It’s amazing how the shortest offseason in professional sports can feel so long – it seems like an age ago since we were watching Jimmie Johnson race to a fourth straight title in Miami. I, for one, was even more geeked for the Budweiser Shootout than I was for the season-premiere of ABC’s Lost! (In the interest of full disclosure, I was pretty damn geeked about that, much to the infinite chagrin of my LOST hater friends).
But I digress, so soon into my first article of the season… It was great to see some on-track action, albeit in the form of a largely irrelevant 75-lap sprint. So, as we head into the critical Duel 150s this Thursday – and the season-opener this weekend – here are 10 wishes for the 2010 season, in no particular order.
A phenomenal Daytona 500
After last year’s damp squib of a race (no pun intended), what the NASCAR racing public needs is a Daytona 500 that lives up to the famous old moniker, “The Great American Race.” Yes, the NASCAR season is arduous and relentless, but after such a difficult year in 2009, this season needs to start right: really, really right. Let’s hope the governing body’s edict of “Have at it boys” plays out on the track, and if the early evidence is anything to go by, that might just be the case. Regardless, the sport needs a barn burning, fender rubbing, wheel smoking 500-mile race that showcases the sport in the best possible light and kicks the season off on a high note.
Earnhardt Jr. finds Victory Lane (heck, finishes in the top five occasionally)
I’m sure I’ll be battered for this in the comments section, but to my mind, one of the single biggest things that could happen to NASCAR in 2010 is for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to get rid of the funk that surrounded him all of last season, and to run like the top class driver he is. Will it happen? The jury’s out, but Mr. Hendrick has clearly done everything he can to give Junior a chance to succeed. Certainly, the preseason comments appear optimistic (but you’d be deeply worried if they weren’t) and there seems to be a sense of now or never for NASCAR’s favorite driver. If his results even vaguely start matching his stratospheric popularity, things will be OK for the driver of the No. 88 Chevy in 2010.
Martinsville keeps both dates
This one may already be a “behind-the-scenes done deal,” but if I could have one wish granted this season, it would be for Martinsville to keep both of its dates. Host of some 122 Sprint Cup races, Martinsville held the sixth race in the inaugural Cup season (1949) and has maintained a permanent place on the schedule ever since. It was a question we discussed in our preseason previews here on Frontstretch and it’s a topic my very talented colleague, Kurt Smith, discussed in his inaugural Happy Hour column last Friday. For my money, shedding a race date at the paperclip would be tantamount to showing all the talk of “bringing back the old NASCAR” is nothing more than lip service. Another McTrack is not – repeat, not – what the sport needs.
A new champion
After four years of relentless, seemingly effortless dominance from Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and Co., there’s no reason to suspect 2010 will be anything different – especially in the Chase. For the No. 48 bunch, the regular season is little more than a preamble before the serious business of the final 10 races. It’s hard to argue against Johnson being a worthy champion, although there are plenty that will try citing the “flawed” Chase points format. There’s little doubt in my mind that the last thing NASCAR needs is for Johnson to beat teammate Jeff Gordon to a fifth crown. NASCAR requires new blood at the champion’s table and it’s time the pretenders started stepping up when it counts.
More parity, less Hendrick dominance
The unprecedented 1-2-3 finish for Hendrick Motorsports, not to mention the JV team of Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman both making the Chase, spoke volumes about the strength and dominance of the sport’s top team. But in 2010, we need this to change – other teams should step up and challenge. Richard Childress Racing requires a rebound in the worst way after slipping from all three cars in the Chase in 2008 to 0-4 (not even close) in 2009. Roush Fenway must show significant improvement; the Biff and Cousin’ Carl may have made the Chase, but neither looked like a bonafide contender. Kasey Kahne and Kompany (sorry, couldn’t resist, I mean Richard Petty Motorsports) also need a major uptick in performance. It’s fair to say the days of an Alan Kulwicki winning the championship are done and dusted, and that you have to be a mega-team to get it done, but one day someone has to knock HMS off its pedestal. Such is the nature of the sport. Here’s hoping that happens, or at least starts to happen, in 2010.
First time and unexpected winners
There is nearly nothing better than seeing a first time winner in victory lane on the Sprint Cup circuit: the wide-eyes, the garbled interview, the sheer and utter delight from driver and crew. In 2009: Brad Keselowski, David Reutimann and Joey Logano all got to drink the winner’s champagne for the first time. Here’s to hoping that in 2010 there’s another batch of new winners. Every sport needs variety, new names to hype, and in some cases, ones to obsess to the point of tedium about. Seeing newbies celebrating in the winner’s enclosure always, always provides just that.
Someone new makes the Chase
Upward of 20 drivers will take the green flag at Daytona with realistic expectations of making the elite Chase field of 12 following the Richmond race cutoff in early September. Predicting who those drivers will be is something of a dark art, given the way that fortunes fluctuate wildly year after year. Just ask 2009 preseason favorite Carl Edwards about his zero win uphill struggle last season. How great would it be to see Marcos Ambrose make the field? Or to see the “aw shucks” interview with Reutimann as he reflects on grabbing a Chase berth? And while I’m on that topic, can you imagine Mikey’s filibuster length speech if the amiable Reut made it?
Attendance trends up
After swathes of empty seats, the length and breadth of the circuit, it’s key that the fans return to the track in 2010. Some of the absences can be excused by the adverse economic conditions that shrouded the entire country, but it would be hard to argue that some of the vacant perches weren’t the result of a perceived paucity in on-track action and quality. To some extent, it’s contingent on the track promoters to entice fans back to the tracks with special offers and free food, that kind of thing. It’s no longer a question of “print the tickets and they will come”. Regardless, significant additional dips in at-track attendance will not be so easy to brush of – and in the humble opinion of this NASCAR columnist – a long-term harbinger of doom for the sport.
One of the biggest gripes we heard last year was the processional nature of the racing, particularly at the cookie-cutter circuits. Much hope is being placed on the return of the rear spoiler replacing the much maligned and ridiculously ugly wing. Yet for all the voices of positivity there are those who posit the return to a spoiler won’t make as much difference as people hope. Time will tell on this change. The good news is that at some tracks the racing can’t get much worse, so little changes could make an incrementally big difference. Not every race can be like the legend from Maine, Ricky Craven, beating Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2003 after all.
Resolution for Mayfield
And finally, here’s hoping for resolution and closure on the Jeremy Mayfield issue. I resisted writing much on the topic last year, largely because after a point the machinations just got so tedious, with all the “he said, she said” malarkey. I mean enough already of the, “My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who saw….”, if you’ll forgive me the Ferris Bueller reference. As with the Mauricia Grant situation, the sport needs to draw a line under the incident and move on. Sadly that seems unlikely to happen, but I can but hope a swift resolution appears from the carnage we’ve already seen.
So there are my ten wishes for the upcoming season. It’ll be interesting to see, come November, how many have come true.
Enjoy the Great American Race this weekend, folks.