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So how quickly can Brian Vickers get back to speed? And what surprises might 2011 hold for the world of NASCAR?

  Brian Vickers, back in the saddle (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

   By Mike Mulhern


   The new year hasn't quite started out the way Robby Gordon hoped. So what other surprises might 2011 bring for the NASCAR world?

   How about a nice Brian Vickers comeback?

  Can he pick up where he left off last May, before those blood clots sidelined him?
   He's finally gotten back behind the wheel of a stocker, and says he feels relieved.
   The Daytona 500 is to be his first big run, but it may take a while to work out the kinks, after being out of a car for nearly eight months.

   Meanwhile California promoter Gillian Zucker is throwing one out there -- cutting her spring race to 400 miles, and hoping for another rousing event like last fall's  400 at the Los Angeles area track, perhaps one of the best-ever there.
   The new California 400 might not have the '500' ring, but three hours of racing should be quite enough at the flat two-mile track...at least until the owners raise the 14-degree banking.
   More importantly is the new date for the tour's California stop, late March, instead of late February. (Weather should be 72 degrees and dry, not much different really than the February date.) For one, NASCAR won't be going up against Hollywood's Oscars.
   Bottom line here, NASCAR has to make Los Angeles work.
   So, the crystal ball for NASCAR 2011?
   Nothing much from the pre-season ponderings has quite panned out the last few years....except of course Jimmie Johnson.
   Still, with snow on the ground in the Carolinas, Daytona Cup testing still a few days away, a bunch of veteran NASCAR crewmen out looking for jobs, and Jeff Gordon sunning himself on St. Bart's, let's give it a whirl.


   Denny Hamlin: will he bounce back? (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

   Is there another 'Jamie McMurray' story here in the making? Maybe even McMurray again himself, who had such a surprising 2010.
   Hey, maybe Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the Daytona 500....on the 10th anniversary.
   Or Juan Pablo Montoya, taking advantage of  team owner Chip Ganassi's Indy-car operation, takes up promoter Bruton Smith on his Indy-Charlotte double-dare, and wins both the 500 and 600, and pockets that $20 million bonus.
   Or Mark Martin, in his last championship run, does indeed win the NASCAR title, at 52.
   Or Bruton Smith puts together a $600 million deal to buy Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing League.
   Whew! Might get some good Vegas odds on those calls.
   Would you believe....

   The big issues at the moment:
   Is Carl Edwards still a man on the move? He had a great summer stretch, and he closed the season strong. He runs well at Daytona, though how well he can close the deal there is still unclear. Still Ford's Jack Roush looks to have his Daytona-Talladega game going strong. And that could be key for Greg Biffle, Edwards' teammate, who came within a hair of winning the sport's biggest race last February.
   Can Kevin Harvick keep it up?
   Can Jimmie Johnson?
   Denny Hamlin?
   And can NASCAR revitalize the Nationwide series? Will 'tricking up' the tour's championship standings, by barring Cup drivers from getting championship points, change the dynamics..or simply result in a questionable 'champion,' with no greater marketing potential?



  Jamie McMurray (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Best big-picture prediction:
   As wildly snowy as the past several weeks have been across the U.S... and as under-the-gun as NASCAR's TV partners have been during the two-year ratings slump...and as wild and crazy as the action on-track was in this sport in 2010...and with Daytona, the season opener, boasting grippy new asphalt, the stars could be aligning for some great SpeedWeeks shows.
   Certainly this sport could use a boost like that.
   A great opening for the sport looks quite likely in fact.
   Too bad, though, that NASCAR put that hole in the early season calendar by dropping what should be the Atlanta 500 March 13th. If this sport gets off to a rocking start, as it looks like it could (figuring Phoenix plays like a short track), then NASCAR shouldn't have much problem head-to-head with the ACC tournament and other TV rivals.


