The off-season in NASCAR is barely long enough to roast a Thanksgiving turkey. So while the 2010 season is over, it's never too early to look head to 2011 and forecast the sport's major storylines.
With his "Drive for Five" complete, Jimmie Johnson and his team will chase the "Six-Pack" in 2011 as he hopes to stretch that record to six consecutive Cup titles.
"Six-pack, it's already started," crew chief Chad Knaus said. "I've got some hard discussions to have with Jimmie this weekend about some testing that he's going to have to take part in. But here are the facts: The 2010 season ended two hours ago. And 2011 started two hours ago. We have started preparing at Hendrick Motorsports for next year and we are full force to make sure that we take a better product to the race track next year, and it's going to be so. So we are hard at it."
It took Johnson 327 races to win the five championships compared to Earnhardt's 390 races and Petty's 654. But when asked to describe his greatness, Johnson defers to call himself the best ever.
"The driver or a person shouldn't say they are great, but I'm very proud of what we have done," Johnson said. "But nobody has done it five in a row until now."
That is when team owner Rick Hendrick gave a definitive answer to the question.
"Yes," Hendrick said. "He's great."
The championship also elevates Hendrick Motorsports to being the all-time leader in Cup championships with 10 titles under its belt. On a broader scale, Hendrick Motorsports becomes one of just four teams in major American professional sports to have scored five or more titles consecutively. The Boston Celtics posted eight NBA titles in a row starting with the 1958-59 season and ending in 1965-66. Hendrick now is tied with the New York Yankees, which earned five World Series rings from 1949-53, and the Montreal Canadiens, which scored five Stanley Cups from 1956-60.
Chad Knaus is the only crew chief to win more than two consecutive Cup titles (he now has five in a row), and his championship total (also five) ranks him second all-time among crew chiefs.
With a fifth title, Johnson breaks a tie with teammate Jeff Gordon to become the Sprint Cup championship leader among active drivers and third all-time. Johnson is two titles shy of NASCAR's all-time leaders, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, who scored seven apiece during their Hall of Fame careers.
"I've always told you guys that the first championship, first win, that stuff has meant the most to me," Johnson said. "This one, I think this takes the lead. I've been saying all along, I've had a good time with this. This has been fun. I was, one, so happy to be a part of three guys racing for the championship, then obviously going for five in a row. I have really soaked in this experience and enjoyed it and just so happy to come out on top."
Johnson already the greatest ever? To some, there is no doubt.
Said Knaus: "I just think -- and no disrespect to any of our elders or whatever you want to call them, the guys that raced back in the day, the Earnhardts, the Waltrips, the Pearsons, the guys like that; you hear a lot of what they say about the tenacity of those drivers and how aggressive they were and how they could do things with the race car that nobody else could do. I think if you really sat back and looked at what this guy can do with a race car, you would be pretty impressed. He's been in some pretty precarious situations and driven through them. He's put his nose in places that other people would not do and not be able to pull off. If you look at races like Texas against Matt Kenseth a couple of years ago, battling for the win and everything was on the line for the championship right there; if he had slipped one bit, the championship hopes would have been shattered.
"If you look at three-wide racing today and having the brains to -- David Pearson style to back out and say, I can back off now, and live to race another lap and get those two spots back, to where other people go in there and bomb it in there and crash and beat off somebody else. I don't think he gets that.
"As a friend and as a teammate, I want to make sure that he gets what he deserves."
Simply put, for those who have witnessed Johnson during his historic five-year run they have been in the presence of greatness.
Did the NBA change the rules when the Chicago Bulls won six titles, including two separate runs of three championships in a row? Of course not. But from listening to NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France address the future of the Chase at Homestead, don't be surprised if NASCAR makes another knee-jerk reaction.
France wants to see a Game 7 playoff format, similar to ones seen in the World Series and NBA Finals. But the World Series doesn't always go to seven games, nor the Stanley Cup or the NBA Finals. France was so thrilled that three drivers entered last Sunday's Ford 400 with a chance to win the title that he strongly hinted a change to the format that may set up a "winner-take-all" scenario every year in the final race of the season.
Frankly, that would be an artificial way of deciding the title. Since the Chase started in 2004 this was the second time that as many as three drivers were engaged in a tight championship in the season finale.
Rather than making another drastic change to the format, why not leave it alone until 2014 and then take a good, hard look at the 10-year trend before making any substantial changes. There are many race fans who don't like the Chase because they believe it doesn't reward the season's best driver. But what France likes is the passion that was displayed by Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.
"What's really clear to me, is when you put drivers in a position where there's a lot on the line, and they just can't have a good position, and they actually have got to go out and win or lead laps or compete high, they do it," France said. "And I think you're seeing that the last several weeks; that the best drivers all year, a whole bunch on the line, and they are dominating these races going back and forth. So that tells us that the more we can do, to have incentives -- an incentive-basis and decide this championship, that puts it all on the line more often, that's what we need to be thinking about. And it's just great to see these performances. These are guys talking about: I've got to win today; I've got to get out there and I'm not looking for a good finish; I'm looking to lead every single lap and on and on and on."
In July, France indicated NASCAR would take a hard look at the current Chase format and even considered an elimination round with a winner-take-all format for the final race. But is that even necessary when this year the current rules of the Chase allowed for the three best drivers of the series to contend for the championship?
"No, we will look at it," France said. "What I like is what I said earlier, a winner-take-all, if you will; and watching someone not just has to run well, but has to beat some other people. That is feeling to us like that's exactly what we want. And by the way, it's exactly what the drivers want. It's working out that way this year. We are in year seven of the Chase. Almost every sports league, almost everyone, including the NCAA Tournament last year, is looking around at what they need to do to change their formats a little or a lot, depending on who they are, to make sure that their playoffs or their championship runs are what they want them to be. And we are no different."
