Now that NASCAR's awards banquet in Las Vegas is over and Jimmie Johnson has been lauded for his four straight NASCAR Sprint Cup titles, the focus has shifted to the 2010 season, which is two short months away. And while it would be easy to predict Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon will once again be the top three finishers, Kurt Busch, the highest-finishing non-Hendrick driver, says otherwise.
"We want more. Everybody always wants more," he said. "There are 42 guys that have said the same thing for the last three years, 'Man, we had a great year, but we didn't bring home the championship.' It's up to all of us to go out there and knock Hendrick Motorsports off the top... mainly Jimmie Johnson. Those guys are just in a groove that we haven't seen since the late '70's. It's pretty wild. They're tough competitors. They're strong. All you can hope to do each week is put yourself in position to win, and when you're able to come out on top and beat those guys, you had a day."
The Penske Racing driver will be part of the only Dodge team next season, which means all of the manufacturer's focus will be on the efforts of Busch, Brad Keselowski and Sam Hornish Jr. That offers hope for Busch to win his second Cup championship, but the new crew chief replacing the departed Pat Tryson may factor in to his success. "We've got a little bit of rebuilding that will happen in the crew chief position," Busch said, "but there are times in this profession that you'll see two guys get together and just go on a run. I hope that's what we get. I hope that's the success that we find right away."
He's not alone in that regard, not even in his own family. His brother Kyle promises to be a contender next year despite not making it into this year's Chase (he missed out on the final spot at Richmond in September). But the younger Busch did win the Nationwide Series championship and won an astounding 20 NASCAR races, including Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series.
Team president J.D. Gibbs believes winning a Nationwide title will teach Busch how to win a Sprint Cup championship. "What he's kind of learned over here, we've taken a lot of seconds, a lot of thirds and they're not fun to take," Gibbs said. "On the Cup side, that's taking your fifths, your 10ths, and you just learn that when you're running for a championship, there are certain things that are required there."
Teammate Denny Hamlin also expects Kyle to be one of the drivers to beat in 2010 because of some of the hard lessons he learned in 2009.
"I think he knew if he just kind of finished some of the races where he ended up really going backwards or into a crash, he would've made the Chase and maybe could've made a run at it," Hamlin said. "It's just Kyle progressing and realizing that the way our points system is structured, it just rewards consistency. You don't have to go out there and win every weekend."
If the field has learned anything from Johnson over the last four years, it should be that.
After working in a 50-50 partnership with Hendrick Motorsports, JR Motorsports is back in the control of the Earnhardt family. Dale Earnhardt Jr., sister Kelley Earnhardt-Elledge and cousin Tony Eury Jr. have acquired an ownership stake in the NASCAR Nationwide Series team.
"All the percentages changed, and I don't think that's really important," Earnhardt said at Las Vegas last week. "That's probably personal to the business itself, but their involvement in the company ... We don't do it to make money.
"I have that company there to employ a lot of family and to have fun and to enjoy what there is to enjoy about the sport. Otherwise, being an owner's not very enjoyable in most cases, unless you're winning championships and whatnot. We're a Hendrick team per se, and we get the support and the resources."
JR Motorsports continues to talk to IndyCar driver Danica Patrick about a possible limited schedule of Nationwide races in 2010. "She and my sister are sort of managing that entirely," Earnhardt said. "I have not been in any way, shape or form involved. She's going to drive stock for somebody -- someday. Look at all the Formula One guys over here looking around, checking it out. The handwriting's on the wall for her and several other guys."
Meantime, Earnhardt needs to find sponsorship for his No. 88 Nationwide ride with driver Kelly Bires and for the five races Earnhardt will drive for the team in the No. 5.
After emerging from her IMG-imposed exile to officially announce a GoDaddy.com sponsorship that will keep her in the IZOD IndyCar Series for the next three seasons, Danica Patrick admitted that it had been difficult for her to keep quiet.
"Yeah, it's challenging because I understand how the media was quite persistent, which I understand, but it was frustrating for probably all of us to not be able to really say much," Patrick said. "It's nice to finally do it and set the record straight on the plans for next year."
Even with last week's announcement, IndyCar has been unable to reap the public relations rewards of Patrick's signing because she continues to be dogged by questions involving NASCAR. During Patrick's appearance on Fox and Friends, she grew so tired of the host asking about NASCAR that she pointed out, "You are aware that this is an IndyCar; not a car in NASCAR, aren't you?"
"I understand the level of curiosity on the NASCAR side of things," Patrick said last week. "But the primary focus of Monday was to announce our IndyCar program and our new sponsorship with GoDaddy. It's important that everyone was focusing on that and not things that aren't true.
"As I said, I've made no mystery that I'm curious about NASCAR and I would like to do it. As a driver, if I had the chance to be able to run in both series and try it and challenge myself, I would like to do that. We've been working on this and talking to people since the summer. Whether or not things come together or not, we won't know. But there is no contract and there is no deal right now, but as I said, if I could do both, I'd like to do that."
Patrick's new deal with Andretti is for three years total -- two years with a mutual option for the 2012 season. It allows her to compete in a limited NASCAR schedule with races before the IndyCar season starts in March and after it concludes in October.
As of Dec. 7, Patrick has not filed an entry for the season-opening ARCA Series race at Daytona.
"I think we still have time," Patrick said. "February is when they start, so there's not as much time as there is for an IndyCar [Series] season, but there's still time. Even if things go until the last minute, there's still a little bit of time left."
"My speech, I don't think I'll be able to do it."-- An emotional Rick Hendrick after being awarded the Bill France Award of Excellence at the NASCAR Awards Ceremony last Friday.
"I'd be willing to give a donation to get Jimmie to retire. Or at least take a vacation for five or 10 years." -- Tony Stewart on Jimmie Johnson's championship success.
"We've won four. Let's see if we can win five." -- 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.