  The heat's on: (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   First, the usual suspects:

   -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. perhaps? Junior hasn't had a great run on the stock car tour since 2004. In fact, he's only won three times the last six years. And last season he was all but a no-show too many weekends.
   However Earnhardt is typically very good at Daytona, and he almost won the 500 a year ago. And this Daytona 500 will mark the 10th anniversary of the death of his legendary father, on that fateful last lap of the season opener.
   Will Earnhardt rise to the occasion?
   He's got a whole new crew, the Steve Letarte-led team that had Jeff Gordon in the driver's seat the past few years....and Earnhardt is now directly part of the Jimmie Johnson-Chad Knaus operation at Rick Hendrick's, not only sharing knowledge but also parts and cars.
    Earnhardt turns 37 this year, and, to put it bluntly, he's got  to make something happen now.
    Earnhardt could certainly open with a splashy Daytona. But the new asphalt could take away some of his edge, by turning the race more wide open, Talladega-style. And Earnhardt, remember, was a beaten man a year ago until that late-race wildness turned things around.

   -- Jimmie Johnson? Five straight championship boggles the mind. Add to that, that he and Knaus could very well have won every -- Every -- championship since they first teamed in 2002.
   Johnson was 'vulnerable' in 2010, an 'off-season' for him (only six Sprint Cup tour wins). But Denny Hamlin made that one big bobble at Phoenix last fall, and then stumbled again early at Homestead, and couldn't take advantage of a golden opportunity. And Kevin Harvick, who had the best overall season, from start to finish, didn't quite have enough  down the stretch to handle Johnson at Homestead (and that pit road speeding penalty was costly).
   Bottom line with Johnson -- he's the best driver in the 10-race chase format, with a team smart enough to use the tour's first 26 races, from February through  September, for 'testing' for the chase. Unless NASCAR changes the chase format, either changing the points or the tracks (substituting Chicago for California probably isn't enough of a change), Johnson will almost certainly be in the championship hunt again --- heck, all a man has to do to make the playoffs is average a 12th place finish or so over the first seven months.

   -- Kevin Harvick? Something's clicked here. Finally. Harvick came into his own in late 2009, after a near-meltdown during that mediocre season, and he opened 2010 with, ah, true grit, and he never let up. It was a remarkable display of focus. And there were virtually no ups-and-downs; it was solid, from start to finish.  Clearly Gil Martin as crew chief has things under control. No reason at all to anticipate a fall from grace here.


   Richard Childress (L) and Kevin Harvick. Two big surprises in 2010. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   -- Denny Hamlin? Curious. Gutsy, if not that wise, performance early in the season with that bum knee. And he kept on an even-keel, kept his focus, despite major distractions from his own teammates, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. (Interesting how team owner Joe Gibbs has managed to put together such a young and talented roster, with Hamlin just turned 30, Busch just 25, and Logano a precocious 20.)  However it remains to be seen how well Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford can bounce back, after losing a championship that was right within their grasp, till that fateful gas mileage gambit at Phoenix. 

   -- Our prediction for the final standings of the 2011 Sprint Cup championship:
   1 -- Kevin Harvick
   2 -- Carl Edwards
   3 -- Clint Bowyer
   4 -- Joey Logano
   5 -- Jimmie Johnson
   6 -- Greg Biffle
   7 -- Denny Hamlin
   8 -- Matt Kenseth
   9 -- Jamie McMurray
   10 -- Kyle Busch
   11 -- Jeff Burton
   12 -- Tony Stewart

   -- Richard Childress' turnaround in 2010 wasn't just a Kevin Harvick show.  Jeff Burton was a power (though winless) until that unexpected late-chase collapse; and Clint Bowyer would have been a real good feel-good story last fall, if not for that still mysterious -- and not fully explained -- incident at Loudon, N.H.
   Childress, going back to the Earnhardt days, has usually been a major story at Daytona, and Harvick is going for his third straight Shootout win.
   Clint Bowyer, the aw-shucks racer from Kansas, became a power player in 2010, and he looks tough enough to shake off that New Hampshire flap.
   Burton could be more of a question, though. He's one of the most popular men on the tour, and one of the most articulate. But last season was his best shot ever at a championship, and he faded down the stretch. At 43, can he mount another charge? He's winless since late 2008, so he needs to get off to a good start. Las Vegas might be just the place. Or was that flap at Texas between Burton and Jeff Gordon a defining moment, for better or worse, for the two veterans?


