Championship Week is over, the trophies have all been collected and 2010 has taken its final curtain call. Instead of looking back to the year that was, I’m looking ahead to the limitless possibilities of next season.
2011 promises to be a pivotal year in NASCAR and these are just a few of the stories to watch.
Camping World Truck Series:
Austin Dillon wasted no time in his first full season in this series. He earned seven poles in 2010, breaking a rookie record previously held by Greg Biffle (four), ended the season with two wins and 16 top-10 finishes and finished fifth in the points standings.
With his first win at Iowa Speedway, he became the series’ second youngest winner, at age 20 years, 2 months, and 37 days. He also has the distinction of capturing the first series victory for Richard Childress Racing since 1995.
Dillon rounded out the season by winning the Raybestos Rookie of the Year award and was named a top breakthrough performer of the year.
Look for Dillon to run another full season in the black No. 3 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing next year but don’t be surprised to see him competing in a few Nationwide Series races too.
Rumors abound that the Nationwide Series may see some changes for 2011. The biggest news is that Sprint Cup drivers may no longer be allowed to race for the championship. If this is true, will the change spell the end of the series, or, will it revitalize it?
The Nationwide Series has been struggling to find its own separate identity as a proving ground for drivers aspiring to rise to the premier Sprint Cup Series level. The last Nationwide regular to win the championship was Martin Truex Jr in 2005.
This change could allow fans to form a more personal connection with these drivers and allow the fan base for the series to grow.
The flip side of this scenario is that sponsors may decide that their money might be better spent on the more popular and better established Sprint Cup Series.
This leaves us with two big questions.
Will the Sprint Cup drivers continue to race in the series without the benefit of racing for a possible championship?
If the Sprint Cup drivers abandon the Nationwide Series, will the sponsors follow?
Travis Pastrana will make his NASCAR debut in 2011.
Although he will only run a limited schedule of seven races in the Nationwide Series, his potential impact on the sport should not be overlooked.
He’s not interested in anything but first place and he’ll do whatever it takes to prepare for this new challenge.
Michael Waltrip told ESPN’s David Caraviello that the plan is for Pastrana to gain experience in the K&N Pro Series and possibly run some Truck Series events. This means that Pastrana probably won’t make his debut in the Nationwide Series until mid to late season.
“Hopefully, he can make all his mistakes and learn all the lessons that he has to learn, and get up to speed where we can be very comfortable when he runs his first Nationwide race or first Truck race, that he is in a position to be competitive,” Waltrip said. “That’s his goal. He wants to test and work really hard at getting up to speed.”
If he’s successful, Pastrana could breathe new life into a sport that needs some exciting new faces.
As an added bonus, his “X Games” and “Nitro Circus” following could bring in a new generation of younger fans which NASCAR desperately needs.
In his first full Nationwide Series schedule, Bayne finished the 2010 season in seventh place. His year included 3 poles along with six top-five and 11 top-ten finishes. Bayne also made his Cup debut at Texas finishing in 17th place.
Bayne’s 2010 season was a rollercoaster ride that had him suddenly looking for a new ride just a few weeks before the season was over.
“It just goes to show that you don’t have any control over it. God has a path for me and He’s guiding me right along because there’s no way I could have done this on my own. It’s just crazy to see how it happens.”
“Everything seems like it’s the end of the world when Diamond Waltrip Racing has no sponsorship and can’t sign a contract, and then all of a sudden I hear that Jack Roush is making comments that he’s interested, so I checked into it and the next thing I know I’m signing a contract with him. Shortly after that, I hear I’m gonna be in the Wood Brothers Cup car, so it’s been a whirlwind, but it’s been really exciting.”
Bayne has earned the respect of the Cup veterans he has raced against this year showing a talent and maturity far beyond his 19 years. Bayne is a rising star in NASCAR and one to watch in 2011.
Sprint Cup Series:
The Sprint Cup drivers have already been making headlines with Hendrick Motorsports leading the way, but the other teams are chipping away at the Hendrick dominance.
Joe Gibbs Racing and Denny Hamlin came within inches of breaking the HMS winning streak in 2010. Richard Childress Racing flexed their muscles with all three teams making The Chase and Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards won the last two races of the season.
Say it ain’t so. Mark Martin drives for his final season in NASCAR…or does he? We all know it’s his final year at Hendrick Motorsports but will Martin retire at the end of 2011?
Next season may be his final year at the Cup level but sources say that Martin will also run a limited schedule in both the Nationwide Series and the Camping World Truck Series in 2011 for Turner Motorsports.
Mark Martin may be the best driver who has never won a championship. With a new crew chief and one more year on his contract at HMS, this may be his last best chance to win that elusive Sprint Cup trophy.
The recent crew chief change has many asking the question, “Is Martin getting Earnhardt Jr.’s leftovers?”
Rick Hendrick was adamant that he is committed to giving Martin whatever he needs to make it happen and is confident that he’s put together the right team.
“We are going to do whatever it takes with people, with equipment, whatever it takes for Mark Martin to win races and have the opportunity to go for the championship again. I have total confidence in Lance (McGrew) and Chris (Heroy) and I feel like with Mark, his technical expertise as well as those other two guys, will be a match that I think will surprise a lot of people. Mark’s not getting the short end of the stick. He is going to get all the stick he wants, and that comes from me.”
