NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: Looking Ahead – 10 Things to Watch with NASCAR in 2009

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had numerous conversations about the metronomic success of Jimmie Kenneth Johnson, and for the most part, the conclusion is that the back-to-back champ makes racing utterly boring for the rest of us. To a certain extent that’s very true, certainly in terms of the competition, but the fact is we’re watching a crew chief and a driver in almost perfect harmony. Chad Knaus and Johnson are at the top of their collective games, and for now, the rest of the pack is playing (and failing to) catch up.

It may not make for an exciting finale at Homestead this Sunday, but however you calculate the points, it’s hard to argue against a third title for the No. 48 team – they’re the class of the field again.

So, with 2008 all but done and dusted and just one race day trophy to run for, I’m going to take a look forward at 2009 to see what we can expect next year in terms of storylines; because as far as 2008 goes, I’m just about done. In fact, scratch that, I am done – especially after ABC cut from the race to America’s Funniest Home Videos. If that doesn’t tell you all you need to know about how little ABC thinks of NASCAR, then I don’t know what does.

1. Stewart-Haas Racing: I just can’t wait! – This could be the story of the season. It really could. I reckon Smoke reacts better than most predict to big-time ownership (especially with the “Hendrick support”). However, there will plenty of fireworks along the way. Figure on this team being required viewing (for good and bad reasons) at each and every race. As I say, I can’t wait…

2. The Fab Four: NASCAR’s Greatest Team? – Dale Earnhardt Jr., Three-Time Jimmie, Four-Time Jeff Gordon and 0-for-26 Mark Martin – has NASCAR ever had a greater or more formidable quartet? (That’s a genuine question, by the way). The stats on this foursome are mind-blowing, with a combined 61 years of Sprint Cup experience and 174 wins in 1,846 collective starts. Expect this Fab Four to pad those numbers by a healthy margin next year.

At the very least, you’d have to say before a single engine has been fired in anger, all four Hendrick stars should make the 2009 iteration of the Chase.

3. One last hurrah for the legendary driver from Batesville, Arkansas – And while we’re talking about HMS drivers, a quick word for Martin, who will make one (cough) last run at that elusive Cup crown. I’m not a Martin fan, per se, but I can’t think of many things I would like to see in NASCAR more than the Raisin Man celebrating with that big old wavy Sprint Cup trophy at Homestead in a year’s time. The odds are it won’t happen – thanks in part to his teammates – but there’s little doubt you’d be hard pressed to find a dissenting voice if Martin does pull it off.

4. The Chase gets a mini-makeover – and it could really shake things up.
The Chase gets a mini-makeover in 2009, with Atlanta slipping out of the final docket of 10 races and (sigh… big, huge sigh) Fontana picks up the date. But more than the arrival of another cookie-cutter track, the biggest factor might be the move of the second Talladega race from fourth to seventh in the 10-race slate.

As we’re seeing this year, Cousin Carl Edwards‘s self-inflicted hole at the big banked track in Alabama is proving insurmountable. This would be even more the case with the “wild card” race being so late in the going. I’m figuring that the ‘Dega Chase race might be the most hyped of 2009.

5. The 2010 schedule announcement could be a watershed moment. – The 2009 season will be the fifth consecutive year that all 22 speedways keep the same number of Cup events. No one new has been invited to the party; but at least no one has been asked to leave. However, that seems about to change in 2010 with the rather ominous discussions about a second race for the utterly stultifying Kansas – and Martinsville appears to be most at risk.

I’m sure we’re all glad Kansas Speedway has a casino (or will have, I should say), but selling out the oldest track on the circuit (a place, let’s not forget, where the racing is fun to watch) would be in the opinion of this columnist another example of NASCAR riding roughshod over tradition and history. I have to hope the powers that be see sense and retain the two dates at the little old paper clip; but sadly, I won’t be holding my breath.

6. Look out for the all white cars in 2009 as sponsor woes continue. – This one won’t be pretty, but I’d say it’s even money we’ll see less than 43 cars start races at the Cup level next season. You have to go all the way back to the rescheduled New Hampshire race in November, 2001 for the last time the Cup Series saw a less than full field. However, with many currently full-time teams scrambling in full crisis mode for new sponsors, figure on seeing plenty of white cars next season. Like I said, this won’t be pretty, and it may very well get worse before it gets better.

7. Can Jimmie equal Jeff? – Could Jimmie do the unprecedented: A four-peat? It’s far from out of the question, and it would be an achievement no one has accomplished in Cup. Gordon’s four titles have long been the standard at Hendrick Motorsports, but if Jimmie rips off another searing title tilt, he’ll be inscribing his name in the annals of NASCAR lore with the very best drivers in the sport’s illustrious history.

8. Scott Speed vs. Joey Logano for King Rook. – After what was an utterly miserable battle of attrition for the 2008 Rookie of the Year, ’09 is shaping up into a nice two-man (well one man, one boy) battle between Speed and Logano.

How these two NASCAR newbies take to the full slate next year will be one of the more compelling storylines of the season. Logano has had a tough few “tester” races at the Cup level in ’08 and struggled in each; but he’ll be much, much better with Greg Zipadelli and the warm embrace of one of the best teams in the business. As for Speed, the powers that be, from their ivory towers in Austria, figure he’s a better bet than AJ Allmendinger. And considering Allmendinger’s recent surge on the Cup level, it’ll be interesting to watch and see if they were right.

9. Who’ll rebound? Who’ll regress? Who’ll come from nowhere? – While there were those who predicted another Cup title for Jimmie, there were few who figured Kyle Busch would have such a stellar regular season and win so many races. Most figured he’d do well, but his sheer dominance in the 2008 regular season was scary impressive.

How Busch the Younger rebounds will be fascinating to watch. Equally so will be the form of the likes of David Ragan (wins a race, makes the Chase) as well as Jamie McMurray and Casey Mears, who really need to start living up to their supposed reputations. You can add the beer-pitch boys (Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne) to that list, too, not to mention the ever-affable Elliott Sadler, whose best performances in 2008 arguably came on the set of Trackside Live.

10. Who the heck knows? I don’t. – And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the beauty of NASCAR. OK, the good teams rise to the top, but that’s true in any sport at the highest level. What makes NASCAR so compelling is that each race is its own mini-soap opera. Yes, sometimes the racing is dull, but there’s still something inherently watchable about 43 of the best drivers in the world hard-charging 500 miles week in and week out, whatever the problems.

And frankly, if all you can do is complain, go watch something else. It’ll be better for your blood pressure, I promise.

One final thought: as of today, there are just 95 days until the 2009 Daytona 500. Enjoy the last race, folks.

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