Bruce Martin
Tuesday January 5th, 2010

It was only a few short weeks ago that Jimmie Johnson celebrated his record fourth-straight Sprint Cup championship, and yet the start of SpeedWeeks at Daytona is a little more than 30 days away. So, with another offseason about to fly by like cars in qualifying laps for the Daytona 500, it's time to look ahead and make 10 observations and predictions for the upcoming season.

1. Will Jimmie Johnson win his fifth Cup title in a row?

Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus got to the top of NASCAR by developing a championship combination. They've done an outstanding job of staying focused and motivated, and that's why they are the best. It seems they gain control of the Chase earlier and earlier each season. They save the best for last, and while other drivers and teams burn the wheels off their cars in races that have become almost meaningless among the first 26, Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports know when to hit their stride for the final 10. They have essentially turned "The Chase" into "The Yawn."

Johnson's fourth-straight championship was truly historic, but for the most part, he sealed the deal by finishing eighth at Talladega on Halloween Weekend, when he stayed out of trouble while his closest title contenders got knocked out in multi-car crashes. At some point, though, Johnson's streak has to end because the immutable laws of probability come into play. Even the best driver will admit that a little bit of luck can go a long way in racing, and while this is a sport where drivers and teams make their own, eventually fortunes change. Inevitably, Johnson will fall prey to a flat tire or dropped cylinder, or be in the wrong place at the wrong time and get taken out by another driver's mistake. After all, there are 42 other drivers in each race and even the best are sometimes vanquished by a competitor's knucklehead move.

If on nothing more than gut-feeling, I say someone other than Johnson will win the Sprint Cup title in 2010.

2. Will Danica Patrick's ARCA debut at Daytona on Feb. 5 overshadow the 500 pole-winner and Bud Shootout?

The answer: a resounding "yes."

Because of a quirk in the calendar, NASCAR's SpeedWeeks at Daytona will be on Super Bowl Weekend. In the past, the game has been the week before the Budweiser Shootout and Daytona 500 pole. To avoid going head-to-head against the year's biggest sports event, NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway officials decided to move pole qualifications from Sunday to Saturday along with the 200-mile ARCA race and the shootout.

With IndyCar Series star Danica Patrick making her stock car debut in the ARCA race, much of the attention will be focused on her, and with good reason: Only the front row for the following week's Daytona 500 is determined by the two-lap qualification runs. The rest of the field is set by order of finish in the Gatorade Duel the following Thursday and time trial speeds and team owner points.

The Budweiser Shootout was once a battle of the previous season's pole-winners, but it turned into nothing more than a "tune-up" exhibition that pits the same old drivers and same old teams. When Coors took over the pole award, Budweiser opted for a manufacturer's showcase with the top drivers for each automaker. With Dodge having just one team -- the three-car Penske Racing effort -- it has been changed yet again to where teams with a big-name driver and sponsor, former Daytona 500 winners, and the like are automatically in the race.

So nearly all media attention will be focused on the most compelling event: the ARCA season opener and Danica. This race has been nicknamed "The Jaws of Life 200" because its huge crashes leave cars so mangled that they sometimes have to be cut apart. Whether Danica finishes in the top five or the back of the pack, more words will be written detailing her day at Daytona than about the driver who wins the pole or the shootout.

3. Will Michael Schumacher's return to Formula One be successful?

This reminds me too much of another great athlete named Michael -- Michael Jordan -- and his ill-advised return to the Washington Wizards. He wasn't the same athlete people remembered walking on air and winning six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls, but an older, disappointing model. The same will happen with Schumacher, who retired in 2006 as the most successful driver in Formula One history, with seven world championships. Most great athletes get bored with retirement, and so did Schumacher, who joins Mercedes GP this season. Expect him to still be great, but don't expect him to duplicate the success he enjoyed with Ferrari when he was truly the greatest statistical F1 driver of all time. His return will certainly bring more focus and worldwide attention to what remains the "Pinnacle of International Motorsport."

