Don't get me wrong here -- Danica's decision is one of those "once-in-a-blue-moon" events that'll keep the sport buzzing all the way up to the IndyCar driver's Daytona debut on Feb. 6. But let's not lose sight of other people and stories to keep an eye on between now and Speedweeks.
1) Will There Be 43 Full-Time Teams On The Grid? For a second straight year, a tough economy has meant contraction is the name of the game. Over 150 people were let go from an RPM-Yates merger after the season, and the number of layoffs in NASCAR's top three series, while smaller than last year, is at least 250 by my count.
The tough part is that it's not done yet. Current garage buzz centers on the possible shutdown of RCR's fourth car, the No. 07, whose primary sponsor (Jack Daniel's) left the sport at the end of the 2009 season. Casey Mears is still contracted to drive but is seeking other opportunities with his future unclear; the team has set a mid-January deadline to get a full-time sponsor or shut down. Like several others, the team has the benefit of using NASCAR's Top 35 rule to its advantage --its finish in 2009 owner points guarantees it a spot on the grid for the first five races. But Vice President of Competition Mike Dillon says the team won't show up with an unsponsored car, claiming it's an "all or nothing" proposition beyond the Daytona 500.
"If we don't run the whole season," he told SI, "we won't run the first five races."
The No. 07's decision could have a huge impact on Team Red Bull (TRB). Right now, the No. 82 car (Scott Speed) is 36th in owner points but would receive that "locked in" spot if the No. 07 stops showing up. But in the end, TRB may not need to worry; several other teams are set to disappear in front of them. The No. 44 (shut down in the wake of the RPM-Yates merger), the No. 26 (shut down by Roush in order to comply with NASCAR's four-team rule), and the No. 96 (no team, no sponsor, no driver) are among those who'll give up a spot on the grid in 2010.
What makes it tricky is that the sport has allowed car owners the chance to "sell" their spot on the grid to the highest bidder. Typically, new teams would be knocking down the door to buy a place on the grid, but right now, there's simply no one with the funding to buy them. Just three "new" teams have announced they'll step up to full-time competition in 2010, and all are single-car, underdog operations without the cash to buy their way in. Most importantly, with four teams leaving, NASCAR finds itself with one less car on the track -- not something it needs to see when it already had six "start and park" teams filling the back of the grid to end 2009. Unless the sport recruits new owners with funding, expect cars to pull off after a few laps in the race while collecting hard-earned fans' money for their "effort."
2) Is Kyle Busch Making Himself Vulnerable? Stock car's "Bad Boy" has scheduled a Friday press conference to announce he's becoming a car owner in NASCAR's Truck Series. Following in the footsteps of Cup stars like Kevin Harvick, Busch will run at least two trucks out of his shop -- he'll run one himself in a handful of races while setting up the second to challenge Harvick's Ron Hornaday for the season championship.
This is a move Busch has wanted to make for two years, but it comes with curious timing. After Busch missed the Chase just one year after leading the points, critics were already questioning whether he spreads himself too thin by moonlighting in Nationwide and Truck. Now, he has less than two months to put together a championship Truck team? The management group Busch puts in place will be crucial (he's off to a good start by tabbing championship crew chief Rick Ren to lead the effort), but even then, how could Busch stay away if the trucks start off struggling?
The whole scenario provides another distraction for Busch on the verge of contract talks where he makes his real money (his deals with Joe Gibbs Racing and Cup sponsor M&M's expire after 2010). And with Denny Hamlin rising up as JGR's No. 1 threat to Jimmie Johnson's dominance, Busch suddenly doesn't have the leverage he once did for temperamental behavior that wears out his crew. Don't forget, it only took Busch a couple of months to go from the penthouse to the outhouse at his last job with Hendrick Motorsports, so how he juggles responsibility over the short-term bears serious watching.
3) The Jeremy Mayfield Case. The drug case NASCAR wants to go away could wrap up within a few weeks, as Judge Graham Mullen is expected to rule on a motion by the sanctioning body to dismiss the case. But if he doesn't, it's full speed ahead towards a trial with Tiger Woods-sized tabloid headlines. CEO Brian France is already scheduled for a Jan. 19 deposition, and other top officials will follow suit. Mayfield has hired one of the most famous celebrity defense attorneys in the country, Mark Geragos, and he will work the media as dates draw closer. Geragos has already been poking around at France's pending divorce lawsuit with his wife, and she'll likely give a deposition in the case before all is said and done. And trust me, France isn't the only NASCAR official whose private life will be pulled apart with a fine-toothed comb.
Bottom line, if there are any hidden secrets about drugs in the NASCAR garage, there are dozens of people with nothing to lose looking to air that dirty laundry in public. It's the type of case the sport would usually settle out of court ... except Mayfield steadfastly refuses as his career is already ruined by the failed drug test for methamphetamines that led to this whole case in the first place. Stay tuned...
4) Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s Attitude. By all accounts, Dale Jr. wasn't a big player at the season-ending banquet in Las Vegas. He only traveled into town to receive the sport's Most Popular Driver Award and then disappeared back into the abyss. Heck, he wasn't even at his own team's announcement that Danica Patrick will be on his roster in 2010.
How strange that a story to watch is based on how much Dale Jr. stays out of the news. But after the worst season of his career (25th in points, just five top 10 finishes), it's the best strategy for a man who'd lost both the passion and confidence to compete by season's end.
For Earnhardt to recover, he needs to get over this year the way he would get over an ex-girlfriend -- maybe travel to a deserted island where no one knows him, relax on the beach with friends, and clear his head. He has Rick Hendrick switching around engineers on the No. 88 and sister Kelley Earnhardt Elledge to run the Danica transition. So why should he show his face? If the next time we hear from Junior is Speedweeks, we'll know he's on the road to recovery. But if he's driven in 1,000 different directions before then, I don't see that passion getting a chance to return.
5) Where's The New Blood? As of now, Raybestos will be giving its Rookie of the Year trophy to ... a fan on eBay come November. Barring a last-minute switch, for the first time since 1992 there aren't any rookies signed up. Danica provides a nice cover-up, but the fact remains that she's the only new face to market in a series that's seen its freshmen win just twice in the last three years.
All sports go through a down cycle when it comes to new talent, but in this fast-changing world, the same selection can quickly get stale without new challenges. There are just a handful of rookies in Nationwide and Trucks, and the sport needs to tackle new initiatives aimed at redeveloping the pipeline of talent. Among the former "up-and-coming" stars still looking for a job this offseason are Landon Cassill, Brad Coleman, Stephen Leicht, Cale Gale and Bryan Clauson ... the list could fill a week's worth of columns in itself.
One small note on Danica before we go. Love or hate the decision, it's hard to deny the marketing value she brings to the sport. I talked to the people who run the Davie Brown Index (DBI), a list comparing 2,800 major celebrities and their marketing value. Right now, Patrick ranks #661 on the list, trailing only Jeff Gordon (#332) and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (#368) in NASCAR circles, which is due, in part, to her limited audience via the IRL. In comparison, no other driver (Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart) is better than #985 as their likability fails to translate over a national audience. And check this out: in the endorsement category, Patrick jumps up to #283. She is the rising star NASCAR needs: a fresh, trusting face to lure more products -- and fans -- into the sport.
Looking for a place to vent this offseason? I'm happy to announce I'll be trying a mailbag column here at SI.com sometime over the next few weeks. If you've got questions or comments about anything racing, please write to my mailbag (above), e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweet me at NASCARBowles. Who knows ... you just might wind up with your name in print!