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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: 2009 Preview Edition

NASCAR’s top national series hits the track this week – which means that finally, finally fans will be able to hear more about on track news and the upcoming year rather than an offseason full of layoffs, mergers and utter confusion. Instead, when the green flag waves next weekend for the Budweiser Shootout – and again on February 15th – the sport’s basic concept will return, remaining the same as it always has… race to the checkered flag.

And so it will go on through November. As bad as the economy may get, and as much as it may cripple the sport we love, for four hours every Sunday afternoon drivers will drive, crew chiefs will lead their crews, and fans will enjoy their favorite form of entertainment.

So, for this year’s first edition of Points to Ponder, let’s take a look at some of the (almost) non-economy related stories heading into 2009 all across NASCAR.

Who’s Who?

NASCAR has lost fans for various reasons over the years: quality of racing, ticket prices or forgetting its roots. But the economy could play a role in what may be the sport’s next problem… identifying drivers.

Only 18 cars have the same driver/sponsor/car number combination from 2008; and while fans will always follow their favorite driver, it’s going to take more than a few weeks to remember who’s moved where. For example, it’s Casey Mears now in the No. 07 car, while David Stremme has moved to the No. 12 – both seats occupied by other drivers before them for several years.

Add all the new teams trying to fill this economic void, and it’s gotten to the point that by the time fans figure things out this year, the next wave of Silly Season will already be upon us. Will fans get fed up with the ongoing shuffle? It’s certainly a possibility.

What a start to ’09!

Is there a more exciting race each year than the Toyota All-Star Showdown? This is racing the way it ought to be, and I would gladly watch it over ¾ of the races on any of the NASCAR national series’ schedules. Joey Logano’s last-lap pass attempt was questionable and demonstrated a lack of experience, but shows just how prestigious this “Daytona 500 of short track racing” actually is.

Speaking of Logano, what can we expect from the young driver this season? Like I said during the Frontstretch Preview last week I think Logano “could be” good in the long run – but has been prematurely overhyped. He WILL NOT come in and run as well as Tony Stewart has in the No. 20. However, those who actually believe Scott Speed can upset him in the upcoming Rookie of the Year race are mistaken. Equipment goes a long way in this sport; and as much skill as Speed may have, he will not have the car to top Logano.

Sleeper Alert

In the spirit of the Super Bowl, if you’re looking for a driver to mirror the magic of the Arizona Cardinals and make his first Chase berth, look no further than David Ragan.

If Kurt Warner can go from bagging groceries to multiple Super Bowl appearances, then Ragan can go from Gong Show participant to Chase contender. The Roush Fenway driver finished 23rd in the final standings of his 2007 rookie campaign with just three top 10s, but followed that up with 14 top 10s one season ago, missing the Chase by a mere 17 points.

Ragan comes into 2009 with no major team changes, a new sponsor (UPS) and outstanding Roush Fenway equipment. Watch out for the No. 6 car.

Young Talent

There are always talented young drivers waiting to make their mark in NASCAR’s Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series. Here are some names you may not know, but could find success in 2009…

Brad Coleman (Nationwide Series): The 20-year-old returns to Joe Gibbs Racing, where he recorded three top fives and five top 10s in 17 starts as the youngest driver in the series in 2007. Coleman will split the No. 20 seat with Logano and Denny Hamlin, hoping to contribute in what will be one of the favored cars to win the owners’ championship.

Justin Allgaier (Nationwide Series): The 22-year-old 2008 ARCA Re/Max Series champion jumps over to the Nationwide Series, where he will run the full schedule for the No. 12 Penske Racing team.

Chase Austin (Camping World Truck Series/Nationwide Series): Once a 15-year-old phenom signed by Rick Hendrick, Austin, now 19, hopes to make a name for himself in one of NASCAR’s national series with newly formed Trail Motorsports.

James Buescher (Camping World Truck Series): A future star, the 18-year-old will run the entire 2009 schedule with Circle Bar Racing. Buescher won an ARCA Re/Max Series event in 2006 at just 16, a Nationwide Series pole in 2008 with Braun Racing, and has finished outside of the top 20 just once in seven starts across the Nationwide and Truck Series.

Championship = Injury for Jimmie Johnson?

Winning comes with a price for the three-time defending champion. Johnson followed up his 2006 championship by going all Kelly Slater on the roof of a golf cart, falling off and breaking his wrist. One week ago, Johnson sliced his middle finger with a kitchen knife while trying to cut a hole in his driving suit for a cooling tube during the Rolex 24, requiring surgery to repair tendon and nerve damage. Also, in an unreported incident in 2007, Johnson, after receiving some new tools from Lowe’s and trying to repair everything he saw, received an undisclosed injury while welding a roadside clock…

Seriously, if the No. 48 team wins a fourth straight title, Jimmie may not want to leave the house.