SEASON PREVIEW – What to Watch in 2010

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Saturday 13th February, 2010 - 1:18am

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Jimmie Johnson crosses the line to win the first Gatorade Duel at Daytona on Thursday

Jimmie Johnson crosses the line to win the first Gatorade Duel at Daytona on Thursday

The grueling NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule kicks off this weekend with the 52nd running of the Daytona 500 staged on Sunday February 14 (Monday morning Australian time).

Aussies can tune in to both ONE and FOX Sports 3 to watch the race live at 4am (Australian Eastern Daylight Savings Time) while our American mates can watch FOX’s telecast from 1:00pm US Eastern.

But before you watch the start of the season, your friends at Speedcafe.com.au have set out the definitive season preview for you, addressing all the pressing issues that will shape this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Speedcafe.com.au brings you some of the things to watch this season in the big, bad world of NASCAR …

THE DREAM TEAM – JOHNSON, KNAUS, HENDRICK

Can anyone dethrone the Dream Team?

One journo dared joke at Daytona that Jimmie Johnson would win ‘both’ Gatorade Duel qualifying races on Thursday evening, the one he was racing in as well as the other one, just because he’s that good!

As it turned out, he of course won his Gatorade Duel and will start the Daytona 500 from third position.

Johnson has four straight titles in an era where NASCAR has never been more competitive. He is without a weakness – the former off-road racer is now even a gun on the road courses.

And the ability of his team to peak when it matters come Chase time is uncanny.

Changes to the Cup car will matter little – JJ has won titles in the old car, the new and in a season where team’s ran a combination of both cars.

For the Dream Team to slide, they might need to make some fundamental errors just as rivals are on the top of their game. But it’s hard to see such an uncharacteristic slip up from Johnson and his sidekick Chad Knaus.

The Johnson era will go down in history, so most of all, we should appreciate being able to witness it.

For more musings on Johnson’s place in NASCAR history, see our Story of 2009 on the Lowe’s driver by CLICKING HERE.

THE CHOSEN ONE – YEAR THREE AT HENDRICK FOR DALE JR

Dale Earnhardt Jr did not chose fame, adulation and an enormous, fanatical fan base.

It chose him. On 18 February 2001.

Now in the best stable in sport, ‘Junior’ has nowhere to hide. His Hendrick Motorsports team-mates finished first, second and third in last year’s Sprint Cup standings. Dale Jr finished in 25th place.

Dale Earnhardt Jr and crew chief Lance McGrew are working hard on getting the biggest name in the sport back to the top

Dale Earnhardt Jr and crew chief Lance McGrew are working hard on getting the biggest name in the sport back to the top

In his first year at Hendrick Motorsports he broke a win drought with a win at Michigan and at stages during the year was Rick Hendrick’s best performed driver. In 2009, nothing went right, and his cousin Tony Eury Jr was benched as crew chief for the #88 for Lance McGrew.

Alan Gustafson, crew chief for the sister Hendrick entry (#5 – Mark Martin) is said to have spent the US winter bunkered down with McGrew, with Rick Hendrick making stark improvement of the #88 team his Number One priority over the off-season.

Those who say that Earnhardt’s job could be at stake are wide of the mark – he still commands the biggest sponsorship in the sport, with Pepsico-owned AMP Energy Drink and the National Guard said to share the US$30-plus million dollar primary sponsorship bill for Jr’s #88 Chevrolet.

But what is at stake is the strength and popularity of the sport itself. Network executives at FOX, TNT and ABC/ESPN are said to have laid a large portion of the blame for dipping ratings at the feet of Dale Jr’s poor performance.

Earnhardt is a proven race winner and certainly has all the ingredients needed to make the Chase. But as they say in NASCAR, if you have all the ingredients, you still need to make the cake right …

As a footnote to Dale Jr, he still came in at 11th on the 2009 US sports top earners list in Sports Illustrated magazine. Estimated earnings totaled US$26,611,290, with US$4,611,290 in prizemoney and $22,000,000 in endorsements from companies like Wrangler, Nationwide Insurance, Chevrolet, AMP and iRacing.com, who all benefit greatly from their association with the superstar. Jr was also listed 11th in 2008.