   Call him Mr. Five-Time (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   -- Toyota? The marque was in the thick of it throughout 2010, and a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship would have been a milestone, clearly. With 12 tour wins, Toyota was only challenged by Chevrolet teams, on a weekly basis.
  The big Toyota guns, of course, are the Gibbs guys. And that operation has always been tough. The question for 2011 looks to be on the Michael Waltrip side. Waltrip finally got his first win as a Toyota team owner, with David Reutimann, at Charlotte in 2009, but Reutimann's rainy win was, well, a win in the rain; Reutimann and Waltrip  really made it stick with that Chicago win last summer. Still, Reutimann has been too up-and-down over his career, and Waltrip, for all the work that goes into that operation, and all the promotion and marketing, still hasn't really clicked yet. Not consistently.
   Waltrip himself is semi-retired, but he and team owner Rob Kauffman are to race this week in the Dubai 24 Hours.


    Richard Petty: the legend (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    -- Ford? A dismal start to 2010 turned into a fast finish, and that, coupled with a major turnaround mid-summer, seems to show that Ford is back on track.
    Credit the Ray Evernham-George Gillett-Richard Petty-Kasey Kahne-Kenny Francis technical infusions.
    Gillett of course is now gone, and Evernham has moved over to Chevy's Hendrick camp, where Kahne and Francis too are headed, after a year with Toyota's curious Red Bull operation. Petty remains in the Ford-Roush camp, but it's not clear just how strong that branch might be in 2011. Petty was forced to cut back from four Cup teams to two, sponsorship is still questioned, and new team owner Andrew Murstein, the New York City taxi magnate, who has been talking about trying to revive plans for a New York City speedway, has yet to really weigh in on things himself.
    Roush himself may be something of a question too. Yes, he made it through that July plane crash, though losing an eye. And, yes, he was back on the pit box just a couple weeks later. And, yes, his teams did get hot mid-summer and continue that through the end of the season. However that prolonged early season slump is still curious, particularly in light of Jamie McMurray's big success after moving to Chip Ganassi's long-lagging operation. 
   Does Roush, at 68, still have the fire in the belly?
   Of course the same might have been asked about long-time rival Richard Childress (now 65) during his own slump. But Childress came back strong. And Roush appears to be too.


   Will 2011 wind up in a title fight between Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   -- Dodge? A major question here. Kurt Busch, with Roger Penske, got the marque's only two 2010 wins (while teammate Brad Keselowski was getting all those headlines for being so head-strong). And for a while Busch's decision to sign Steve Addington as crew chief appeared to be paying off well. They did make the playoffs, but down the stretch, indeed much of the second half of the season, Busch and Addington were far off the pace. Just what the problems were are not clear. But if Dodge wants to be player on the stock car tour in 2011, Dodge boss Ralph Gilles needs to straighten things out. And quickly.
   Maybe there is a question about how much fire Penske himself still has for NASCAR.

  -- Chevrolet? No questions here. Chevy has been the most dominant marque on the tour the past many years, and if parent GM indeed has to pay no taxes -- some are calling that a government tax bailout that could save General Motors as much as $45 Billion ( http://on.wsj.com/bqWlYt ) -- then money should be no object for Chevy in NASCAR. Indeed, GM seems so flush with cash that it's jumping into Indy-car racing, despite serious questions about that series itself, and it's stepping up its sports car racing too.
   Wonder how long it's going to take Ford Motor Company to call foul here. Ford, remember, took no bailout money, and now it could be at a major disadvantage for that.

   -- The NASCAR Nationwide series, on the other hand, is plagued with questions. And NASCAR's latest move, to bar Cup drivers from getting any championship points for running Nationwide races, doesn't seem to resolve the big issues -- sponsorship problems for the non-Cup racers, and the enormous financial costs of fielding a top Nationwide team.
   Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, all Cup stars, battled for the 2010 Nationwide title, Keselowski winning. Under NASCAR's new rules, the title would have gone instead to fourth-place finisher Justin Allgaier, even though Allgaier finishes almost 1,000 points behind.
   For years now the Triple-A stock car tour has been Cup Lite, dominated by Sunday NASCAR stars, who are able to command sponsorships far above the Nationwide regulars. And NASCAR executives have seemed unable to figure out what to do. Crowds are down at NASCAR races, and taking Cup stars out of Saturday's Nationwide grid probably won't boost ticket sales. And cost cutting? Well, Nationwide teams are now having to throw away all their old stuff and run new Nationwide cars-of-tomorrow, at who knows what expense. Let's check out the field fillers for Nationwide events this season, particularly during the western swings.
   And what to make of the quasi-muscle-car Nationwide marketing gambit? Without Chevy's Camaro in the lineup might not work that well. Time for NASCAR's Brian France to do some strong-arming.

