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.