By Jerry Bonkowski
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – One of the most-used phrases in NASCAR is “in the blink of an eye,” and nowhere was that more exemplified than the way the 2011 Sprint Cup season ended.
Who can forget the thrilling battle during the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards? It truly indeed ended in the blink of an eye when Stewart beat Edwards in the closest finish ever in a Cup race, resulting in a tie for the Cup championship that had to be decided by the first tie-breaker (wins), ultimately giving the title to Stewart.
A better script could not be written, nor could NASCAR have capped off a significant comeback season in any better form, with significant season-long increases in at-track attendance and especially in the ever-important TV ratings.
Now it’s time to build upon that success and take things to the next level as the sport and sanctioning body continue to regain momentum lost from 2007 through 2010, primarily due to the tough economy that this nation experienced.
Last year was a great re-start, but I’m convinced 2012 will be an even bigger year for NASCAR, perhaps the biggest season the sport has seen since its heyday in the middle of the last decade. Fans that fell away from the sport or lost interest, as well as those that couldn’t afford to come to races anymore, will be headed back in droves, mark my word.
And those who can’t get to the track will come back to their TV screen to experience the drama, highs and lows that is NASCAR racing.
So grab your popcorn and favorite cold beverage, show your support by putting on a ball cap or t-shirt emblazoned with the face or name of your favorite driver and get ready for another unforgettable season. It’ll be hard to top 2011, but in NASCAR anything is possible.
Let’s look at the top 25 storylines to keep your eye on in 2012 (in no particular order):
1 . Will Tony Stewart be able to successfully defend his 2011 championship and make it two titles in a row and four championships overall (his previous Cup titles came in 2002 and 2005)? And of particular note with Sunday’s Daytona 500, will Stewart finally be able to add his name to the 500 champion’s trophy?
2. Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally snap his agonizingly long losing streak? For those of you keeping score at home, Earnhardt has not won since mid-2008, a span of 129 races. And, could 2012 FINALLY be the year Earnhardt FINALLY wins his first Sprint Cup championship FINALLY? (Yes, we’re using that for emphasis)
3. How will Stewart’s former crew chief, Darian Grubb, fare in the same position with his new team and driver, Joe Gibbs Racing and Denny Hamlin? Likewise, how will Steve Addington fare as Grubb’s replacement as Stewart’s crew chief?
4. How well will Kasey Kahne adapt to his new home at Hendrick Motorsports, along with how will he fit in with new teammates Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt?
5. How will Kurt Busch adapt to racing for one of the sport’s biggest underdog teams, Phoenix Racing? A former Cup champion, Busch left Penske Racing after last season and is looking to resurrect his career and have some fun along the way.
6. It’s a question that has been asked for each of the last 10 years: Will Jeff Gordon, whose last Cup championship came in 2001, finally win his fifth Cup title this year?
7. Can Jimmie Johnson, who won an unprecedented five consecutive championships from 2006 through 2010, bounce back to win Cup title No. 6 in 2012? Or, like some cynics have increasingly said during the offseason, will Johnson ever be able to win another title? I mean, come on, the guy won 5 in a row. How can anyone think he’ll never be able to win another title or two … or more?
8. How will Clint Bowyer fit in at Michael Waltrip Racing, having lost his ride at Richard Childress Racing due to a lack of sponsorship? Along with Kurt Busch, Bowyer is probably one of the drivers who have the most to prove in 2012.
9. Will we see a more contrite, mature Kyle Busch in light of all the issues he went through in 2011? Who can forget getting a speeding ticket for driving 128 mph in a 45 mph zone, or the confrontation he had with Kevin Harvick at Darlington, or the way he punted Ron Hornaday Jr. into the wall in a late-season trucks race at Texas that not only caused Busch to be suspended for the remainder of that weekend, but also lost his primary sponsorship from M&Ms for the last two races of the season.
10. Speaking a bit more about Kyle Busch, he has vowed to race only sparingly in the Nationwide Series and not at all in the Camping World Trucks Series. Did racing as much as he has done in years past across the three major series in NASCAR ultimately wind up being too much of a burden, and potentially could have cost him a Cup title or two along the way?
