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Five racing storylines to follow heading into 2011

KOONTZ LAKE, Ind. -- Turn the page, it's 2011, and in just a few weeks a ridiculously short offseason will be over and it will be back to racing. In fact, by the end of the month the sports car teams will head to Daytona International Speedway for the first major racing event of the season -- the Rolex 24 at Daytona. That begins Speed Weeks 2011, followed by the Budweiser Shootout on Feb. 12 and the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20.

Though the BCS and NFL playoffs continue to dominate the sporting landscape, let's take a look at some of the stories to follow when the auto racing season shifts into high gear this year.

During Memorial Day weekend, the "World's Greatest Race" will be a century old, a monumental occasion for any racing fan. While it is billed by Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the "Most Important Race in History," that distinction actually belongs to the first Indy 500 race in 1911.

It was a major event held on a major stage in the early 20th century that began big-time, worldwide auto racing as we know it today. Sure, there were big races before that, but those were mostly rally-type events or races held on dirt tracks or "Bull Rings" at fairgrounds throughout the country. The first Indy 500 was an event that elevated auto racing to a worldwide stage. As Richard Petty once said, "Without the Indianapolis 500 there would be no NASCAR" because this huge event later inspired men such as NASCAR founder Bill France to come up with the idea of racing stock cars rather than purpose-built race cars.

In the 100 years since Ray Harroun drove to victory in the first Indy 500, the sport has undergone some dramatic changes. This will be the final year the current Dallara-chassis, which has been run at Indy since 2003, will be used. It will be replaced by a new generation race car that will be built by Dallara, but the outer skin will be made by a variety of companies in the form of an aero-kit. That will bring some diversity and innovation back to IndyCar in 2012. This is also the final year Honda will be the only engine on the track as Chevrolet and Lotus join in 2012 with turbocharged engines.

On a worldwide scale there is certainly more interest in the Indy 500 than the Daytona 500. That may not be the case in the United States, but this year's Indy 500 deserves the status and accolades that it will receive just as the Kentucky Derby and Wimbledon did when those two great sporting events celebrated their 100th birthday.

Maybe a new decade will spell the end to Jimmie Johnson's dominance in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, but I expect him to be a major contender once again, extending his streak to six-straight Cup titles.

No driver in auto racing dominated the past decade in NASCAR more than Johnson, who scored a dramatic come-from-behind championship "Drive for Five" in 2010 in the last race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His fifth-straight championship extended a record he already held when he won his fourth-straight championship in 2009.

A sixth-straight title would solidify Johnson's greatness, but that isn't even an issue at this point. He's already placed himself in the discussion for greatest driver of all-time and if he claims three more Cup titles in his career he will break the record of seven jointly held by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.

Johnson will have plenty of competition for this year's title, however, from his 2010 rival Denny Hamlin and a rejuvenated Carl Edwards, who finished the season with a two-race winning streak. And don't forget about perennial championship contenders Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, both drivers believing they have the ingredients for winning another title.

After last year's Daytona 500 hit a major bump in the road in the form of a pot-hole between Turns 1 and 2, the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway was resurfaced. When NASCAR teams participated in a Goodyear tire test in December, the drivers said the track had more speed and a likelihood for tighter racing that will increase the drama and the risk in NASCAR's biggest race of the season.

But that will be much better than last year when two lengthy red flags to repair the potholes left many of the fans in attendance leaving the track long before the checkered flag waved.

Dario Franchitti has already established himself as one of the best IndyCar drivers ever after winning his second Indy 500 and his third series championship in 2009. Just as Johnson had to come from behind to win the Sprint Cup title in 2010, so did Franchitti in IndyCar, putting pressure on Australia's Will Power and wresting the championship in the final race of the season at Homestead.

Franchitti is at the peak of his career and showed in the final stages of last season that he was cool under fire, while Power struggled with the championship pressure. Power said he learned some valuable lessons from last year that will help him contend for the IndyCar crown in 2011. And don't forget about perennial contenders Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe and a new contender to the mix, Graham Rahal, who will be driving for team owner Ganassi in 2011.

When the driver from Germany won the 2010 Formula One World Championship, none other than the great Jackie Stewart said that Vettel has the potential to be one of the greatest F1 drivers of all time. That's high praise from a man who was one of the best ever in Formula One, but there is no reason to doubt that Vettel can duplicate his World Championship in 2011. He is just 23 years old and became the youngest driver ever to win the F1 World Championship. Vettel returns to Red Bull, which won the World Constructor's Championship in 2010.

Vettel along with Fernando Alonso and teammate Mark Webber will once again be the trio contending for the championship in 2011.

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