Jeff Gordon was not far behind in 21th place on a cool US$20,944,140, up two spots from last year, with no other drivers, including four-time champ Jimmie Johnson, making the Top 50 list.

THE FREE AGENTS – KEVIN HARVICK AND KASEY KAHNE

Be warned – speculation will be rife when it comes to the futures of Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne in 2010.

Both drivers are stars of the sport who under-performed last season. And both are in the final year of their contracts in 2010.

For Harvick, the proposition of moving teams is slightly more complicated, in that he owns his own Chevrolet teams in the Truck and Nationwide Series. But with Chevy pulling most of its funding from those two series, a rival manufacturer could lure Harvick away from Richard Childress Racing with a lucrative deal that helped but his personal coffers and Kevin Harvick Inc.

The last time Harvick’s contract was up at RCR, he went on a charge and almost won the title. With RCR dropping back to three teams in 2010 and making progress with engineering changes late last season, Harvick’s best option could be to stay put.

Unless of course, his good mate Tony Stewart secures sponsorship to add a third car at Stewart-Haas Racing, a team that enjoys equal equipment from Hendrick Motorsports and has access to the best wind tunnel in North America.

If Stewart adds a third car, the other driver that will inevitably be linked to the seat is Kahne.

The fast, fresh-faced driver has been at Evernham Motorsports ever since breaking his contract with Jack Roush to take a Cup ride in a Dodge.

But as luck would have it, now he finds himself in a team that has been taken over by the Gillett family but is named after Richard Petty. And his cars are Fords supplied by Roush.

If Kahne is unable to make the Chase in 2010, Richard Petty Motorsports will be under massive pressure to keep the marketable pilot. With Kahne already voicing displeasure at the team’s move to acquire Yates Racing and void itself of its own chassis and engine building divisions, KK could be a man on the move.

THE CONTENDERS –CAN COACH’S CREW TOPPLE JIMMIE?

Hendrick Motorsports claimed the top three spots in the 2009 Sprint Cup points, which would suggest that if there is a threat to Johnson’s dominance, it will come from within.

But the smart money is on a pair of feisty young guns in the Joe Gibbs Racing stable in Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.

Hamlin was the greatest challenger to Johnson in the Chase. His Fedex Toyota produced stats that would seem unbeatable in isolation, but this is the Johnson era of domination and the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet was in a class of its own.

If Hamlin can step up to Johnson’s level he could be the man to end his run of four titles. But an even more intriguing possibility is what to make of his team-mate, Kyle Busch.

Busch’s speed and skill is only surpassed by the boos he receives from the crowd. He’s an angry young man, but on his day, no one can keep up.

But the inconstancy of his 2009 season at Cup level saw him miss the Chase cut-off, something that will surely have caught the attention of team boss Joe ‘The Coach’ Gibbs.

Johnson and Knaus are certainly the smartest and most calculating team in the business, but on sheer raw skill, the younger of the Busch brothers has the ability to go on a streak that could bring Toyota the Cup title it thirsts for far more than the Truck and Nationwide titles it collected last decade.

THE ROUSHKETEERS – DOWN TO FOUR

Roush Fenway Racing started 2009 with a bang. Matt Kenseth won the first two races in Daytona and California and the year prior, Carl Edwards had won more races than any other driver.

From there, the drought set in.

This team still was a solid performer, but Jack Roush has high expectations. Put simply, winning races and titles is what he does and falling just short is one thing. But not coming close is not an option for ‘The Cat in the Hat’.

Expect Roush to bounce back, with Ford’s flagship team not expected to lose anything from its NASCAR-imposed downsizing to four Cup teams.

THE VETERANS – GORDON AND MARTIN

Every racing driver in the world over the age of 30 years old is likely to have tabbed Mark Martin as his or her new hero in 2009.

Arguably the best driver never to win a Sprint Cup title or Daytona 500, 50-year-old Martin is fitter than just about every other driver and last season almost broke through for a Cup title.

