Seven things to look forward to in 2011? It's not easy to forecast given so many changes to NASCAR this season. With a new points-paying system, race weekend layout and tracks, this season may become the most interesting in quite some time.
Nothing is a sure thing in the modern NASCAR but I'm confident that the following will herald me as the next Nostradamus following Homestead in November.
The Sprint Cup season officially kicks off on February 20 with the 53rd Annual Daytona 500. Even then, the 500 is a series of races within a race. Speedweeks leads to the Budweiser Shootout exhibition on Saturday followed by Daytona 500 qualifying on Sunday. Qualifying will set the front row while Thursday's Duels at Daytona will set the other 41 starting positions. Thirty-five teams are guaranteed a starting spot under the NASCAR rulebook. The Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series will run on Friday and Saturday respectively.
Onto the predictions!
A resurgent Jeff Gordon...Jeff Gordon will look more like the champion of the mid-90's rather than the often-listless driver of the 2000s. Gordon has had moderate success with former crew chief Steve Letarte, winning six races and capturing 30 top-tens in 2007. But the next three seasons produced only one victory, at Texas in April 2009. Gordon's always preferred a picky car setup and Letarte often struggled to adjust the car to his liking. The switch that brings new crew chief Alan Gustafson to Gordon and Letarte to Dale Earnhardt Jr. is good for all parties involved. Gordon fought ill handling cars to top tens all season in 2010 and could finally capture his fifth championship under Gustafson. At a minimum, Jeff Gordon will visit victory lane four times in 2011.
Junior Returns to Victory lane but misses Chase...There's no easy way to say this but Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs a psychologist and Steve Letarte is exactly what the doctor ordered. Letarte has fallen under a lot of scrutiny from Jeff Gordon fans for his inability to make in-race adjustments. And rightfully so, most of Letarte's Chevrolets went backwards during a race rather than forward in 2010. But you've got to fix the driver before you can fix the car and Junior needs fast fixing. Luckily for 'Junior Nation,' Steve Letarte is an excellent communicator. Dale won't win a championship under the current team but this is upward progression for June-bug. I suspect that Earnhardt returns to victory lane in the spring at Texas and finishes the season just outside of the Top 12.
NASCAR The Game Fails...Most video games based on NASCAR largely have been poorly constructed and unpurchased since the start of the last decade. When discussing the genre, the bar will always be Papyrus' NASCAR Racing 2003. Previous publisher Electronic Arts never understood that fans preferred simulation over arcade-style racing. New Developer Eutechnyx know this already if they've done their homework. Yet I'm guessing they haven't. Codemaster's excellent F1 2010 and Sony's Gran Turismo 5 (with a playable NASCAR mode) will still be the racing simulation of choice in 2011.
Tony Stewart wins the Daytona 500...Smoke is quickly approaching Dale Earnhardt territory with his lack of success in the Great American Race. Much like Earnhardt in the 1990s Stewart has had so much success at Daytona. And yet, he's never won the big one. In fact, it's more likely that he's been caught up in the race's other big one, the large multi-car crashes associated with restrictor plate racing. The bad luck will finally run out for Smoke in February as Stewart will need and receive a last lap push from Dale Earnhardt Jr to overtake a dominant Jeff Gordon to win the Daytona 500.
Kyle Busch captures first Sprint Cup Championship...Kyle Busch has had the talent to win the past five Sprint Cup Series championships but his own youth continued to get in the way. This season is finally the one where he puts it all together and breaks through. "Mr. Win or Crash Trying" finally turns into "Mr. Consistency", winning five races and taking the Sprint Cup title by 57 classic championship points.
The Best of the rest:
- 2. Jeff Gordon
- 3. Jimmie Johnson
- 4. Mark Martin
- 5. Carl Edwards
- 6. Tony Stewart
- 7. Juan Pablo Montoya
- 8. Jeff Burton
- 9. Kevin Harvick
- 10. Kurt Busch
- 11. Denny Hamlin
- 12. Matt Kenseth
Hornish will run at Indy and Charlotte...My best guess is that Sam Hornish Jr. will be relegated to a Nationwide Series ride by April and will convince Roger Penske that running the May Double is a great idea. Hornish will test at Indianapolis during the month of May, giving him a great chance to win the Indianapolis 500. Instead, he just loses to race-winner Will Power. With the IndyCar Series starting Indianapolis at 11 a.m. CST, Hornish can make the post-race flight just in time to start the NASCAR Coca Cola 600. Hornish won't win either half of the double but will open the door to future NASCAR participation in the Biggest Spectacle in Racing.
So what say you? Am I a prognosticator or quite the fool? What are your predictions?