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The top-10 NASCAR storylines of 2009: Here are ours....and what are your's?

  And now on to 2010 and Daytona SpeedWeeks....but first, let's recheck 2009 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   'Tis the season to be jolly, and after 2009 -- with its triumphs and disasters, thrills and disappointments, and sometimes just dazzling zaniness – well, what to make of the season just past?
   As George Santayana said, those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.
   Or something like that.
   Of course for many NASCAR drivers and crews, the really good holiday news is that 2010 is just days away: Daytona International Speedway opens for Driver-Media SpeedWeeks Frenzy in just 38 days.  
   But first, consider....
   Mikemulhern.net's Top-10 NASCAR stories of 2009.

   Number 10: All those start-and-parks, in every division. Has the sport sunk that low? Or was it just poor PR spin on what could have been a great story?
   Remember back at Daytona, when the year opened, and Tommy Baldwin and Jeremy Mayfield and several others were trying to take the ball and run with it for the sport – by using the opportunity of short fields to try to build new independent Sprint Cup operations...just like Brian France has wanted for so many years? Well, that optimism didn't last long. And when NASCAR busted Mayfield at Darlington in May, everything started to unravel.
   What should have been a nice, feel-good story about how the car-of-tomorrow proved its worth, by giving the little guys a chance to  compete against the big guys, well, that blew up in everyone's face.

  The next Tony Stewart? Well, Joey Logano got off to a good start in his NASCAR rookie season. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Number nine: The Joe Gibbs' guys. Especially Joey Logano, who started hot at Daytona – remember that last lap bid in the 150s? – and then took some licks (oooh, remember Dover?), but all-in-all had a remarkable rookie season. (Whatever did happen to Scott Speed, the Formula One dude anyway? Talk about a no-show on Sundays....). And of course the phenomenal Kyle Busch – still too petulant, high-strung, immature..but one heck of a racer. If Gibbs himself were any disciplinarian (but then even old buddy Rick Hendrick gave up on Kyle, too soon it would appear), the younger Busch might be a Cup champion by now. But Gibbs has shown as much gumption in this deal as he did all those years with Tony Stewart. Some times you have to wonder how this guy won all those Super Bowls.

  Give these two guys, Newman and Stewart, an A-plus for 2009 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Number eight: Tony Stewart's remarkable first season as owner-driver, with Ryan Newman. Yes, Stewart, now 11 years in the sport, and a track owner himself (legendary Eldora) and a long-time short-track car owner too, should know something about business by now. And you can't downplay the engineering support from Hendrick Motorsports, including the shuffling over to Stewart-Newman two of the top crew chiefs in the garage, Darien Grubb and Tony Gibson.
   Still, Stewart is the man where the buck stops. Yes, he got this team (or half-interest, or however the shared ownership arrangement goes with Gene Haas and Hendrick) for virtually free. But Stewart has had to be the point man.
   And then you can't discount the man behind the power – general manager Bobby Hutchens. It was Hutchens who took all those great pieces and helped make this not just a good one-car operation but a great two-car team. Both Stewart and Newman made the playoffs. (Rival Richard Childress, it should be noted, didn't put any of his four men in the title chase...which makes one wonder just why Childress and Hutchens ever parted ways. Hutchens was competition director at Childress' during all those title bids. But in late 2008 he moved over to Dale Earnhardt Inc., and then to Stewart's.)


  Dale Jr. (R) and Lance. They need some stronger magic in 2010 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Number seven: Dale Earnhardt Jr. What in the world is going on here? The son of the legend completely fell apart during the season. Yes, it was a ragged start, that ill-fated tussle with Brian Vickers midway through the opening Daytona 500...but then if Earnhardt hadn't missed his pit on that stop....
   Well, suffice it to say Junior's head simply wasn't in the game most of the season, and things went from bad to worse. Car owner Rick Hendrick, back in the spring, vowed to get Earnhardt's operation back on track, and Hendrick shuffled long-time crew chief Tony Eury Jr. right out of the picture. Bad move by Hendrick. Yes, Lance McGrew did a good job running Earnhardt's team from June on, but nothing really changed. Even Hendrick putting all of his immense resource behind the Earnhardt team didn't save the day. And those tabloid stories didn't help the image.
   The bottom line: Teammates Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon went an amazing 1-2-3 in the Sprint Cup playoffs...while Earnhardt wound up a dismal 25th. Does Earnhardt still have the confidence in himself to get this job done? Does his crew still have confidence in him?
   And for 2010: Hendrick is giving his share of JR Motorsports to the Earnhardt family and bringing in Danica Patrick as a part-time driver...which will certainly be a distraction for Earnhardt himself.