He should again be a factor in 2010 in the GoDaddy.com Chevy. How fitting would it be if Martin were to deliver his first championship in a car sponsored by a domain name broker?

The domain name System (DNS) was founded in 1984, the same year that the internet broke through the 1000 hosts mark … Martin started his Sprint Cup career three years earlier in 1981.

THE YOUNG GUNS – SPECIAL K, RAGAN, LOGANO, SPEED

There will not be a Raybestos Rooke of the Year candidate running the full Sprint Cup schedule in 2010, but the young brigade in the Sprint Cup field are still running strong.

All eyes will be on Brad Keselowski as he leaves the Hendrick-backed JR Motorsports team to race Dodges for Roger Penske. ‘Special K’ won a race in spectacular circumstances at Talladega last year for Phoenix Racing as part of a part time schedule.

While Keselowski could have sat ‘on the bench’ in the Nationwide Series and awaited a vacancy in the Hendrick organization, the feisty, aggressive and ambitious driver has chosen to forge his own path and join Penske.

Joey Logano had a load of pressure on his shoulders last season when he took over the #20 Home Depot Chevy from Tony Stewart and after stuttering early, he came home strong in the second half of the year.

Nicknamed ‘Sliced Bread’ for being touted as the best thing since it when becoming the youngest winner in NASCAR history at just 18, Logano’s consistency and maturity in the second half of 2009 was admired more than his fortuitous win at New Hampshire. Don’t be surprised if all three Gibbs Camrys make the Chase in 2010.

Two young guns under pressure will be David Ragan and Scott Speed, both of whom have been supported heavily by their respective teams despite poor results.

When Roush Fenway Racing was forced to downsize from five Cup teams to four, it was race winner Jamie McMurray that was the ‘odd man out’, retaining young Ragan and the #6 UPS team a sign of faith as well as a call to notice.

Ragan has former McMurray crew chief Donnie Wingo in 2010 and while he has showed glimpses of potential, the time to perform is now.

Red Bull has shown an extraordinary amount of dedication and patience when it comes to the career of Scott Speed. He has quickly been accelerated up the ranks to a Cup ride but last year he failed to stay within the top 35 in owner’s points and as a result, missed races. For a company with such a massive investment in the sport, that is not an option.

While Red Bull is clearly keen to back Speed, a switch to a proven front-runner may be tempting if things do not improve this season.

THE SURPRISE – AMBROSE, REUTIMANN, TRUEX JR AND MWR

Marcos Ambrose on track at Daytona

Marcos Ambrose on track at Daytona

In 2007 it was almost a sure bet that at least one, likely two and sometimes three of the Michael Waltrip Racing haulers was going to be leaving the infield come Friday evening.

MWR wasn’t struggling in races, it was failing to make them.

Fast forward to 2009 and while team owner Michael Waltrip still suffered a poor season, his two unlikely team-mates, both plucked from obscurity in terms of their path towards NASCAR, were contending for race wins and Chase spots.

David Reutimann all-but made the Chase last season, was a regular top 10 runner and claimed the rain-hampered Coca-Cola 600 in May.

Marcos Ambrose, in his first full season in Cup, finished 18th in points and showed top five pace on both road courses as well as mastering some of the trickier venues such as Bristol, Pocono, Indianapolis and the Superspeedways.

Waltrip has stepped back to a part-time schedule in 2010 to hand former Chase driver Martin Truex Jr the reigns of the NAPA machine.

A solid driver line-up and fully sponsored three car operation (JTG Daugherty Racing field Ambrose out of the MWR stable) is a far cry from the bad old days of 2007. It will be interesting to see if they can take the next step this season and crack the Chase.

THE PETTY TEAM – WILL FORD BE THE ANSWER?

A few years ago former legendary crew chief Ray Evernham ran a multi-car team with significant support from Dodge. Young Kasey Kahne was a star on the rise and race wins flowed.

Then Evernham sold a portion of the team to an investment group headed up by George Gillett. Since then it is hard to see what has gone right.

