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Dialing It In: The NASCAR Stories You Should Be Watching in 2011

Every February, when the NASCAR season is just around the corner, the butterflies start to build and the excitement of finally seeing cars back on the track is at an all-time high. Along with that anticipation is the challenge of figuring out what cars have new colors, new drivers, new numbers, new guys calling the shots and pitting the cars. Now, throw in all of the changes NASCAR has made for the 2011 season and it is enough to make you take a day’s worth of Goody’s.

So, with the official start less than a week away – qualifying for the Daytona 500 is this coming Sunday – here are a few things I will have my eye on throughout not only the opening weeks, but the entire season.

It’s a gas, gas, gas…

NASCAR announced last year a number of changes to the fueling system, the type of fuel used and how that fuel is put in the car. With pit stops and fuel mileage playing such a crucial role in NASCAR, these changes are bound to cause concern for teams, and I expect to see some stumble out of the gates.

The most noticeable change in 2011 will be the use of E15 ethanol in all of the cars. While this adjustment may not be so visible at the track, it sure will be sitting at home watching on television. According to The Daly Planet, the green flag will now feature an AE logo and each green flag will be sponsored by American Ethanol. If the term “double-file shootout style” was any indication of things to come, ethanol and NASCAR’s involvement will be crammed down the throats of those watching at home.

At the track, however, the biggest change for the teams will not be the type of fuel being poured into the car, but how that fuel is delivered. The new fuel can operates with a system of seals and valves. According to many in the garage, gas men will have to be more precise than ever hitting their marks and locking the can in place. Talking with some pit crews at the end of 2010, many expect more spills and a learning curve up and down pit road.

Not only has NASCAR altered the dump cans used to deliver the fuel into the car, they have also eliminated the need for a catch-can man. While this may seem like a small move to some, for the now six men going over the wall to service those cars it is a huge deal. Over the past decade, pit stops have progressed to a sport in and of itself.

Now, thanks to the loss of the catch-can man, the synchronized symphony had to be rewritten and perfected during the offseason. Talking with crew chiefs and pit crew members, many expect the stops to be up to a second slower while everyone adjusts.

In addition, the catch-can man was the go-to guy when it came to making adjustments during a stop. With that crew member now gone, teams are forced to find another to fulfill that job – in the midst of performing other duties. During the media tour in January, our own Mike Neff informed me not all teams are on the same page when it comes to who will fill that void, different sources outlying different strategies for how each one of their stops is going to play out.

As the teams work through the mileage issues ethanol presents, the challenges of the new dump cans and the reworking of the pit stop, it should be interesting to see who figured it out in the winter months and who will be playing catch-up.

If Red Bull gives you wins, do you fly…

Earlier this week Bryan Davis Keith touched on the interesting situation Red Bull Racing finds itself in for 2011. With Brian Vickers returning to the car for the first time since June and Kasey Kahne joining the organization for one season before moving to Hendrick Motorsports, Bryan expected the team to continue the struggles it was forced to deal with in 2010.

I, on the other hand, could not disagree more.

There is no doubt this organization was dealt a heavy hand midseason last year and they certainly struggled simply to regain their composure. However, with Vickers back in the car and a renewed hunger in Kahne’s eyes, I expect big things from the Red Bull team right out of the gate.

Here is another thing I will be watching as the season and the rumor mill progress – what happens if Kahne is successful and does not want to leave in November? While some may point to the contract he has with Hendrick Motorsports, Scott Speed’s comments in his Beyond the Cockpit interview prove the Red Bull organization will do what it takes to sidestep one.

Also take into consideration there have been rumors in the past the team has considered a switch from Toyotas to Chevrolets. Were all the pieces to fall into place, could the Red Bull team become yet another Hendrick satellite? Vickers has a past with HMS and is close friends with many of their drivers. Kahne is contractually obligated to join the team, but were this to happen – and I stress this is purely my own speculation – would he not still be tied to Rick Hendrick?

Imagine a champion in a black car with a No. 3 on the door…

Much will be made about the tenth anniversary of the untimely death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the next few weeks in Daytona. While many recall he was running up front and pushing his cars to the win, few remember that team owner Richard Childress contends they were poised to make a championship run that season. Finishing second in the standings to Bobby Labonte in 2000, Childress has often told of how prepared they were to break history and give Earnhardt his eighth championship trophy.

Now, 10 years later, the team is yet again talking championship and coming off a season in which they nearly won the title – Kevin Harvick led the standings for the majority of the year and finished third in the Chase to Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. Not to mention, the No. 29 car is also sporting new colors and a new sponsor. The black paint scheme with white Budweiser lettering is reminiscent to Earnhardt’s, and a No. 3 remains on the door still to this day.

Harvick has grown in the 10 years he has been in control of Earnhardt’s former ride from a rowdy young hot shoe to a mature driver looking at the bigger picture. Coming close to the ultimate goal last season, it was clear in offseason conversations Harvick once again has his eyes set on the Sprint Cup trophy.

It’s all about the he-said, she-said…

According to Brian France, the fans are the ones calling the shots for NASCAR and the direction he chooses to take the sport. Over the past few seasons, fans have bemoaned tweaks made, complained about television coverage and called for many additional changes – few of which France or NASCAR have actually listened to or implemented.

Heading into a fresh season, stock full of changes once again, I will be keeping an eye on what you, the readers and the fans at the track are saying, what you are calling for and what you would like to see changed. NASCAR has simplified the points to make it easier for fans to understand, but many contend that was an unnecessary move. Others have called for changes to the television broadcasts, yet no visible changes have been made yet.

NASCAR is a sport driven by the fans, and those fans are passionate about the sport they love. Were the changes made enough to placate their concerns? Is it time to leave the sport alone and see what develops? Will more changes be made in the future? Only time will tell, but one of the primary clues to that answer will be how the fans react to the action on the track in 2011.

All-in-all, I’m just excited we’re about to see race cars once again and kick off yet another season of NASCAR. Despite all the criticism and contention with those at the top of the totem pole, one thing remains the same; once those drivers strap in and fire those engines, they will put on one hell of a show.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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