11. No, we’re not ignoring her. There’s just so much else to get out of the way first. So now it’s time to ask, how will Danica Patrick fare in both her first full-time season in the Nationwide Series, as well as her 10-race foray into Sprint Cup racing, starting with Sunday’s Daytona 500? Patrick took an extremely hard hit in the first race of Thursday’s Gatorade Duels, plowing head-on into an inside retaining wall (thank goodness it had a SAFER barrier) at an estimated 180 mph. Will it affect her?
12. There were five first-time winners last season (Trevor Bayne, Marcos Ambrose, David Ragan, Regan Smith and Paul Menard). There aren’t many drivers left who haven’t won their first career Cup race, but a few to mention include Patrick, Michael McDowell, A.J. Allmendinger (my pick as having the best chance, especially now that he’s racing for Penske Racing) or Aric Almirola, among others.
13. Mark Martin just doesn’t get the concept of retiring. He’s back again with a new team (Michael Waltrip Racing), has cut back to what he feels is a comfortable schedule (roughly 25 races, team co-owner Michael Waltrip will drive in those races Martin skips). Will going back to a “part-time” schedule reinvigorate Martin?
14. Greg Biffle had a terrible last season, including missing the Chase. Can he bounce back? And if so, how far back?
15. Kevin Harvick continues to pursue his first career Sprint Cup championship. Could 2012 wind up being his year, especially with the contraction at Richard Childress Racing from 4 to 3 teams, as well as Harvick liquidating and closing Kevin Harvick Inc., one of the most successful Nationwide and Truck series operations? Will the latter allow him to focus solely on the job at hand, to win RCR’s first title since the late Dale Earnhardt won his seventh and final Cup crown in 1994? Say it ain’t so, has it really been 18 years since RCR’s last Cup title?
16. Speaking of RCR, how will team owner Richard Childress’ grandson, Austin Dillon, fare in his first season in the Nationwide Series? Austin didn’t do half-bad last season, winning the Camping World Truck Series championship. If last season was any indication of even greater success in the future for Dillon, you can already anoint him a strong contender to win the Nationwide crown this season.
17. Staying with the RCR theme for just one more thing: Will Jeff Burton be able to get his career back on track after last year’s horrible campaign? Or, is Burton simply sticking around to keep the seat warm for the eventual ascension of Austin Dillon to the Sprint Cup Series in either 2013 or 2014?
18. David Ragan won his first career Cup race last season at Daytona (July race), but it was too little, too late, as he lost his ride when Roush Fenway Racing was forced to cut back from four to three teams due to lack of sponsorship, leaving Ragan the odd man out.
19. Former Daytona 500 champ Ryan Newman is teammate to last year’s champ, Tony Stewart. When will we see Newman become a legitimate contender for the Sprint Cup title? Or, will he spend the rest of his Cup career being an also-ran?
20. Will we see the resurgence of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and the return to success for both Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya? Face it, 2011 was forgettable for both drivers. Will 2012 be much better? They can only hope.
21. Brad Keselowski is among the brightest young stars in the Sprint Cup Series. With Kurt Busch, he now becomes the lead driver for Penske Racing. How will he handle that new leadership role? Will making the Chase last season be a precursor of even greater things to come in 2012?
22. NASCAR is to be commended by changing its long-held “our way or the highway” philosophy to become that of a much greater fan-friendly organization that is also listening more to fans and their likes and dislikes perhaps more than it ever has. Given how that change in thinking played significantly in last season’s overall bounceback from several previous rough campaigns of significant drops in at-track attendance and TV ratings, how much bigger and better can the sport grow in 2012?
23. Trevor Bayne was one of the most unlikely and inspiring drivers to ever win the Daytona 500 last year. Shortly afterward, he struggled with Lyme’s Disease that kept him out of a race car for two months. Was last year’s win in Daytona a fluke, or will Bayne come back Sunday to show once may have been a charm, but he has all the tools to do it all over again.
24. Joey Logano faces a potential make-or-break season. If he doesn’t make the Chase and has another mediocre campaign, could he lose his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing?
25. Last, but certainly not least, Tony Stewart was arguably the biggest surprise of 2011. Remember how in late August at Michigan last season, Stewart said his team didn’t deserve to make the Chase. Yet, they did – and the rest is history. Who will be this year’s biggest surprise? The polls are open. Let’s hear your pick.