  -- Another question: Juan Pablo Montoya. The guy is having great fun at this NASCAR thing, and that's great. And he did finally win his second tour race last summer, at Watkins Glen. But isn't it time for Montoya -- remember McMurray is his teammate -- to start being more of a power on Sundays?

  -- An even bigger question: Kyle Busch. For all his talent, and he may well be the most talented pure racer on the tour right now, his immaturity keeps hurting him. This will be his seventh season on the Cup tour, and he's won every year he's been on the tour, and his overall NASCAR win record -- Cup, Nationwide and Trucks -- is amazing. But, to be blunt, Kyle Busch has to grow up. Those temper-tantrums are far too childish. He won't be championship material until he whips himself into shape. Or at least that's conventional wisdom....which Tony Stewart certainly didn't deem to follow.



   Can Kyle Busch win the Sprint Cup championship on sheer talent alone? (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)



   NASCAR's Brian France and the rest of stock car racing's top executives have been quiet so far during the off-season, but that could change in the next two weeks, with planned meetings with top Sprint Cup teams.
   NASCAR has held a series of such meetings over the past two years, and last summer's meetings were focused on cost-cutting strategies. What the chief topic this month might be is unclear. But one question teams have been awaiting an answer about is the format of this season's championship chase. France has talked several times about possible significant changes to the title playoffs.

   One of stock car racing's latest marketing gambits puts NASCAR stars Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch in TV commercials during NFL games this month, under the Gillette Young Guns promo.

   Daytona's new asphalt gets a good workout this week when some 50 ARCA drivers test three days -- Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday -- for February's Speed Weeks 200.
   Among the drivers testing: Ty Dillon, grandson of NASCAR team owner Richard Childress; veteran ARCA racers Bobby Gerhart and Frank Kimmel; and the new ARCA champ Patrick Sheltra, who has been getting some looks from Sprint Cup teams the past several months.

   Robby Gordon didn't have that much good luck in the Dakar Rally. A broken wheel bearing kept him from getting to the starting line for Stage Four, and he was thus disqualified....which didn't set well with him naturally.
   Gordon couldn't get a replacement wheel bearing in time from his support team.
   "Disappointed doesn't even begin to describe the way I'm feeling right now...not only for me but for everyone involved," Gordon said.
   "While it may not appear like it, due to our performance, countless hours went into this effort. To have a wheel bearing fail is just sickening…a huge, huge disappointment. We run this same wheel bearing on the (Baja) trophy truck, and have put thousands of kilometers on (Dakar) Hummers, and we have never had this part fail."

   One of the big changes on NASCAR's 2011 calendar is the July 9th Saturday night 400-miler at Bruton Smith's new Kentucky Speedway, near Cincinnati. Tickets go on sale Jan. 12. Reserved Sprint Cup tickets are available from $70 to $110. Mark Simendinger is running the track for Smith. Also on tap that weekend are a Thursday Truck tour event, and a Friday Nationwide race.

   NASCAR officials Monday announced reinstating Paul Chodora "upon his successful completion of NASCAR's Road to Recovery Program." The crewman was suspended last February "for violating the sanctioning body's substance abuse policy."

  Jamie McMurray's big surprise. Will there be another Daytona surprise this season? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Shakeup at Hendricks

You must feel the shakeup at Hendrick's was a bad move, since you predict Johnson slips to fifth and Gordon, Earnhardt, and Martin do not make the top 12. Or, has the entire organization just run out of gas and they are just rearranging chairs on the Titanic?

as catfish hunter once said,

as catfish hunter once said, 'the sun don't shine on the same dog's *** all the time.' things change. i sense things changing. not sure why, but JGordon and SLetarte did well together just couldn't win, for some reason. And MMartin's deal in 2010 certainly didn't benefit from the DEarnhardt add. In general sometimes big is not better.....i just wish some of the sport's little guys -- where are they these days? -- can make some headlines. that's what this sport really needs....better, more intriguing story lines. like clint bowyer? oops.

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