Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram


NASCAR's Top Ten Stories

If it's a unique season you're looking for from NASCAR, hold on. It starts on Saturday night with the Budweiser Shootout icebreaker. One writer's top ten stories to watch.

1. Can Jimmie Johnson score four straight Sprint Cup titles? When Cale Yarborough and team owner Junior Johnson finally gave up the championship in 1979 after three straight, they got beat by three other teams in the final points standings. It seems likely that in the third year of the COT chassis, more teams will be contenders this season than last. Also, last year's other two top contenders, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, suffered early setbacks in the Chase, a piece of luck for Johnson that may not occur again. So if and when Johnson takes a fourth straight title, he will do it against some long odds.

2. Which new teams will sink and which ones will swim? Keep a scorecard handy for new names and numbers. Remember to update your scorecards once the Daytona 500 entry has closed, because the maneuvering to get into the Top 35 and a guaranteed spot continues. (See item 10: Is NASCAR for sale?)

3. Can Tony Stewart succeed as a team owner where other drivers and crew chiefs have failed? Ray Evernham won three championships as Jeff Gordon's crew chief but couldn't hack it over the long haul as a team owner even with millions in support from Dodge. Needless to say, Michael Waltrip has struggled to figure out team ownership, despite millions from Toyota. Tony has always been different, so it's even money he might actually succeed. Also, a driver of Stewart's caliber would have helped Evernham or Waltrip.

4. Will the No. 43 get back into victory lane? The odds are far better than any time in the last five years. Richard Petty quadrupled the number of engineers for his cars, among other things, when he hooked up with the team of George Gillett. Petty's new driver, Reed Sorenson, has evidently figured out that surviving in the big time takes more than big talent. Robbie Loomis, always a winner as a crew chief, is still on board.

5. Will the economy continue to be a negative for NASCAR? The bloom was already off the rose when it comes to the spectacular growth of NASCAR and its overbuilt race tracks. The bad economy is also an old story and now includes severe cutbacks for the NFL's staff and slow season ticket renewals despite back-to-back great Super Bowls.

6. Will the economy be a positive for NASCAR? The idea of a little guy who succeeds on talent, drive and ingenuity could well make a comeback in the current scheme of things. The entry list for this year's Daytona 500 is reminiscent of the days when anybody with a dream had a chance to excel, if only for one day -- especially on Thursday during the qualifying races.

7. What happens if Dodge crumbles into bankruptcy? For years, NASCAR survived on two manufacturers and now has four. Three will be OK. The two Dodge team owners who would be most dramatically affected -- George Gillett and Roger Penske -- are not exactly hurting for resources. If GM and Ford tank, well, then we'd really be back to the old days. (If sponsor Sprint disappears, the line to replace it forms at the rear.)

8. Will either Busch or Edwards dethrone Jimmy Johnson? An interesting question, one that likely will take all season to answer. I'd bet on Edwards, last year's leading race winner, because Roush Fenway Racing had fewer off-season changes (other than Jack Roush's usual Enzo-like shuffling of personnel). Plus, Roush Fenway's teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth both came on strong at the end of the season, indicating Roush Fenway should be strong out of the box despite the testing ban.

9. Have we seen the end of the Wood Brothers? It appears the handwriting is on the wall unless the team locates a windfall of investment money. Even so, who's going to buy into a team that hasn't won a points race in two decades? Sponsor Motorcraft and Bill Elliott are signed up for nine races, so there's still hope.

l0. Is NASCAR for sale? No, not that rumor. Rather, can a Sprint Cup team owner sell a franchise when he or she chooses to head for the exit? Well, yes. As long as a car owner remains a minority owner, he or she can sell the accumulate points (and the automatic entry into the first five races of the season if the car is in the Top 35) to the highest bidder. This process began two seasons ago when Cal Wells sold his points, in effect, to Michael Waltrip. Last year, Roger Penske swapped points among his cars to give rookie Sam Hornish a head start, confirming that car numbers were academic.

Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jonathan@jingrambooks.com.