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Roush's return, Martin's last shot, more storylines for 2011


Too much negativity is never a good thing, for a writer or a sport that's often wrapped in criticism. But for once in the aftermath of NASCAR's annual Media Day, it's time to stop and accentuate the positive during an era in which so many offseason questions have already been asked. Within any season, there's always reason to find optimism and 2011 is no exception for a sport looking to stop the bleeding at the Nielsens and in the form of empty seats.

Here's what could bring those fans back, storylines over a season to come that define why I'm watching intently heading into the 53rd annual Daytona 500 Sunday.

The championship battle is about to welcome a new contender:Jack Roush.

That's right. For the last two years, Roush's teams have admittedly struggled in the face of outright dominance by Hendrick Motorsports in '09 (a 1-2-3 finish in the standings) then a combination of Joe Gibbs Racing (11 victories) combined with Hendrick's Johnson winning a fifth straight title. But while all the focus remains on the budding Johnson-Denny Hamlin rivalry, Ford is finally getting its act together. Roush's Carl Edwards, who swept the final two races of the season, led a 4-5-6 finish in points with Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle that suggest better times lie ahead.

"In the middle of the year we finally flipped over a new leaf and from Chicago on it was a different season," says Biffle, who along with Roush and others blamed faulty simulations for the worst two-year slump since the organization first expanded into a multi-car operation in 1992. "If you look at our season pre-Chicago and post-Chicago, it's remarkable. We went home, did some homework, made our cars better and lighter and we're coming back to the game."

"The sport goes in cycles ... and our cars are good right now.

The key, of course, will be keeping the right drivers under contract; both Edwards and Biffle are in their final year, and slow negotiations could become a distraction. But both have indicated they want to stay, and remember what happened last year with Kevin Harvick? Sign the deal in April, win the regular season title and contend for a championship by September.

"I don't have a high interest level in leaving Roush Fenway and going somewhere else," Biffle confirmed, indicating his deal could approach four years or more. "I really, really don't. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. And the other thing we're talking about is where are you gonna go? You gonna go start a brand new team at Gibbs. Where else would you go? Hendrick, Gibbs, Childress, who are the other players that have spots? None of them have spots is what I'm saying."

That means RFR should retain a long-term commitment from its three big men, leaving Johnson with more than his fair share of adversaries once the playoffs begin.

This is Jeff Gordon's best chance yet to unseat Jimmie Johnson.

After coming so close to unseating Johnson's second title bid in '07, securing a record 30 top-10 finishes that would have given him a 36-race championship in a landslide, Gordon instead fell short in the Chase. It was J.J.'s four victories in five races that derailed any chance, a 77-point loss that has left Gordon with one win, three so-so playoff appearances and a new crew chief to show for his effort ever since. In the process there have been plenty of near-misses on Victory Lane to the No. 48, angering Gordon while at the same time not stopping him from answering so many calls for help (Talladega drafting to the front last fall, then Johnson borrowing the No. 24 pit crew at Texas).

Turning 40 this year while remaining co-owner of Johnson's team, Gordon stands to benefit the most from the offseason crew changes at Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon is the active win leader at 82, but a once certain march toward 100 is now questionable at best. The four-time champ with only a handful of time to chase records and championships while Johnson has already eclipsed him in several respects. Eight would be too much to ask at this point, but can Gordon even get to five? New head wrench Alan Gustafson is the key, his veteran engineering expertise the perfect match for Gordon's years of experience. And both are building a relationship outside of the watchful eyes of Johnson and Knaus, sharing a shop with Mark Martin in a move that brings Gordon out of Johnson's shadow. Who would have thought we'd ever say that...

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And it's Mark Martin's final chance.

At 52 years old, Tiger Woods will be lucky to even make the cut at the Masters. Michael Jordan? He'll be retired for well over a decade. And this year, the ageless Brett Favre saw his NFL body crumble at age 41.

Those type of comparisons put Mark's career into perspective, the fifty-something star with a workout regimen that would leave most men half his age on the floor still capable of wheeling a car to Victory Lane. Yes, 2010 was an awful year for Martin after finishing the 2009 title race in runner-up, but knowing it's his last full-time season in the No. 5 (at least, as of right now) adds to a growing sense of urgency to make this year count.

"It's coming back to me," he said in terms of adjusting toward a style of green-white-checkered, multiple yellow flags and late-race pit strategies that defined NASCAR in 2010. "The multiple-caution, short-burst runs were not my strong suit. My strong suit was long runs, green flag runs, managing the tires, and managing the equipment and making the stuff last."

Most don't give Martin much of a chance. But this man has spent a whole career climbing mountains critics believe are simply unsurpassable. Considering the "young gun" movement that's defined the 21st century, this sport may never have a gray-haired legend achieve again the success Martin has after 50 -- so enjoy it while you can.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will race Daytona 10 years after his father's death.

Forget Earnhardt, Jr.'s 2011 for a moment and remember the agony that was his 2001. It started by heading to the start/finish line at Daytona, blocking for teammate Michael Waltrip in the 500 and baring witness to his father's tragic accident.

"Mainly I just think about races, specific races, cars," he says, reliving those moments in tributes toward his famous father now. "It makes me think about other drivers that he raced against, his relationship with them, his relationship with Mike Helton, Mr. France. It's a million different images that sort of cycle through."

That raw emotion should charge a confidence-plagued Earnhardt, who claims he's negatively affected by two years' worth of ugly performances. A second at the 500 didn't translate into anything more in 2010, but rest assured he'll be a contender to win next weekend. Should he be able to step it up one notch, putting the past behind him with new crew chief Steve Letarte there won't be a dry eye in the house come Victory Lane.

The 53rd Daytona 500 will be the most competitive in history.

Forget the lack of innovation, the equality of the track being labeled "Talladega II" for a second. This race is still NASCAR's Super Bowl, and the prospect of shattering a 36-year-old record of 59 lead changes -- set in 1974 -- should be enough to whet the appetite.

"It's the history of that trophy. It's the history of that event," says Tony Stewart about the allure of the 500 itself. "It's knowing that this is where our sport was started. It didn't start right where we're sitting, it started at the beach. But to see how this sport started and how it's evolved and when this facility was built, it was way ahead of its time. To see how, as time has gone on, technology has changed, how this place still produces some of the greatest races of the season, the fact that it's the most important place of our season, that's what makes this place special."

Hopefully it still remains special after next Sunday.