Wasn’t it good to see the cars back on the high banks of Daytona this past weekend? The NASCAR off-season might be the shortest in all of professional sport, but it sure feels like a long cold time in the frigid weeks of a Northeast winter without the throaty roar of stock car engines each weekend. So, as we head inexorably towards Sunday’s Great American Race, and before I get too caught up in the day-by-day minutiae of the soap opera that is NASCAR, here are my 12 wishes for the 2012 season.
Two Pocono Races to Remember: In Honor of the Doc
Two summers ago I got to drive a stock car around picturesque Pocono Raceway and after I’d finished my personal Days of Thunder reenactment – just kidding, I behaved – I was privileged enough to be able to spend some time talking with Doc Mattioli and his wife Rose, who were on pit road watching the action and enjoying the warm summer weather. Simply put: They don’t make ‘em like the Doc anymore, they really don’t.
So my first and most heartfelt wish of 2012 is that both Pocono dates, now shortened to 400 miles each, are barnstorming races in honor of a true legend; a man who helped build our great sport. RIP Doc. You will be sorely missed by many.
Wins and the Chase for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In many ways this is the very definition of the phrase “no brainer”. Whether you’re a fan of NASCAR’s most famous son or not is immaterial. There is no question wins (and I mean the plural), a Chase place, and a strong run at a first championship would be nothing but good news for NASCAR. A relevant, successful, happy Dale Earnhardt Jr. would pack stands, hike TV audience numbers and sell even more merchandise (if that’s possible). And that’s just for starters.
Heading into a second year with crew chief Steve Letarte atop the war wagon is a critical piece of the puzzle for Junior. Their relationship, while not quite yet symbiotic, is certainly burgeoning and the results, wins aside, are showing. There’s more to come this year from Junior; a lot more I hope.
Better Attendance (especially Bristol)
NASCAR attendances have taken a big hit since the recession began in 2008, but in the last year we saw signs that this might be turning around with increases—albeit small—at several tracks. But a half-full Bristol in the Spring of 2011 was a tremendously sad sight to see, not least given their consistent record of sellouts. Some of this could be attributed to the repave of NASCAR’s coliseum, which changed it from a one-groove to a multi-groove surface and lessened the excitement for many long-time fans, quashing much of the Bristol mystique of bumping and grinding for a win. Bristol aside, here’s wishing we see packed tracks the entire schedule, or at the very least better across the board numbers.
First Time Winners
In 2011 we saw five drivers take the checkered flag for the first time at the Cup level. It started with Trevor Bayne’s monumental Daytona 500 victory and was followed by Regan Smith on old tires at the Lady in Black, Darlington. David Regan was next up at the night race at Daytona. Then it was Paul Menard’s turn at the Brickyard, which was very much a family affair. Finally, Marcos Ambrose put his 2010 Sonoma nightmare behind him with a win at Watkins Glen.
This year there are far fewer options, the most glaring of which would be AJ Allmendinger, who has much to prove in a terrific Penske ride in 2012. Aric Almirola would be another, and wouldn’t it be sweet to see him wheel the famous No. 43 car back to Victory Lane for the first time since 1999? Of course it’s at the restrictor plate tracks that we’re most likely to see a new first time winner, so how about David Gilliland or even Danica in the 500? Stranger things have happened…just ask Trevor Bayne.
A New Cup Champion
I’ll keep this point short and sweet: In 2012, I hope we see a new champion crowned. And by new champion I mean a driver who has not yet won a title. Yes, it was great to see Stewart break Johnson’s remarkable streak in such spectacular fashion, but this year I’d like to see another wheelman step up and snatch a maiden Cup crown – preferably in exhilarating “Smoke” style fashion again. So step up the likes of Harvick, Edwards, Busch, Hamlin and Keselowski.
A Nationwide Crown for Elliott Sadler
In his first full season running at the Nationwide Series level, Sadler performed with remarkable consistency in KHI’s No. 2 car in 2011. True, he didn’t snag a win, but 12 top-5’s, 24 top-10’s, five poles and 6,260 laps led spoke to a strong year after several in the mire. A second place finish behind champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was just what the amiable, popular 36-year old needed to kick off the next phase of his career after 12 years and 429 races at the Cup level. Some might say it would be better to see an up and comer win the title but I would love to see Sadler pick up a first top echelon stock car championship.
Success for Sam Hornish Jr.
Another driver reinventing himself at the Nationwide Series level is Sam Hornish Jr. In 2012, he’ll run a full slate of races in the No. 12 Penske Dodge and will have a genuine shot at the title. After struggling through a precipitous learning curve of three full, largely unsuccessful Cup seasons, Hornish took a step back in 2011 and ran just 14 total NASCAR races (one Cup, 13 Nationwide)scoring his first career NNS win at Phoenix in the fall.
Now, back in a permanent seat, with a strong team, solid sponsorship and fine Penske equipment underneath him, the man from the marvelously named Defiance, Ohio is primed and ready for a breakout year – at long last.
Danica Mania — more than just hype
Whilst I’m on the subject of former open wheel drivers trying their hand at stock car racing, there’s one Danica Patrick. If you’ve gotten this far, chances are you don’t need a primer on her stock car curriculum for 2012, so here’s hoping Danica has a strong top-5, top-10 in points season and at least one race victory. Patrick, who has now starred in 10 Super Bowl commercials (more than anyone else ever), is a crossover star. Her success in stock cars will translate to not just new fans but new segments of fans. For a sport with a fan base that skews older than most major sports, this is both significant and necessary. Few rookies running a first full season will ever have been under such pressure to perform.
A solid debut for Travis Pastrana
Travis Pastrana shattered his right ankle in an X-Games crash just two days prior to his scheduled NASCAR Nationwide Series debut last season. The plan was to run seven races in the latter half of the year and then 20 races in 2012. The accident pushed Pastrana’s stock car schedule off by a year, with his first NNS start not likely coming until Richmond this spring. With such a large fan base from his previous career exploits, future success for Pastrana would be a boon for the sport, but for now here’s hoping he has a solid debut string of races.
Have At It Boys
One of the things I like about the “have at it boys” policy is that to a large extent it’s self-policing. You rub the wrong driver the wrong way one too many times and you’ll experience the retribution. Now the key is for this to be controlled: Kyle Busch’s petulant, perilous antics at Texas with Ron Hornaday Jr. being the exact example of what not to do. With the powers that be muttering about how far this little phrase can be taken, here’s hoping that we continue to see more “having at it” without endangering anyone. For guys that can wheel a racecar at 200 miles an hour with inch perfect precision, this shouldn’t be too difficult a task to accomplish.
Business as Usual
Business as usual was essentially theme of NASCAR’s official preseason pep talk at the Hall of Fame during the 2012 Media Tour. And that’s exactly what I’m hoping for. Last season was not perfect, and yes there were plenty of boring races, but at the same time there was excitement and action on all levels and a myriad of unexpected twists and turns. Here’s to seeing more of what we saw last year and a fantastic year for the venerable sport of NASCAR.
A Daytona 500 to Remember
Such a fantastic year starts right here. There is a genuine magic to the Great American Race. The Daytona 500 is an iconic event: a true jewel of the worldwide motorsports calendar. Last year’s fairytale victory for Trevor Bayne, in just his second Cup race and driving the legendary Wood Brothers No. 21 car will be hard to top, but if any race and any track can do it, the 500 at the Daytona International Speedway would be that race. I can hardly wait for the green flag to drop next Sunday.
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