Evernham is out completely, and the team is now branded Richard Petty Motorsports, but now run out of the former Yates Racing shop with Ford engines and equipment from Roush.

Big sponsors have showed faith and while speculation points to Kahne being a man in demand from other teams, the rise of AJ Allmendinger is another plus for the team.

With so much change in this organisation over the last two seasons, the best thing that can happen to RPM in 2010 is a year of consolidation, with the priority surely to keep Kahne and the lucrative Budweiser sponsorship on the #9 car into the future.

THE BOUNCEBACK – CHILDRESS AIMS AT RETURN TO FORM

If not for a late-season return to form, 2009 would have been a complete write-off for usual NASCAR powerhouse Richard Childress Racing.

Expanding to four teams in 2009, RCR did not get one car in the Chase, leading to a major re-shuffle of key engineering staff for the final phase of the year that looked to pay dividends.

Back to three Cup squads in 2010 and with full of hope that this season will be a comeback year, RCR will be hoping that at least one of its impressive driver line-up – Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick – is in the Chase this year.

THE IMPORT – REMARKABLE RISE OF MONTOYA

Juan Pablo Montoya was the best driver not to win a race in 2009. The Columbian made the best of a bad situation and then some aboard his Earnhardt-Ganassi Chevy to make the Chase and be a regular top five contender.

Unlucky not to become the first man to win both the Indy 500 and Brickyard 400, Montoya is in the middle of a team on a seemingly downward slide, but somehow, his immense skill has isolated he and his Target crew from the woes.

If Chip Ganassi and Teresa Earnhardt can deliver JPM the equipment, it seems that this driver could be a title contender, such was his speed and aggression in 2009.

THE SOLOIST – PENSKE ALONE IN DODGE CITY

The Captain and his merry men have found themselves as the only serious Dodge team in 2010.

With the departure of the Petty, Evernham and Ganassi squads in recent times, Penske’s three entries are on their own in terms of developing Dodge’s new R6 engine.

Kurt Busch was still a strong performer and race winner last season and the recruitment of Brad Keselowski is a cue. But the development of Sam Hornish Jr will be watched closely.

Hornish has still failed to consistently impress since leaving the IndyCar Series after three titles and an Indy 500 crown. Penske is not known for rash hiring and firing decisions but Hornish will need to perform in year three in Cup.

THE LITTLE GUYS –EVERYTHING FROM ALIGNING TO START & PARK

Times are still tough in NASCAR and nowhere is there more evidence of that than at the back third of the Sprint Cup field.

The #57 Chevrolet of Norm Benning goes through NASCAR Technical Inspection at Daytona

The #57 Chevrolet of Norm Benning goes through NASCAR Technical Inspection at Daytona

The number of truly competitive, full time teams is likely to drop yet again this season, with Robby Gordon admitting that his team will switch to part-time status in 2010, much like the Wood Brothers and Furniture Row teams did last season.

To try and maintain the top 35 status of his owner’s points, Gordon will ‘lend’ his entry to the BAM Racing entry of David Gilliland for races where Gordon will not compete. It’s just one of the ways that teams are now working together in the name of survival.

While 54 cars entered for the season-opening Daytona 500, its status as the biggest prizemoney event of the season masks the true condition of the sport.

The following week in California will be more telling. But as 2009 showed, having a full field arrive for qualifying is not a problem – it’s having 43 entries that are serious considering actually racing that is the drama.

Many teams will start the season with the best of intentions before reverting to start and park status to survive, not even bringing pit crews to the track, well aware they will encounter mysterious problems in the opening laps, making pit stops unnecessary.

Start and park battlers aside, the small end of town has had it tough in recent times, most notably James Finch’s Phoenix Racing team, which intended to run talented driver Aric Almirola in its Chevrolet this season only to find out late last week that title backer Miccosukee Resort and Gaming has withdrawn its sponsorship, as the Miccosukee Indian tribe voted against the sponsorship recently.

