Bruce Martin
Wednesday December 30th, 2009

With just a few days and hours left in 2009, it's a chance to look back and reflect on the year that is about to come to a close before wiping the slate clean to begin a New Year.

There were plenty of big stories in auto racing in 2009 with Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart, Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, Danica Patrick and Jenson Button dominating the headlines.

So as 2009 is about to become history, let's look back at the 10 biggest auto racing stories of the year.

1. JIMMIE JOHNSON WINS HIS FOURTH-STRAIGHT NASCAR SPRINT CUP CHAMPIONSHIP

There has been no greater driver in this decade than Johnson, who burst into the NASCAR Cup Series as a rookie in 2002 and immediately showed he was capable of racing to the front. When NASCAR went to the "Chase" format to determine its series champion in 2004, Johnson was the runaway regular season leader in points the first two years only to falter in the final 10-race "Chase" as Kurt Busch won the title in 2004 and Tony Stewart in 2006. But once Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus discovered the formula to pace their program and have it running at its peak in the final 10-race stretch in 2006, nobody has been able to keep Johnson from hoisting the Sprint Cup at the end of the season. And in 60 years of NASCAR competition, no driver has ever won four-straight season champions in its premier division. Johnson and Cale Yarborough are the only drivers to win it three in a row. But with Johnson having easily won his fourth straight in 2009, he stands above all other drivers in that category and is on course to become the greatest NASCAR driver ever.

2. INDY RACING LEAGUE FOUNDER TONY GEORGE IS OUSTED BY HIS OWN FAMILY AS CEO OF THE INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY CORPORATION

It was Tony Hulman who saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from extinction when he purchased the dilapidated facility from previous owner Eddie Rickenbacker in November 1945 and restored it to the greatest race course in the world and the home of the Indianapolis 500 -- which remains the world's biggest race. Hulman died in November 1977 and while the Speedway was eventually run by John Cooper and later, longtime Hulman associate Joe Cloutier, the power would eventual return to a family member. So when George, Hulman's grandson, was deemed ready to take over as IMS Corporation CEO, he showed tremendous vision which proved to be quite controversial. He broke tradition by bringing NASCAR to the track with the Inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994. Prior to that, the only race held at the Speedway was the Indianapolis 500. A Formula One race would follow beginning in 2000 and concluding in 2007.

But George's most controversial move was announcing the creation of the Indy Racing League in 1994 which would have the Indy 500 as its cornerstone race. At that time, CART was the sanctioning body of Indy racing and George's move created a bitter power struggle with CART, especially after the IRL's first race in January 1996. What followed was a bitter split that would last until unification of the sport in February 2008. By then, CART had folded only to re-emerge as Champ Car in 2004. By the end of the 2007 season, it was clear that George's IndyCar Series had won the bitter war and unification followed several months later.

But a year after George and his series had total control of the sport -- something that had not happened since 1978 when CART was formed in another split with USAC -- he was taken down by his own family. Upset with the direction of its business and how tough economic times were affecting the family business, George's sisters -- Josie, Nancy and Kathi -- led a coup on the family-controlled board that led to George's ouster. Although George remains a board member, he is no longer in charge of the organization as long-time Speedway comptroller Jeffrey Belskus is in charge.

What makes this move so important is the IMS Corporation owns, among other things, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing League, which sanctions the IndyCar Series.

3. HELIO CASTRONEVES GOES TO TRIAL FOR TAX EVASION, GAINS ACQUITTAL AND GOES ON TO WIN HIS THIRD INDIANAPOLIS 500 FIVE WEEKS LATER

Throughout the decade, no IndyCar driver had a better flare for the dramatic than Helio Castroneves. The likeable Brazilian won the Indy 500 in his first two attempts in 2001 and 2002. Because of his boyish exuberance and South American good looks he was an extremely popular athlete. The animated Castroneves lived vicariously through himself at times but his comical nature made him IndyCar's version of Fez from That '70s Show. But when he was indicted for tax evasion on Oct. 2, 2008, it was no laughing matter. Not only was Castroneves' career in jeopardy but also his personal liberty. If convicted, he faced a lengthy jail term and deportation from the United States. But on April 17, Castroneves was acquitted from the charges after a long trial in Miami. He returned to IndyCar racing the very next day and completed his storybook come back from adversity by winning his third Indianapolis 500 five weeks later.

4. MARK MARTIN PROVES THAT IT'S "NIFTY TO BE FIFTY" BY WINNING FIVE NASCAR SPRINT CUP RACES AND FINISHING SECOND IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP CHASE

When Martin announced he was returning to a full-season ride in the Cup Series with Hendrick Motorsports after running a limited schedule the past two seasons, some wondered if the driver was making a mistake. After all, at 50 many drivers are starting to wind down their career rather than kick-start it. But Martin proved he is no ordinary driver and despite an early-season string of bad races that left him far behind in the standings, Martin was able to hit his stride in the summer with one of the best seasons of his career. He won five races to finish second in that category to eventual Cup champion and teammate Jimmie Johnson. Martin also finished second in the Cup points standings for the fifth time in his career continuing his role as the "Greatest NASCAR driver never to win a championship." But at the very least, Martin's 2009 season proved that it's "Nifty to be Fifty."