  Jeremy Mayfield: Innocent, or guilty? But what a PR mess for NASCAR (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Number six: The Jeremy Mayfield drug mess. Whatever the truth is, and if it ever comes out, this whole situation was ill-handled all the way around. NASCAR says he's guilty; Mayfield insists he's innocent, and he's gone to court – with a bevy of lawyers – to try to prove his innocence.
NASCAR brought in Mayfield's step-mother on its side...which backfired. But NASCAR has deep pockets and plenty of lawyers, and Mayfield's career has been ruined, bankruptcy may be looming. This whole thing could have been – and should have been – handled much more adeptly.



  Law of averages says Ford's Carl Edwards will be smiling a lot more in 2010 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Number five: The surprising problems plaguing the Ford teams. How can Carl Edwards go from a smashing nine-win season to zero-for-36? Matt Kenseth played it cool at Daytona to win the rain-shortened 500 and followed it up with that California 500 win....but the rest of the year things simply didn't click for any of the Ford guys. Some may blame it on the GM-Chrysler mess....as if NASCAR might have wanted to show Washington and the guys in Detroit that NASCAR is a great marketing venue for the automakers. And of course finding out the real story in all that behind-the-scenes politicking isn't easy even in the best of times for this sport's media....and for the media this certainly isn't the best of times anyway.


 Ray Evernham, the legend who brought Dodge into NASCAR. But that was 10 years ago. Now Dodge and Chrysler appear on the ropes...Evernham's NASCAR team has morphed into who-knows-what...and Evernham himself is next headed where? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Number four: Detroit. When two of the old Big Three have to declare bankruptcy, it can't be good for NASCAR and its teams. And as the year ends, there is the nagging sense that this Detroit-Washington game still hasn't played out completely, as far as NASCAR racing is concerned. Chrysler has cut back to one operation, Roger Penske's; but when Fiat, the new owners of Chrysler, fired well-respected veteran Mike Accavitti , well, it would seem to show that the Italians either don't know NASCAR or simply don't care. Where's my Ferrari anyway?
   John McCain even says he's not sure if Chrysler will continue to survive.
    George Gillett, who owns the operation known as Richard Petty Motorsports, bailed out of Chrysler-Dodge, and after being rebuffed by Toyota (there seems to be something very strange going on in the Toyota-NASCAR camp, in several respects), Gillett jumped at a Ford deal with  Doug Yates and Jack Roush. Gillett, despite being a millionaire sportsman (remember the Montreal Canadiens, which he sold for a cool $500 million?), has a pretty big ego, and may not play well with others. How this new operation works will be interesting to watch.
   Remember when Dodge returned to NASCAR some nine years ago, with legendary Ray Evernham at the helm? Wins and championships were anticipated. Now....well, things just haven't turned out that way. And Evernham himself? Depending on how his sales contract to Gillett reads, Evernham may have to stay on the sidelines for a while longer....though there are hints he might want to return to Rick Hendrick's. (Perhaps to try to help salvage the Dale Earnhardt Jr. situation?)
   And over at General Motors, well, just as things were starting to look up – putting Brent Dewar in charge of Chevrolet seemed a stroke of genius – new bossman Ed Whitacre appeared to start fouling things up again. Will Whitacre become another Alan Mulally, the man who came from Boeing in 2006 to turn things around at Ford Motor Company? Or will Whitacre prove to be a dud? Maybe Whitacre has some good ideas....but letting Dewar get away wasn't one of them. Mulally proved his worth in Detroit; Whitacre has yet to prove him.
   And of course that has immense implications for NASCAR, because GM has a dozen major teams in the sport and was by far the major player in 2009.
   Will Jimmie Johnson's fourth straight championship, and that honor as the Associated Press' Athlete of the Year, help solidify the GM-NASCAR connection?
   Of course the AP award has to be taken with a grain of salt, coming in the midst of the Tiger Wood debacle, and coming as virtually every major (and minor) American newspaper has either completely dropped NASCAR beat coverage or severely curtailed it – so who was left to vote on the award; that's a good question. The complete demise of the traditional American newspaper – with beat reporters offering unique insights – has been one of the biggest stories in NASCAR the past three years...essentially leaving coverage of the sport to the TV networks and a handful of web journalists.