THE RULES – SPOILERS, YELLOW LINES AND BUMPING

The good ol’ boys of NASCAR have been let loose. Amazing what lower crowd and TV numbers can do to a rule book …

NASCAR has informed drivers and teams that bump drafting is back, with drivers able to make contact with the car in front in all areas of the race track.

The Yellow Line rule remains for the superspeedways, with cars unable to make a pass below the line, but officials are prepared to turn a blind eye to a reasonable amount of contact between cars.

Gone is the rear wing on the new COT style Cup car, soon to be replaced with a large spoiler that should see the cars lose the drastic and unusual looking ‘yaw’ that the off-set rear ends created.

While wings will still see the start of the season, expect further tuning to the Cup car as developments on the new Nationwide COT are tried and tested, with the spoiler ruling an example of benefits found on the second division car moving up to the Cup car.

THE DANICA FACTOR – FAST FEMALE IN NASCAR SPOTLIGHT

Danica Patrick at the announcement of her 12-race Nationwide Series deal with JR Motorsports. With excitement for DANICAR at fevour pitch, that's now been stretched to 13 to include Daytona

Danica Patrick at the announcement of her 12-race Nationwide Series deal with JR Motorsports. With excitement for DANICAR at fevour pitch, that's now been stretched to 13 to include Daytona

NASCAR gets a makeover in 2010 with the introduction of Ms Danica Patrick.

The fast femme is set to race 12 Nationwide events for Dale Earnhardt Jr’s JR Motorsports team with the backing of GoDaddy.com, the domain provider also backing her Andretti Autosports IndyCar.

There is no doubt that the introduction of ‘Danicamania’ to NASCAR will be a boost to the sport, especially for ESPN, who broadcast all 35 Nationwide races.

But the real question is how Patrick will fair on the race track, as that could have a real bearing on whether she races NASCAR or IndyCar in 2012. People in NASCAR country swear that Mark Martin’s car at Hendrick Motorsports has Danica’s name already penciled in for 2012, while IndyCar insiders hint that her heart lies in Indianapolis and not Charlotte or Daytona.

The truth is that the decision is most likely yet to be made – and what unfolds in front of us in 2010 will likely shape the future of one of the most famous and marketable sports people in the United States.

THE SMOKE TEAM – STEWART-HAAS TO EXCEL, EXPAND OR SLUMP?

When Gene Haas started his HAAS-CNC Racing team in 2002, it took him until 2007 to score a top 10, with Johhny Sauter scoring a fifth place finish.

Clearly, his race team was struggling, and things got worse when has received prison time on tax evasion charges.

Haas, who has made millions with his world-renowned engineering equipment empire, made a move that would not only save his race team, but put him in victory lane shortly after his return from prison.

It’s the old adage, half of something better than whole lot of nothing.

Enter Tony Stewart, who was not enjoying life at Joe Gibss Racing as much as he used to – Haas played a big card, offering ‘Smoke’ half ownership of the team for free in return for his driving skills.

Stewart accepted, no doubt tempted to return to the Chevrolet fold, and quickly a chassis and engine deal with Hendrick Motorsports was sealed.

Few doubted that Stewart could turn it around given the equal equipment he was receiving from Hendrick and the pedigree of his team-mate Ryan Newman and strong sponsorship portfolio all pointed to a bright future.

But what followed was a superb debut year for the re-branded Stewart-Haas Racing, with race wins and both cars qualifying for the Chase.

It was an unbelievable performance, but what becomes of this team this season is equally fascinating. Will there be a sophomore slump? Can they back it up? And in 2011 will we see this operation expand its program?

This is clearly a team on the move and for Smoke’s sake, we hope the movement continues in the upward direction.

