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Athlon Sports previews the upcoming NASCAR season
Drive for Five Complete, Now It’s Time for a Six Pack
Jimmie Johnson’s run of five straight NASCAR Sprint Cup titles will one day be appreciated for the historical feat that it is. While some wonder if Johnson’s domination of NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship is actually good for the sport, it can’t be disputed that it stands as the most significant NASCAR achievement of the last 20 years.
The question is, who can step up and wrest control of the champ’s title belt away from Johnson? Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin, among others, have given him a run for his money, but Johnson and ace crew chief Chad Knaus have emerged victorious each time. What makes the duo so good is its ability to step up consistently at crunch time — which, in this case, happens to be a 10-race playoff slate that caps the season and determines a champion.
Eventually, someone will hit on the right strategy and have a little racing luck fall his way. But until that someone takes the stage at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnson, Knaus and the No. 48 bunch will be the team to beat — and the favorites to claim an unprecedented sixth consecutive championship.
Who Will Challenge the Champ?
Most likely a familiar face. Johnson’s teammate, Jeff Gordon (left), is paired with a new crew chief in Alan Gustafson this season, and that duo could make the No. 24 every bit as dangerous as it was when Gordon was winning four titles of his own.
Carl Edwards who went toe-to-toe with Johnson in 2008, looks to be back to his winning ways. Edwards broke a nearly two-year winless skid, taking checkers in last season’s final two races. He’s proven he can win in bunches, which is what it most likely will take to unseat Mr. Five Time in the Chase.
In his seven seasons on circuit, Kyle Busch has been as dynamic on the track as he is polarizing off it, but he has yet to put together a solid title run. If the 25-year-old can minimize the mistakes, he’ll be around at the end. A three-to-six-win season is guaranteed at this point.
Last year’s challengers — Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — will be hard-pressed to repeat stellar 2010 campaigns, when Hamlin won a series-high eight races and Harvick led the point standings for the majority of the 26-race regular season. Many have exhausted their resources only to run second to Johnson, though. And while these two ran at 100 percent in last season’s final 10 races only to fall short, other teams were testing in preparation for 2011.
Looking for a dark horse? Look no further than Clint Bowyer. The Kansas native enters his sixth season in the Cup Series with a rejuvenated Richard Childress Racing. Due for a breakout season, Bowyer is respected for his ever-improving on-track skills and is well liked by fans and competitors alike off it. His No. 33 team showed a possible sneak peak at 2011 when it rattled off two wins in last year’s Chase (New Hampshire and Talladega) and had a third slip through its fingers (Auto Club Speedway).
What to Watch for in Daytona
A few changes in NASCAR’s three touring series will be evident when the season kicks off on Feb. 12 with the Budweiser Shootout exhibition race. Most noticeable will be a new nose on the Cup machines. Gone are the ungainly “splitters,” with their braces and cow-catcher bottom shelf. In their place are more streamlined nose pieces that give the cars the appearance of being closer to street machines (pictured below right).
The Nationwide Series cars have been given a nose job, as well. Gone are the “sloop noses;” in are front ends (along with grill and headlight decals) that mirror a look more closely associated with street-legal Pony cars. Ford’s Mustang (above right) and Dodge’s Challenger are true muscle car nameplates, while Chevrolet (Impala) and Toyota (Camry) have opted not to change models.
The speedway itself will have a different look, too. Daytona received a fresh coat of pavement in late 2010 after a pothole opened up in last season’s Daytona 500. Teams have tested on the new surface and report that grip is increased, which translates into more speed. However, Daytona is still a relatively narrow track, so while four-wide racing may happen, it won’t be the norm.
Eight-time Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. will receive a boost from team owner Rick Hendrick this year.
Hendrick organized a three-driver “team swap” in November, which placed Earnhardt in Jeff Gordon’s former cars and with Gordon’s former crew chief, Steve Letarte. Earnhardt now shares shop space with Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 team.
Earnhardt has only one points-paying win in his three full seasons at Hendrick Motorsports. The move was made in an attempt to breathe new life into Earnhardt’s tenure at HMS, while also erasing winless skids for Hendrick drivers Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin.
“When your confidence is shaken, you just get to a point where you need something to give you that feeling that you can do it and you’ve got faith in the guy that you’re working with,” Hendrick says of the swap in general and Earnhardt in particular. “Sometimes it just gets to a point, the frustration sets in and it just can’t work.”
2011 NASCAR Schedule
Feb. 12 Daytona International Speedway*
Feb. 17 Daytona International Speedway**
Feb. 20 Daytona International Speedway
Feb. 27 Phoenix International Raceway
March 6 Las Vegas Motor Speedway
March 20 Bristol Motor Speedway
March 27 Auto Club Speedway
April 3 Martinsville Speedway
April 9 Texas Motor Speedway
April 17 Talladega Superspeedway
April 30 Richmond International Raceway
May 7 Darlington Raceway
May 15 Dover International Speedway
May 21 Charlotte Motor Speedway***
May 29 Charlotte Motor Speedway
June 5 Kansas Speedway
June 12 Pocono Raceway
June 19 Michigan International Speedway
June 26 Infineon Raceway
July 2 Daytona International Speedway
July 9 Kentucky Speedway
July 17 New Hampshire Motor Speedway
July 31 Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Aug. 7 Pocono Raceway
Aug. 14 Watkins Glen International
Aug. 21 Michigan International Speedway
Aug. 27 Bristol Motor Speedway
Sept. 4 Atlanta Motor Speedway
Sept. 10 Richmond International Raceway
Sept. 18 Chicagoland Speedway
Sept. 25 New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Oct. 2 Dover International Speedway
Oct. 9 Kansas Speedway
Oct. 15 Charlotte Motor Speedway
Oct. 23 Talladega Superspeedway
Oct. 30 Martinsville Speedway
Nov. 6 Texas Motor Speedway
Nov. 13 Phoenix International Raceway
Nov. 20 Homestead-Miami Speedway