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The end of the endless NASCAR season is in sight...or is that the headlight on the 2011 freight?

  The hottest driver in NASCAR? Joey Logano, in his last five races, has finished 7th, 6th, 5th, 4th, and 3rd. Over the nine races of the chase, only the three title contenders have scored more total points. And Logano is just 20 years old. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern



   From the dry desert heat of Phoenix to the lusciously humid heat of the mangrove world of south Florida, NASCAR's teams have been rolling toward the end of the endless season.
   For Ragan Smith's Colorado-based team, the run involved an icy run up I-25, and a harrowing escape from a 34-car highway crash, and a helpful hand from fellow team owner Richard Childress...
   For Robby Gordon, the run from Phoenix to Homestead-Miami Speedway trips through California's Baja, where Thursday he kicks off another Baja 1000 charge:  http://www.planetrobby.com/   And once he's through with all that, he'll fly here as rush to make it to Sunday's starting line for the Sprint Cup tour finale.

   Yes, it's been a long, grueling season...and it's only 63 days till all these Cup will be rolling into Daytona International Speedway to test on the new $20 million-plus asphalt for the 2011 season-opening Daytona 500.
   Daytona boss Joie Chitwood is to give an update here on the mammoth repaving project. Goodyear would like to have a large 12-to-18 car tire test in early to mid-December to check on its new Daytona tire compounds and designs, but Daytona had to postpone the original Dec. 7-8th test date.
   The timing of all this may be extremely tight, since the Daytona 24 Hours is set for Jan. 28-29, and those teams need to practice too, along with the NASCAR Cup teams, and presumably Truck and Nationwide teams too.
   New asphalt typically changes the racing dynamics of a track; and Daytona's last repave was in 1978, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was barely four years old.
   So for everyone here this weekend, there's a lot to sweat....and perhaps a moment for reflection on what might lay ahead.

  When you run the frantic NASCAR tour, you have to make room for Christmas whenever you can. Wonder if it may snow in Las Vegas for the awards banquet? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    It may already be 2011 for all but three of these teams, but better not put too much stock in what you see here Sunday afternoon as harbinger for next season.
   Remember Carl Edwards here in 2008?
   He won here that fall, capping an eight-win season...but didn't win again on the Sprint Cup tour till just last Sunday.
   Remember Denny Hamlin here in 2009?
   He won here last fall, earning bragging rights as pre-season favorite going into 2010...but got off to a painfully slow start, which that bum knee and unanticipated surgery didn't help.
   Hamlin has recovered quite nicely, though.
   Too frequently, however, momentum on the NASCAR tour through the fall doesn't carry over to the new season the following spring.
   Still, it's hard not to overlook what Joey Logano has been doing the last few weeks.
   Talk about a run: he's finished seventh, sixth, fifth, fourth and third over the past five races.
   And over the chase only the three title contenders have scored more points than Logano, quite an achievement for the second-year racer.
   Looking for spoilers here?
   Well, crew chief Greg Zipadelli's 'project' could be one.
   Maybe all those detractors who over the summer claimed Logano was 'racing too hard' will have to give that second-thought.
   "We really want to finish 15th in points, and, to be honest, not too long ago it didn't really look like we'd be able to do it," Logano says. "Now we are just 17 points behind Ryan Newman for that 15th position."
    And Jack Roush's Ford men have been on a tear. Edwards at Phoenix, and Greg Biffle at Texas, even Matt Kenseth now seems to be in the flow, and David Ragan is gaining confidence.
    This track has been a Roush playground: his drivers have won six of the last eight Cup races here.
    Last fall's finish, though, was Hamlin versus teammate Kyle Busch, Hamlin winning.
   An oddity, perhaps a road block for Jimmie Johnson in his bid for a fifth title – Rick Hendrick has never been to victory lane here for winning this race.
   A wild card this weekend?
   Kyle Busch. He just lost another championship bid this season too dearly. It's sometimes hard to get inside the head of Hamlin's teammate. And NASCAR officials might still not be in a very forgiving mood, after Busch's last 'issue,' which cost him a two-lap penalty and a $25,000 fine.
   Last November here, on the final restart, it was Hamlin versus Busch, teammate versus teammate, with the title out of reach. "I just couldn't quite stay ahead of him....and track position is big," Busch says. "Once he got out in clear air, he was gone.
   "I was trying hard to get back ahead of him, and ended up scraping the fence."
   Busch wound up eighth. That's his strongest run yet at the track.
    "Homestead is a fun track, real challenging because of the way the race changes from the beginning to the end, and the way things change from the beginning to the end of your runs," Busch says. "You run the bottom, then you go to the top. You're always moving around, you're always thinking."
    One problem: "The sun is going to play havoc on our eyes getting down into turn one," Busch says.
    For Busch, with crew chief Dave Rogers, the dynamic has changed a bit during their time together. Tracks where Busch once struggled, he's now doing much better.

  There's more at play in NASCAR this weekend at Homestead than just Jimmie Johnson's bid for a fifth championship (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The endless NASCAR season? Well, if you're lucky enough to win the championship here Sunday, you'd better have a suitcase packed with a week's worth of fresh clothes, because you probably won't be home for a while.
   First up for the new champ – New York City.
    With the Sprint Cup awards banquet now playing post-season in Las Vegas, after so many years in New York City, NASCAR marketers are trying to find a way to keep tapped into the New York market.
   However, what to make of this promotion:  "No Restrictor Plate," as it's billed. A one-hour, Made-for-TV event to be filmed in New York City Tuesday Nov. 23rd and then later aired during the Las Vegas awards. Kyle Petty will interview the new tour champion, with an 'in-studio audience of select media and avid fans.'
   And, if NASCAR's New York game plan goes as it typically does, the champ will then do a whirlwind TV show run....and then maybe on to Los Angeles for more of the same...and then up to Las Vegas....and then there's that anticipated Daytona Goodyear tire test....and somewhere along the line Christmas too.



   Danica Patrick's NASCAR struggles have been a major story this season. Will she do any better in 2011? Saturday's Nationwide race at Homestead-Miami will be her 13th NASCAR run, and she's been lackluster to mediocre all season. Can she step it up? NASCAR marketers are banking on her bankability. (Photo: Danica Patrick)

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