  Careful with that camera, Chad. The NASCAR police may try to bust you (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Number three: Jimmie Johnson's record fourth straight NASCAR title. And remember Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, with a few tweaks here and there, could easily be celebrating their eighth straight championship. Check the books. Johnson and Knaus could have won every single Cup tour title since they came on full-time in 2002. Give some credit to long-time Chevy boss Herb Fishel (a Winston-Salem, N.C., native, no less) for grooming Johnson for this run.
   And judging from the strength the Rick Hendrick guys showed down the 2009 stretch – and the lackluster performance of all their rivals – it looks like Johnson comes into 2010 as the heavy favorite for a fifth consecutive championship.
   Of course Johnson and Knaus have only to talk with Carl Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne about the rise-and-fall of such expectations.
   Is a Johnson-Knaus juggernaut good for the sport? Is a Hendrick dynasty good for the sport?
   Is there anything NASCAR can do about it all, even if it wanted to? Is the Hendrick operation just that much better than its rivals?
   It certainly takes more than a lucky streak to go 1-2-3 in the NASCAR Cup chase.

  That ain't the way to victory lane. Carl Edwards flying over Ryan Newman's car (39) the last lap at Talladega, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) narrowly escapes (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Number two: Talladega. The April crash at Talladega....then the October crash at Talladega. Did we learn anything? Or did NASCAR simply stick its head back in the sand? And what would the late David Poole, the journalist who decried NASCAR's inaction at Talladega in his final story, ironically, think about the October situation? Ryan Newman, caught up in both Talladega incidents, has been a vocal proponent for changing the dynamics at that track, to keep cars from flying. And just how close did Newman get to flying into the grandstands at Talladega in October? Will there be any changes before the next restrictor plate race.....which happens to be the season-opening Daytona  500?



   Mark Martin: A class act here...and the best story of 2009 in NASCAR (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

And mikemulhern.net's Number One story of 2009: Mark Martin. Even bigger than teammate Jimmie Johnson's fourth title. Martin, at 50, came within just a handful of points of winning the championship. And this, long after he himself had expected to retire. Martin not only has a great physical fitness routine to keep in shape, but he has an amazing work ethic. Yes, he calls Johnson 'Superman,' but Martin himself was 2009's real Superman.
    On top of that Mark Martin is just a real nice guy. And sometimes that seems to be an increasing rarity in this sport.
    Kudos to Martin for making 2009 a year to remember.
   And here's hoping he can do the same again in 2010. And maybe win that elusive championship. He is most deserving, for what he's given all of us, over all these years.

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   Yes, looks like Bruton Smith was right: Las Vegas is a better place for the NASCAR celebration than frosty New York City. Are these the new Sprint Cup girls? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)






Excellent list. Looking at

Excellent list. Looking at this Top 10 -

10 - NASCAR's serial self-delusions were in evidence with the forlorn efforts of Tommy Baldwin and Jeremy Mayfield and the other start-and-parkers. The COT was supposed to take away the technology edge of the monoliths like Hendrick, but the reality that the sport is driven by resources, technology, and politics was a reality that could never be overcome.

9 - Logano showed so much rawness that even though his season turned out reasonably well it didn't show signs of a star in the making as much as it showed a young driver given excellent equipment displaying his rawness.

8 - Tony Stewart's run as quasi-owner/driver loses a lot of its appeal when one considers how much backing GM put into the effort to make it succeed; it is impossible to think the team in its previous incarnation would not have won races had GM invested more in engineering and resources into it - GM basically ignored it until Stewart wanted out from Toyota and GM went out of its way to get him a Chevy team.

7 - What is going on here is that Junior is simply not the winner people want him to be. His career is flaming out and chances are he will be irrelevant before the end of the next decade.

6 - Mayfield has no one to blame but himself. He is the one, and no one else, who chose to fight a battle he can't win for a cause with zero nobility. He was caught and should have admitted guilt and worked to clean up his life; instead he chose to fight.

Darn it - got cut off at

Darn it - got cut off at 10-6. Anyway -

5 - Ford's problems stemmed from being a one-team pony-car (pun intended) effort - they backed Roush and no one else. Ford needs to get Petty-Gillett's cars - all of them - into victory lane to prove the program is serious about winning.