5. DARIO FRANCHITTI BECOMES THE TRUE "COMEBACK KID" BY RETURNING TO INDYCAR THE SAME WAY HE LEFT -- AS A CHAMPION

When Dario Franchitti left the IndyCar Series at the end of the 2007 season, he had accomplished everything he wanted in IndyCar including a win in the Indy 500 and the IndyCar championship. Both of those career goals were met in 2007 so Franchitti left the sport for a new challenge as the Scotsman attempted to switch to NASCAR in 2008. But that moved was a struggled and after team owner Chip Ganassi shut down Franchitti's Sprint Cup ride in June 2008 because of lack of sponsorship Franchitti was looking at the prospect of being without a ride. But Ganassi had plans for Franchitti in IndyCar. He hired him to drive the No. 10 entry that had belonged to Dan Wheldon. By adding Franchitti to a team that included 2008 IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, Target/Chip Ganassi Racing had the strongest 1-2 driver lineup in IndyCar. And after a dramatic three-driver battle that came down to the last race of the season, Franchitti was able to win his second-straight IndyCar Series championship separated by a year over Dixon and Ryan Briscoe.

Comeback Complete.

6. THE PURSUIT OF DANICA PATRICK

No story in racing got more attention than the pursuit of Danica Patrick. Although the IndyCar Series driver did not win a race in 2009, she had her best all-around season in IndyCar finishing fifth in the standings. With her contract up, it began a flurry of speculation that she was going to abandon IndyCar and make a full-time jump to NASCAR. But in August, SI.com was the first to report that Patrick was going to re-sign with team owner Michael Andretti to remain in IndyCar for the next three years. But even after Patrick signed the IndyCar contract in September, the NASCAR rumors continued and SI.com was the first to report that Patrick was negotiating with JR Motorsports for a limited NASCAR Nationwide Series ride in 2010 when team partner Rick Hendrick confirmed those discussions on Oct. 4. By the time Patrick "officially announced" she had signed both contracts, it was already old news. Competing in both forms of racing will be a tremendous challenge but Patrick will get something that she loves -- plenty of attention.

7. TONY STEWART'S SPECTACULAR FIRST SEASON AS AN OWNER/DRIVER OF HIS NASCAR TEAM

It's obvious that Tony Stewart is a talented race driver as evidenced by his A.J. Foyt-like ability to drive any car, anywhere and get it to the checkered flag. But when he ended a highly-successful relationship with Joe Gibbs Racing to take over the mediocre-at-best Haas CNC Racing as owner/driver in 2009, many thought he was crazy. Stewart was crazy all right -- "Crazy like a Fox." He won four Cup races and was leading the standings at the end of the 26-race "regular season." Stewart went on to finish fifth in the Chase. But what was most impressive is how well Stewart-Haas Racing performed as a whole as teammate Ryan Newman finished ninth in the Chase. That first season as owner/driver established this operation as one of the teams to beat in 2010.

8. JENSON BUTTON STARTS OUT FAST, GOES INTO A MID-SEASON SLUMP, BUT HANGS ON TO WIN THE FORMULA ONE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP

Button began the season in such strong fashion for Brawn F1 Racing that it appeared he would have the Formula One World Championship locked up by the end of June. But despite a mid-season slump, the popular driver from Great Britain was able to hang on and win the championship with one race remaining giving thousands of Union Jack waving fans in England cause for celebration. He held off a charge from teammate Rubens Barrichello and Sebastian Vettel to clinch the crown at Brazil. He gave England its second straight F1 World champion. Lewis Hamilton won the World Championship in 2008. Prior to that, the last British driver to win the World Championship was Damon Hill in 1996.

9. KYLE BUSCH MISSES "THE CHASE" BUT WINS A RECORD 20 NASCAR RACES IN CUP, NATIONWIDE AND THE CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Kyle Busch was able to run the disappointment of missing the "Chase" into a NASCAR season for the ages. He finished outside of the top-12 after the 26th race of the season so he missed the cutoff for the drivers who were qualified to contend for the championship. But he went on to win the Nationwide Series crown and won an astounding 20 NASCAR races in three divisions -- NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series. That accomplishment earned him the Economaki Champion of Champions honor from National Speed Sport News, the most fabled trade publication in racing run by the legendary Chris Economaki.

10. INDYCAR SERIES LANDS A SERIES SPONSOR WITH IZOD AGREEING TO A LONG-TERM, MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR DEAL

The IndyCar Series is hoping to be "Dressed for Success" now that it has its first series sponsor in 10 years. Clothing company IZOD signed a six-year deal worth over $100 million to serve as the sponsor for IndyCar. By having a series sponsor, it will help give the series some much needed publicity and promotion because IndyCar truly has some of the most thrilling racing on the planet. It was also a great victory for IndyCar by striking up new business despite a troubling economy in the United States.

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