73 days ago the checkered flag flew at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and thus began the horrendous void in the Gregorian Calendar that is the offseason. Jimmie Johnson won his fourth consecutive title, Mark Martin finished second for the fifth time in his career and Dale Earnhardt Jr. put to sleep the worst season in his and his fans’ careers. There was no race to look forward to the next weekend, no anticipation of how someone would be able to overtake Johnson, no fantasy games or tailgates to plan until February rolled around. Fortunately for us, the calendar has turned to February and the green flag is about to drop on the 2010 Cup season.
There were a couple of things to take our minds off of the lack of racing during the offseason. There was the awards banquet in Las Vegas for the first time, where we the people were actually able to attend – assuming we won a contest or purchased a ticket for the good of a charity. There was the Chili Bowl and the Snowball Derby and the Polar Bear 150, but none of them were Cup races. The special feeling we get from seeing the top of the ladder of racing in the United States was not there. Thank goodness we’ll get an appetizer this Saturday with the Budweiser Shootout, next Thursday with the Gatorade Duels and finally the Daytona 500 the following Sunday.
As we head into the new season, there are many questions that won’t be answered for some time and much anticipation of what favorite drivers and teams are going to be able to do. Will the juggernaut that is the No. 48 team continue to roll to a fifth championship? Will Hendrick Motorsports be the dominant force in the series again? Can Richard Childress Racing rebound from a disappointing 2009? Who will make the Chase that missed it last year, and who will they supplant?
NASCAR has announced they will be easing the reins on the drivers to allow them to show their personalities more, mixing it up on the track and theoretically making the racing more exciting for the fans. After so many years of sanitized corporate shills not doing anything to ruffle the feathers of the establishment, do they actually have it in them to rough it up and let their personalities come to the surface? The jury is out on that point, and we’ll see if NASCAR can actually keep their hands out of things when that first run in between Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski plays out during the qualifying race for the Daytona 500.
There are 45 teams that have announced that they will be running the entire schedule this year, although there are questions about sponsorship for some of them and the fear of a less than full starting grid is real, although extremely remote. The start-and-park phenomenon will still be alive and well in 2010, but it doesn’t appear as though it will be quite as pervasive and it will also not be as profitable. NASCAR has announced that they are cutting the purses for the races by 10%. This is somewhat smoke and mirrors because Albert Einstein couldn’t figure out how the whole prize fund and purse money is calculated. The one thing that is for sure is that the pitiful purses that are awarded in the Truck series are going to be even more miniscule this season.
As we look ahead to the season, the ultimate questions are who will make the Chase and who will win the title? There is no doubt that Hendrick Motorsports will have at least two cars in the Chase, most likely three and possibly four. Earnhardt Jr. is going to get the monkey off of his back at some point this season, his crew chief Lance McGrew assures us of that. Meanwhile, the Stewart-Haas Racing folks went to a test with the Hendrick brigade, and while the test went flawlessly for Hendrick, SHR had an unbelievable amount of bad luck and ridiculous things going wrong. McGrew is convinced that the bad luck that plagues the No. 88 at the end of the 2009 season has been passed on to the SHR squad. That said, it looks like the SHR teams might be the ones who are on the outside looking in at the Chase in 2010.
The Joe Gibbs racing teams should be a force to reckon with again this year and all three of them have a real chance at making the playoffs. Richard Childress is not going to have another down year since they have scaled back to three teams again this year and won’t be spreading their resources as thin. There will definitely be a Roush driver or three in the Chase and the last couple of spots will be filled by Juan Pablo Montoya once again and a driver who is one of Jeff Gordon’s picks to contend this year, Martin Truex Jr.
It has been a long three months, with nothing but a couple of racing tidbits and mostly DVR’d races from last season to fulfill our appetite for the Cup Series. Now that February 14th it is almost here, break out the new team SWAG (and help keep Motorsports Authentics in business,) pick your fantasy teams and make sure you have enough space on your DVR hard drive to record the excitement that is Cup racing in 2010. Can’t wait to hear the most famous words in motorsports again.