my breath. That being said, doing so might actually prove to be a significantly shrewd operation given all the pieces and parts of a functioning team are in place.
However, the crisis does not just apply to Red Bull Racing, as the likes of David Reutimann (callously cast aside by MWR just a week or so ago) and David Ragan (no sponsor) will also be scrabbling for top-level rides. In case you hadn’t noticed, folks, Cup racing is cutthroat. Here’s hoping RBR, Reutimann, and Ragan find homes for next year.
A Later Start:
And finally, the 2012 season will get off to a later start than is traditional, with the Daytona 500 scheduled for February 26th. The decision to shift the date back a week is predicated on the later date for the Super Bowl and a desire from NASCAR not to have their crown jewel event conflict with the biggest sporting event in the U.S. I can’t wait already.
Enjoy the last race this weekend, all.
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