4. Will Helio Castroneves win the Indy 500 again?

The best answer is: why not? After all, Castroneves finished "the aughts" as the winningest Indianapolis 500 driver of the decade (3), including his storybook triumph over legal adversity (he was accused by the IRS of cheating on his taxes) with a win in 2009. And while drivers such as defending IndyCar Series champion and 2007 Indy 500-winner Dario Franchitti, 2008 Indy-winner and IndyCar champ Scott Dixon, former Indy-winner Dan Wheldon, series darling Danica, Marco Andretti and Ryan Briscoe are strong challengers, the fact that Castroneves drives for team owner Roger Penske always makes him a factor to win the "World's Biggest Race."

5. How will reigning F1 champ Jenson Button do with McLaren?

When Button overcame a mid-season slump to score his first F-1 title in 2009, it capped a magical season for Brawn F1 Racing, a team made from the remains of the Honda F1 program after the Japanese automaker pulled out. But many a talented driver has gone to McLaren and failed because of the pressure that comes from within the organization. Just ask Michael Andretti, who left CART to race for McLaren in 1993. He failed miserably. Andretti was allowed to leave that year with three races left and return to the U.S. where he continued to be a proven winner. Even though that was 17 years ago, Button will face the same demands and pressures. His biggest competition for the championship will come from a teammate: 2008 World Champion Lewis Hamilton. Expect Hamilton to be out to prove a point, and keep a close eye on Sebastian Vettel, a talented German driver who finished third in the standings for Red Bull.

6. Will mergers continue to shrink the number of teams in Sprint Cup?

The sad answer is "yes" because 2010 will be the true test of how well racing survives the economic downturn. Many of NASCAR's teams were able to hang on last year because of sponsor contracts in force prior to September 2008. Some deals were lowered, but many companies continued to honor their agreements for legal reasons. When they reach the end of a contract, they may opt to leave the sport, sending some teams scrambling for sponsorship relief.

Several NASCAR insiders have admitted that teams are taking 70 to 80 percent less to run a Sprint Cup car than in 2007 and '08. To remain solvent and competitive, many merged with other organizations to pool resources. That means fewer cars competing for the 43 starting positions, and a majority in the lineup controlled by fewer team owners. So far during this "Merger Mania" few have been able to compete with Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing except in rare circumstances (Juan Pablo Montoya and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing).

7. Will Dale Earnhardt, Jr. win a Sprint Cup race?

The most popular driver in NASCAR has just one win since May 2006. Last season was perhaps his worst ever, so until he's able to regain his focus, his slump will continue. But with 36 races on the Sprint Cup schedule, expect him to have one or two where he comes close to victory.

8. Will Andretti Autosport return to Victory Lane in the Izod IndyCar Series?

Now that Michael Andretti is sole owner of his IndyCar team after splitting with previous partners Kim Green and Kevin Savoree, he enters 2010 re-energized and focused on returning to prominence in the series. With long-time CART, IndyCar and ALMS team manager Tom Anderson now running the operation, expect to see the newly re-named Andretti Autosport regain the glory of its three IndyCar titles and two Indy 500 wins since 2004. With a powerful lineup that includes Patrick, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti, any of those drivers could win any given race.

9. What will become of Richard Petty Motorsports?

Despite getting a car into the Chase with Kasey Kahne in 2009, this team remains in turmoil. The proposed merger with Yates Racing still hasn't been completed, and with numerous layoffs since the end of the season, this team is a shell of what it was just two or three months ago. Kahne has said he might be looking for another ride in 2010, but he remains under contract with RPM and Budweiser through this season. After that, both are expected to leave the operation, if there is one left to leave.

10. Will NASCAR's track attendance continue to fall?

This is purely dependent on the economy and interest level. If NASCAR has an interesting storyline early with some exciting racing and renewed rivalries, there is a chance attendance can increase. Sunday races beginning at 1 p.m. Eastern, West Coast races starting at noon Pacific, and night races at 7:30 p.m. should help get fans home at a decent hour for work on Monday. But as one of NASCAR's top track promoters told me in November, every speedway in America built too many seats during the boom of the late 1980s and '90s, and there isn't a promoter who wouldn't want to "remove 30,000 seats from their facilities." That is a telling sign on the state of the economy and the sport.

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