NASCAR 2012 preview

Kay Bell | February 01, 2012

Views from the Grandstands

What does this season hold for stock car racing?

Welcome to the new Sprint Cup season, race fans. I don’t know about you, but I’m almost afraid for the engines to crank in this month. I mean, how can it be better than last year?

The 2011 championship chase went down to the last race and still had to be decided by a tiebreaker. The No. 48 stranglehold was broken. We had a lot of new and different winners. And we veteran fans saw some of our favorite drivers return to victory lane (yes, I’m talking about the No. 24).

But as good as 2011 was, there are plenty of questions going into this season. Let’s see if we can come up with at least educated guesses, if not definitive answers.

Q Will the Chase for the Championship be as exciting?

A I hope so. As long-time readers know, I’m not a fan of this playoff format, but if things work out again as they did in 2011, I’ll quit complaining (so much and so loudly).

The tweaked points system definitely helped last year, though I still find it crazy that Tony Stewart won five of the 10 chase races and still barely claimed the title. And let’s be honest, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus had their share of problems last year.

But maybe now that their air of invincibility is gone, we’ll continue to have more competitive seasons. If last year’s five first-time winners and eight broken winless streaks are any indication, there are a lot of teams ready to rumble into the winner’s circle.

Q Will the crew chief carousel keep spinning?

A Yes. The most shocking change was Darian Grubb being let go by Stewart-Haas Racing despite leading Tony Stewart to his third cup championship. He landed at Tony’s old haunt, Joe Gibbs Racing, as Denny Hamlin’s team leader.

Grubb isn’t alone in getting acclimated to a new garage. We’ll start 2012 with new men also sitting atop pit boxes for Penske, Childress, Earnhardt-Ganassi and Michael Waltrip Racing. And every crew chief better keep his bags packed. Whenever a team stumbles, we all know who’ll be the first to go.

Q Will Kyle Busch be fired like his older brother was?

A No. Give me a minute here. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around Kurt Busch, not Kyle, getting the boot at the end of last season. I never imagined that the elder Busch brother, who lost his seat at Penske Racing, would be out of a ride before his hot-headed sibling.

But Rowdy will be fine, at least when it comes to collecting a regular paycheck, for two reasons. First, Joe Gibbs is a patient man who prides himself on being able to defuse difficult situations and nurture problematic personalities. More importantly, Kyle is a better driver than Kurt.

Winning can compensate for a lot. And I suspect (hope) having seen such harsh consequences hit so close to home, Kyle will reassess his own actions and behave more like a grown-up on the track.

Q Will more teams follow Roush Fenway Racing in downsizing?

A I hope not. In an ideal NASCAR world, team ownership would be spread around more. But it’s not. And when one of the big dogs has to cut cars from both its Nationwide and Sprint operations — and lay off around 100 employees — because of sponsorship difficulties, that doesn’t bode well for other teams or the sport.

On a personal level, I’ve enjoyed the competitiveness of the Cat in the Hat’s teams. Plus, Roush deserves kudos for all the technological and safety advances he’s helped make standard in NASCAR.

Q Will Danica Patrick’s performance come anywhere close to her hype?

A I doubt it. The woman racer who’s going to give her boss, Dale Earnhardt Jr., a run for the most popular driver title is going to get plenty of attention as she jumps into the Sprint Cup for a dozen or so races, as well as a full season in the Nationwide Series.

How much of the spotlight will be for simply finishing a race or finishing better than she’d done before, even when it’s at the middle or back of the pack? Danica devotees say that when she competes exclusively in NASCAR, we’ll see just what a talent she is and what she can really do with a stock car. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Q Will the switch from carburetors to fuel-injection systems make a difference?

A From a competitive standpoint, it shouldn’t. From a technical standpoint, it should make the cars more fuel-efficient. Hopefully, that’ll cut down on those anticlimactic fuel-mileage finishes.

And at least NASCAR drivers, who haven’t driven true stock cars in decades, will finally be piloting cars that are a little more like the Chevys, Fords, Dodges and Toyotas you and I drive. Until this season, the only vehicles left with carburetors were in NASCAR and Cuba.

Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she writes about financial topics and blogs about taxes at Don’t Mess With Taxes (www.dontmesswithtaxes.typepad.com).

LOOSE LUGNUTS

| Force fixed up | Funny Car legend John Force is spending part of his offseason recovering from the knee surgery he underwent in late November. The 62-year-old is expected to begin the new drag racing campaign at the O’Reilly Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., in February with all systems go.

Force went under the knife to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee — his throttle leg. He originally hurt the leg playing high school football and reinjured it during a dramatic 2007 crash in Texas.

The injury never really affected his driving, Force explained, but was becoming a nuisance in his everyday life, especially when he exercised. His surgery was performed by the same doctors who worked on Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant’s knee in summer 2010.

| Return to the Rock | The bad news for the Camping World Trucks Series is that its 2012 schedule contains only 22 races, down from the 24 it staged in 2011. But the good news is the series will feature a visit to Rockingham Speedway in North Carolina, and I’m really pleased to see the venerable track regain a bit of its racing heritage. This race will be the trucks’ debut at the Rock, and it marks the first race of any national NASCAR series there since 2004. The abrasive 1.017-mile oval was a popular stop for the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series for almost four decades, and it has been a popular site for short-track testing sessions in recent years.

Iowa earned a second race for 2012, and Nashville, New Hampshire and Indianapolis were dropped from this year’s schedule, which will open as usual at Daytona in late February.

| Crash course | The Lotus Renault team welcomes former world champion Kimi Raikkonen back into the Formula 1 fold this year, and within a week of the announcement of his return last fall, the colorful Finnish driver made his own headlines by crashing a snowmobile in a race in Austria. He didn’t suffer any serious damage, but experienced some pain in his left wrist and sat out the rest of the weekend. Raikkonen is returning to Formula 1 after spending the past two seasons in the World Rally Championship. In his previous F1 stints with Sauber, McLaren and Ferrari from 2001 through 2007, he captured the 2007 championship, won 18 races and earned 62 podium finishes.

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