THE ROLL CALL – 2010 NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES

No

Driver

Car

Sponsor

Team

00

David Reutimann

Toyota

Aaron’s Dream Machine

Michael Waltrip Racing

1

Jamie McMurray

Chevy

Bass Pro Shops

Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing

2

Kurt Busch

Dodge

Miller Lite

Penske Racing

5

Mark Martin

Chevy

GoDaddy.com

Hendrick Motorsports

6

David Ragan

Ford

UPS

Roush Fenway Racing

7

Robby Gordon

Toyota

Monster Energy

Robby Gordon Motorsports

9

Kasey Kahne

Ford

Budweiser

Richard Petty Motorsports

09

Aric Almirola

Chevy

TBA

Phoenix Racing

11

Denny Hamlin

Toyota

FedEx Express

Joe Gibbs Racing

12

Brad Keselowski

Dodge

Penske Racing

Penske Racing

13

Max Papis

Toyota

GEICO

Germain Racing

14

Tony Stewart

Chevy

Old Spice / Office Depot

Stewart-Haas Racing

16

Greg Biffle

Ford

3M

Roush Fenway Racing

17

Matt Kenseth

Ford

Crown Royal

Roush Fenway Racing

18

Kyle Busch

Toyota

M&M’s

Joe Gibbs Racing

19

Elliott Sadler

Ford

Stanley Tools

Richard Petty Motorsports

20

Joe Logano

Toyota

Home Depot

Joe Gibbs Racing

21

Bill Elliott

Ford

Motorcraft / Quick Lane

Wood Brothers Racing

24

Jeff Gordon

Chevy

DuPont

Rick Hendrick

26

Boris Said

Ford

Window World Cares

Latitude 43 Motorsports

27

Kirk Shelmerdine

Toyota

TBA

Kirk Shelmerdine Racing

29

Kevin Harvick

Chevy

Shell / Pennzoil

Richard Childress Racing

31

Jeff Burton

Chevy

Caterpillar

Richard Childress Racing

32

Reed Sorenson

Toyota

Dollar General

Braun Racing

33

Clint Bowyer

Chevy

Cheerios

Richard Childress Racing

34

John Andretti

Ford

Window World Cares

Latitude 43 Motorsports

36

Mike Bliss

Chevy

Wave Energy Drink

Tommy Baldwin Racing

37

Travis Kvapil

Ford

Extenze

Front Row Motorsports

38

Robert Richardson Jr.

Ford

Mahindra USA Tractors

Front Row Motorsports

39

Ryan Newman

Chevy

Haas Automation

Stewart-Haas Racing

42

Juan Pablo Montoya

Chevy

Target

Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing

43

A.J. Allmendinger

Ford

Best Buy

Richard Petty Motorsports

46

Terry Cook

Dodge

TBA

Whitney Motorsports

47

Marcos Ambrose

Toyota

Kroger / Little Debbie / Kleenex / Clorox

JTG Daugherty Racing

48

Jimmie Johnson

Chevy

Lowe’s

Hendrick Motorsports

49

David Gilliland

Toyota

Warner Music

BAM Racing

51

Michael Waltrip

Toyota

NAPA Auto Parts

Michael Waltrip Racing

55

Michael McDowell

Toyota

TBA

Randy Humphrey

56

Martin Truex Jr.

Toyota

NAPA Auto Parts

Michael Waltrip Racing

57

Norm Benning

Chevy

TBA

Norm Benning Racing

66

Dave Blaney

Toyota

TBA

Prism Motorsports

71

Bobby Labonte

Chevy

TaxSlayer.com

TRG Motorsports

75

Derrike Cope

Dodge

AssetProtect-strutmasterspro.com

Stratus Racing

77

Sam Hornish Jr.

Dodge

Mobil 1

Penske Racing

78

Regan Smith

Chevy

Furniture Row

Furniture Row Racing

82

Scott Speed

Toyota

Red Bull

Red Bull Racing

83

Brian Vickers

Toyota

Red Bull

Red Bull Racing

87

Joe Nemechek

Toyota

TBA

Nemco Motorsports

88

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Chevy

AMP Energy / National Guard

Hendrick Motorsports

90

Casey Mears

Chevy

TBA

Keyed-Up Motorsports

92

Mike Wallace

Dodge

TBA

K Automotive

97

Jeff Fuller

Toyota

TBA

Nemco Motorsports

98

Paul Menard

Ford

Peak / Menards

Richard Petty Motorsports

99

Carl Edwards

Ford

Aflac

Roush Fenway Racing

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