Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Top-5 questions of '09

What a difference a year makes. The Top-5 questions before Sunday's Daytona 500 are vastly different than what we thought would be the big stories last year. And as the famous political slogan goes, “It’s the economy, stupid!” No other sport relies on dollar bills more than NASCAR, and with corporations shedding workers at a feverous pace over the past six months, it’s hard to justify plunging evaporating capital reserves into sponsorships for race cars. And can any fans still afford to attend a race?

5: Will Kyle get Busch-whacked ... again?
Kyle Busch lost his Hendrick ride and promptly shoved it to his ex-employer by winning eight races with Joe Gibbs Racing. Unfortunately, that early season domination evaporated by the Chase. Busch and the No. 18 team had a great year, but hopefully they learned how to run an entire season together and peak in October and November this time around. They have the talent and the equipment, so it will be interesting to see if they can win when it counts.

4: Who can stop the Hendrick dream team?
Rick Hendrick continues to amaze me. Not only did he pluck Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson from relative obscurity years ago, but he also wooed Dale Earnhardt Jr. from his daddy’s company and brought Mark Martin out of retirement. Is there anything this guy can’t do with a race team? But the question remains whether all four cars can be dominant. We know what the No. 48 did last year, but Gordon did not win a race for the first time since his rookie year and Lil’ E scored the only other Hendrick win. Martin should help the organization as he keeps the seat warm for future star Brad Keselowski.

3: What team or driver will fold before Homestead?
Four organizations merged in the past few months due to sponsorship or cash problems and countless other no-name teams came to Daytona praying for some media exposure. But we’re not talking just about the no-names not making the distance. One has to wonder if any formerly major operations will shut down in the coming weeks. And look at the former champions relegated to second-hand equipment. Bobby Labonte is driving the, Bill Elliott is toiling with the Wood Brothers and Terry Labonte is piloting the Window World car. Are you kidding me?! Get a clue guys, and go to the broadcast booth.

2: Four-peat for the 48?
Can Jimmie Johnson win an unprecedented fourth consecutive Cup title? Johnson has been the best driver in the series since his rookie season in 2002. But bad luck stopped him from winning championships his first four seasons. Well, since then, he’s been perfect when it has mattered most. Johnson and the No. 48 team had a horrendous start to last season, but they improved throughout the first 26 races and were in peak-form by the Chase. At that point, no one could stop him, not even Carl Edwards. If Johnson can win another championship this season, he will go down in history as one of the greatest.

1: Can NASCAR survive?
From the outside, it looks like NASCAR the company will be able to weather the economic storm this year. But what about the race teams and fans? One look at Daytona International Speedway last Saturday for the Shootout showed a sorry situation where no more than half of the seats were filled (and that’s being generous) for a prime-time event. The attendance at Thursdsay’s G-Duel’s and especially the 500 will make it clear whether fans have the money to come to the races. The situation might be worse for the race teams. A healthy contingent of 55 cars rolled into Daytona hoping to qualify. That’s a great number, but how many will return at California or Vegas? Cars without sponsors might be able to survive a few races, but they, too, will have to close shop within a few weeks. Let’s hope each race attracts 43 cars that show up and can actually compete. But maybe that’s asking for too much.

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