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This Season's News Makers

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Well the NASCAR season is over and Jimmie Johnson sits at the top of the heap with his record tying third straight Championship. Even though eventual Championship runner-up Carl Edwards won his series leading 9th Sprint Cup race of the season Johnson did what he exactly had to do to clinch the Championship – finish 36th or better.

What an accomplishment Johnson and his team achieved, they are only the second team in NASCAR history to win 3 consecutive Championships, tying the Junior Johnson owned team with driver Cale Yarbrough who reached that feat in ’76, ’77, & ’78.

Now that the season is over it is a time for reflection. This season has certainly had many story lines, some more significant than others, but all important just the same.

Aside from Johnson’s Championship story and Edwards’ 9 wins here is my offering of what I thought were the more significant story lines this year, starting with the Car of Tomorrow (CoT).

The CoT was certainly a headline maker prior to the Daytona 500 and it continued to make headlines throughout the rest of the season. The car was bit of a Jekyll & Hyde for teams this year as they had a hard time trying to get a handle on it just to make it turn in the corners while at the same time it showed that it was durable and that the safety features work as proved by the hard crashes of Jeff Gordon (24) and Michael McDowell (00) early in the season.

The difficulty in getting the CoT to turn in the corners also lead to another problem; tires. Tires were an issue all year. Tony Stewart (20) gave Goodyear a verbal lashing after the spring Atlanta race and the Brickyard Allstate 400 was arguably the worst race NASCAR ever produced with the caution flag coming out every 20 laps for teams to come in to change tires as the tires seemed to self-destruct if they ran any more laps than that.

Goodyear did do better in their tire construction since that debacle at Indy, but they still have a way to go before the start of next season.

Another story that I thought was significant was the surprising rise of Kyle Busch (18), who won 8 of the first 22 Sprint Cup races for Joe Gibbs Racing, and his equally surprising demise in the Chase. Busch went from Championship favourite to an ‘also ran’ in the final 10 races of the season. Look for significant improvement in his team next year.

One of my favourite story lines to follow this year has been Dale Earnhardt’s (88) success at Hendrick Motorsports. Earnhardt left his late father’s racing organization at the end of last year to join the Hendrick organization and he did not disappoint. Now some may think that Earnhardt didn’t live up to expectations, but I disagree. Earnhardt was the Hendrick point leader early in the season, he won 2 races (one point and one exhibition) and he qualified for the Chase. And if it weren’t for bad luck this year he wouldn’t have had any luck at all as he seemed to be a victim of circumstance (i.e. blown tires) quite often this year. I see Earnhardt doing even better next year now that he and his crew chief Tony Eury Jr have one full season under their belts at Hendricks.

Other story lines have popped up this year like Jeff Gordon (24) not winning a race this season ending a 14 year streak of winning at least one race a year, the probability of Kyle Petty (45) not racing for his family’s team next year because he is no longer wanted as a driver, NASCAR’s steadfast policy of not tampering with the CoT in anyway and the issuing of heavy fines, penalties, and the forfeit of the race car if caught, Tony Stewart leaving JGR to form his own team taking Ryan Newman (12) from Penske South Racing with him, and the scramble for teams to get big name open wheel drivers into their cars only to get rid of them later in the year.

Perhaps the biggest story this year is one that is unfolding right now and will continue to unfold long into the off-season – the economy.

With the cost of operating a competitive race team rising everyday, a recession looming in the not so distant horizon and the North American auto industry on the brink of collapse big business is a little more stingy with their sponsorship dollars. This is causing teams and NASCAR to do all sorts of things like lay-off people, teams merging with other teams as in the case of Dale Earnhardt Inc and Chip Ganassi Racing, sell sponsorship opportunities on eBay, and eliminate all practice dates in the off-season at NASCAR sanctioned tracks including Daytona.

Most are predicting a different NASCAR landscape for next year, and I wouldn’t disagree, but I would also offer up that NASCAR and its many teams have faced economic challenges before in the 1970’s and early 1990’s and the sport is still here almost bigger than it has ever been. The landscape may change but the racing will still go on, whether it is better or not will be a matter of opinion.