4 - McCain looks more right as time goes on. Obama's ill-fated nationalization of GM and Chrysler hasn't produced anything (what recovery has happened here is because of the market, not Obama) and the last time I checked the law of the market trumps the delusions of nationalization. And I'm not sure that AP naming Johnson Athlete of the Year - an award the mainstream sports media has mocked - can help here.

3 - Johnson's fourth straight title would have meant something in the days before the technology arms race spiraled out of control; today it means nothing because he never overcame anything as far as resources, technology, or politics - indeed his entire stock car career is a case study in benefitting from the above-mentioned, being Herb Fishel's protege and slotted into a stock car career at Fishel's behest in 1998 with the inevitable path to Fishel's designated championship team - Hendrick Motorsports.

2 - We learned several things from Talladgea -

2A - NASCAR has no business policing yellow lines or push-drafting.
2B - Mike Helton insulted racing by issuing a bluff at the drivers meeting that had zero chance of enforcement.
2C - 58 lead changes among 25 drivers is superior to anything any other track can offer.
2D - Ryan Newman was never in danger of flying into the infield.
2E - Carl Edwards was never going to land in the grandstands.
2F - Drivers are not qualified to offer solutions to non-existent problems because they refuse to accept responsibility - "We're forced to block, etc." - and they are so enamored of the points-racing mentality that they don't even know what racing is about anymore.

1 - Mark Martin was a decent story, but as with Johnson a lot of positive is lost because Martin did all this with the sport's monolith, Hendrick Motorsports. Had he succeeded with a smaller team then this story would be far more impressive.

Mike, I am not writing Jr.

Mike, I am not writing Jr. off, just his being with HMS. I do not see why next year should be any better as long as he is still at HMS. RH has said 3 or 4 times before that he is going to "fix" Jr.'s cars.
Last spring Nascar Now started reporting that Tony Jr. was making Jr.’s car with 2007 DEI spec cars. When he was removed, RH said that he was going to ‘fix’ Jr.’s cars. I believed him. During the week the crew chiefs were switched, Nascar Now reported that since Jr.’s cars sent to Dover were the old T. Jr. cars and that HMS sent a truck with 2 of the newer HMS chassis to switch out. Those cars never made it to Dover. Instead they made a big deal out of the ‘brains’ at HMS were working on Jr.’s car…the OLD chassis cars.
Carol Einarsson on 12/3/09 said “Biggest Disappointment - Rick Hendrick’s unwillingness to do what it takes to get Junior in the same equipment that Jimmie Johnson is in. Some have grumbled certain accusations that at first left me wondering, but I’ve since come on board 100% to believe..."
If RH really wanted Jr. competitive he would use some of the ton of money he brings into HMS and have hired Addington as his crew chief.
I do not see why I should think another year is going to be any different...? 2 years is a fair trial and this match up isn’t working…& it is time for divorce, for the best for both sides. It has gotten to be too painful to watch. RH has let a lot of drivers go, most notably Kyle Busch. It is the best thing that ever happened to KB. His wins did not take off until he got to Gibbs. He could be the one driving the R&D car for HMS. Last year Jr.'s had more equipment breakdowns than all of the other 3 cars combined!
As for the National Enquirer article, I am still trying to figure out who got that going. I e-mailed the author and he will only say that it was "some concerned friends". With friends like that, who needs enemies?..and that whoever did it did not do it for money. Is someone trying to 'smear' Jr.? Why? It came about from his interview with Nicole Manske on ESPN right after he qualified so poorly at Charlotte. He was driving another one of the old Tony Jr. cars. He had finished 27th in the June Pocono race in it..and 36th at the fall Charlotte race the year before. Do you suppose JJ was still driving the car he drove the year before? Lance had made 2 new 1 1/2 mile track cars for Jr. Why wasn't Jr. driving one of them? Was Brad K. driving one of them? If I were driving the 25/88 R&D car I would probably drink, too, and I don't drink at all!! Jr. has to get out of HMS...NOW!!!! Marybeth
"And for 2010: Hendrick is giving his share of JR Motorsports to the Earnhardt family...."
That is not what I heard. I would appreciate it if you could elaborate a little further just what you heard and who you heard it from.

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