Harvick finished third in Sunday's race and admitted he would like to tweak some of the tracks that are included in the final 10 races.
"In my opinion, I think the Chase has been good for our sport," Harvick said. "I'd like to see a little bit more diversity in the race tracks. I don't think the last 10 weeks should be the same race tracks over and over and over again. I think it should rotate around. I think that would help particular race markets get better. You have it end at different places, have it start at different places. Maybe you go to some of the same race tracks, but I think a different 10 weeks, even a road course at the end of the year would put that full diversity I guess you could say on your champion to getting to all the different styles of race tracks."
Hamlin fell short of his goal of winning the Cup title but also sees reason to mix up the variety of tracks in the Chase.
"I think changing up race tracks is good. I know it's going to be tough because of the weather. We can't go to Michigan in November. That part of it's going to be tough. I definitely would like to change race tracks, switch it up a little bit. Obviously, like I said, maybe throw a road course in there. It's part of our regular season, why shouldn't it part of the our regular championship?"
1 -- Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports. Do I need to give a reason?
2 -- Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing. Although he failed to win the Cup title and becomes the first driver in history to lose the championship after leading the points following the eighth and ninth races of the Chase, he finished with eight wins -- more than any other driver in the series. His experiences in 2010 have undoubtedly prepared him to vie for the title next season.
3 -- Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing. Talk about streakiness, the Roush Fenway driver ended a 70-race winless streak with his victory at Phoenix on Nov. 14 and then went on a two-race winning streak. He is confident he is better positioned to carry his recent steak of momentum into 2011.
"We'll go to Daytona with guns blazing and I think we're going to be better than we've ever been starting next season," Edwards said. "For our team, to finish like this and be on the upswing that we are, this is as good as it gets. I feel a lot better right now going into 2011 than I did going into 2009 and that's because I feel like we've got a lot of momentum, things are getting better, we've got a new engine that we're working on that just keeps getting better. We've got a lot of good things going. I can't tell you guys how much it means to finish the season like this. It's spectacular for us."
4 -- Kevin Harvick, Richard Childress Racing. When it comes to grit and determination, Harvick displayed that all season, plus he isn't afraid to put a bumper into another driver. Just ask Kyle Busch, who crossed his path one too many times in Sunday's race at Homestead before Harvick punted Busch's Toyota into the wall setting it ablaze. Luckily, Busch was uninjured but Harvick got his message across. Look for NASCAR's latest "Intimidator" to continue that run next season.
5 -- Joey Logano, Joe Gibbs Racing. This might be a pretty bold pick, but Logano was very impressive in the last half of the season and could be ready to make the Chase in 2011. If he does, youth won't only be served, it will be showcased.
If the IZOD IndyCar Series was going to be twice as nice with Chevrolet joining Honda as engine suppliers in 2012, why stop at just two? That's what IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard and Lotus CEO Dany Bahar thought.
The Lotus Car Company of England has become the third engine manufacturer for the series in 2010. That gives IndyCar an engine manufacturer from the United States in Chevrolet, one from Asia in Honda and one from Europe with the addition of Lotus.
"It's almost like another niche," Bernard said. "The great thing about Honda and Chevy and Lotus is they represent something different -- they have something different to offer. Lotus has a European aspect to it. The IndyCar purists remember 1964 and 1965 when Jim Clark and Parnelli Jones ran it at the Indianapolis 500. After the Chevrolet announcement I flew out and met with some of the Lotus folks," Bernard said. "They were unveiling a car out in Los Angeles in Beverly Hills. I flew out for the unveiling because I knew they were going to do an aero kit. I had not met Dany Bahar yet. I was able to meet Dany that night and spend some time with him and they were not optimistic they would get the deal done. I said, that's fine because the aero kit will be fantastic and we look forward to having it. I'm not sure how much of it was thinking about it to the very end but they did. Tuesday morning we got an email that said they were 95 percent confident they would meet the deadline that day."
While Lotus was already committed to building an aero kit for the new Dallara chassis, joining forces with Cosworth to supply the engines was the next step.
"I guess it's a very exciting year with the re-launch of our brand introducing the new product lineup for the next five years," Bahar said. "We take racing seriously, and we don't just want to put a sticker on a car that we did not have an influence to build. We want to really fight and compete with the big guys. We made the brave decision, yes; this is where we want to be. We believe in the series. We believe the series is developing very, very well. I think it fits perfectly very well our activities and strategies in the U.S., which is our biggest market."
While the deadline has passed for the 2012 season, Bernard intends to entice a fourth engine company into the series for 2013, adding variety to a form of racing that has been a one-engine series since Chevrolet left in 2005.
"That's great news on the IndyCar front to have Chevy and Lotus," said Danica Patrick. "That is fantastic and hopefully it will be a snowball effect for IndyCar and a good thing for us. We need competition to separate us a little bit and make us good and bad in different places. Somebody might be good in the corners. Somebody might be good on the straightaways. Somebody might be good on fuel mileage or qualifying. It will shake things up."
"A 70-race winless streak -- no offense Jack (Roush, team owner) -- but it's like a sharp stick in the eye. It's bad, really bad." -- Carl Edwards after winning his second-straight NASCAR race following a 70-race winless streak that he snapped on November 14 at Phoenix.
"Kyle raced me like a clown all day." -- NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick after he drilled adversary Kyle Busch, sending him into the wall late in Sunday's race.
"It's just a guy that doesn't have his head on straight apparently today. I thought everything was good. I talked to him in the pre-race in the driver's meeting and all of that, but he's such a two-faced guy it just doesn't matter." -- Kyle Busch on Kevin Harvick.