Exciting season of unknowns on tap

A week and a half from the official start of the 2011 Sprint Cup season, there are perhaps more unknowns in terms of who will do what in the upcoming year of racing than any year in recent memory.

Indeed, aside from the fact that Jimmie Johnson and his number 48 team likely aren't going to quit winning anytime soon, it is hard to predict what the coming year might bring for the stars of the sport. Personnel have changed, the cars have changed, the fuel blend used in the cars has changed, the qualifying procedure has changed, even - for the first time since 1975 - the way by which points are accumulated race-to-race has changed.

Not since 2004 has a season loomed so fresh, and after a 2010 campaign that saw only Kevin Harvick's Richard Childress Racing entry be a consistent sight near the front from February through November, the slate appears to truly be wiped completely clean as the teams gear up for Speedweeks.

That has set the stage for an exciting year.

Of course, such a season of unknowns favors Johnson and company, a team that has consistently found ways to win - and win often - in every year of its existence, regardless of the situation. They are the one team that fans can all but be assured will stand in victory lane and make a run at their sixth-consecutive championship.

Past Johnson, there are no guarantees.

Denny Hamlin won eight races in 2010, but one need only look at Carl Edwards' nine-win 2008 season, a campaign that was followed by a 70-race winless streak.

Harvick, as stated, was consistently near the front all year, the only driver to do so. However, Richard Childress Racing rides a performance cycle of ups and downs more extreme than any other organization, as evidenced by the feast-famine-feast pattern of their last three seasons.

On the flip side, Jeff Gordon is coming off only the third winless season of his career but his second in the past three years - separated by but one victory in April of 2009. He has history on his side entering 2011 - the two most recent "seasons of change" in 2004 and 2007 were exceptionally strong years for Gordon that would have, under the "old," or now, "old-old" point-system led to his fifth and sixth championships - as well as a new crew chief in the talented Alan Gustafson. Gordon's Achilles heel, however, has and could again be the Chase. Johnson snared the '04 and '07 titles, and only Gordon's sparkling '98 campaign and a strong end to the '96 season to deny Terry Labonte would have been good enough for a title under the playoff format.

Realistically, there are 20 teams or more that could claim one of the 12 Chase spots in 2011, some by finishing in the top-10 in regular season points, others by being the two drivers with the most wins in positions 11-20 at the race 26-cutoff point. And thanks to the new point system, with just single-point increments separating each position from second to 43rd, anything could truly happen for those 12 teams that manage to make the Chase.

The championship battle isn't the only unknown, either. Every race victory is up in the air, with 15 to 20 - and more in many cases - different cars and teams capable of winning any given event.

There isn't a team in the field - in all honesty, the 48 aside - that doesn't have the potential for a winless season. By that same token, there isn't a team in the top-25 in owner points - and few in the top-30 - that doesn't have the potential to win at least one race in 2011.

In fact, the all-time and modern era record for different winners in a season - 19, set in 1956, '58, '61, and 2001 - stands in the most immediate jeopardy it has in some time.

Certainly, Johnson is the favorite for the championship, and another title for the 48 team would obviously lead to more cries of never-ending monotony and lead more fans to declare their already-dwindling love of the sport dead.

The title fight aside, however, the fact remains that in a Sprint Cup season, there are 36 individual points-paying stories to be told. In 2011, each of those 36 stories has the potential to be a captivating thriller.

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