Alan Gustafson is widely accepted as one of the best crew chiefs in NASCAR today. Pairing him with the four-time champ could easily propel Gordon towards that fifth championship.
Rick Hendrick explained his reason for pairing the two saying that Gordon “has a tremendous amount of respect for Alan (Gustafson) and wants to do whatever is necessary to give him the opportunity to win and win championships.”
Hendrick also emphasized that while Gordon was not unhappy with Letarte he felt that “the opportunity to try something different and new would again create a spark inside of the company.”
“With Alan as an engineer,” Hendrick continued, “he is a proven commodity; he’s been there and won races with a lot of people. He’s finished second in the points. He and Jeff have a relationship. He’s very technical, not a lot of conversation but very to the point and matter-of-fact and Jeff I think at this point in his career.”
Gordon looks at the change as another chance to succeed.
“I’m certainly looking forward to working with Alan,” Gordon said. “I’ve known Alan for a number of years, always respected him and I guess in the back of my mind, I always thought it would be kind of cool to work with him. It’s a great opportunity.”
Gordon could very easily emerge as the real winner in the Hendrick Motorsports shakeup.
Dale Earnhardt Jr:
Will this new combination of driver/crew chief provide the magic ingredient that’s been missing?
Is Steve Letarte the one that can restore his confidence and provide the spark to reignite Dale Jr’s career?
It will take months before we know the answers to these questions but Letarte has already begun the rebuilding process.
“I believe he’s a remarkable race-car driver, and I think some people in the world have forgotten that,” Letarte said. “I look forward to the opportunity to remind them that he is as good as I think he is.”
“I’ve had the ability to work around some very remarkable talents, and I think he is included in that bunch. That’s my motivation – to show everybody in the world how talented Dale Earnhardt Jr. is. We know he can do it. We just have to give him a consistent platform to operate on. I have all the faith in the world with him.”
The real solution will come from Earnhardt Jr. who acknowledged that the last couple of years have shaken his confidence. “The only person that can truly help me get where I need to go, obviously, starts with me.”
For the first time in a couple of years, Dale Jr’s fans are excited about the possibilities and this can only be a good thing for NASCAR.
The season finale will undoubtedly be focused on Jimmie Johnson once again.
Will the five-time champ claim the six-pack in 2011?
Team owner Rick Hendrick says that the 48 team was a little off this season but in the end they were good enough.
Johnson is already looking ahead to the future and the possibility that he could tie Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty by winning seven championship titles.
“I want to believe, and I do feel in my heart, that we’ll have a shot next year, but I don’t know what those challenges are going to be, how competitive we’ll be, what the competition’s going to look like,” said Johnson.
“It’s really hard to look that far ahead. I feel like I have my best chances at Hendrick Motorsports, with Chad Knaus as my crew chief. If I can seam together seven in any shape or form to tie those two greats, I would be extremely honored. If I was ever able to surpass them, it would be out of this world.”
Look for the power team of Johnson/Knaus to level up in 2011 as they try to continue their unprecedented championship winning streak.
Although he was unable to bring home the championship trophy this year, Hamlin’s 2010 season was nothing short of phenomenal.
With a season high eight wins and a runner up finish, Hamlin has proven that he’s one of the fiercest competitors out there.
If anything, the loss to Johnson has made him even more determined to come back in 2011 and make another run for the championship.
“It’s going to be fuel for me,” Hamlin said. “I’m just going to try to get better. There are things that I can improve on as a driver.”
“I can assure you we’re going to hold our heads high because we came close this year. We had a great year. We were just a little short in the end.”
While the fans are watching the racing, NASCAR will be the ones under the microscope.
Attendance and TV Ratings:
NASCAR has experienced a downward trend for the past four years in television viewership and empty seats at the race tracks have become the norm.
Changes such as more consistent start times, three attempts at a green-white-checkered restart and a new “have at it boys” policy have had little effect on either.
And while Johnson’s consecutive championship winning streak looks great in the record books, some will argue that it’s bad for the sport. Many fans will tell you that it’s simply not any fun watching the Chase when you already know what the outcome will be.
One of the biggest problems facing NASCAR is the decline in 18- to 34-year-old male viewing audience. NASCAR plans to increase its marketing and target this younger demographic.
Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s chief marketing officer, said their goal is to “use every resource available to us. We have to expose the sport to as many people as we can wherever they are, whether that is on a computer screen, mobile device or television.”
Another obstacle to overcome is how to compete with the NFL. While NASCAR ratings decline, the NFL ratings have seen a steady increase over the last few years. Despite this, NASCAR has no plans to change the 1:00 PM standard starting time in 2011 which puts them in direct competition with the NFL.
For most fans, the biggest complaint is the number of commercial advertisements broadcast during the race. NASCAR should explore options such as side by side viewing so that fans don’t miss a minute of the action at the track.
The 2011 season will be crucial for the continued success of NASCAR.
Maybe they should take a hint from Rick Hendrick who took a hard look at his company and said,
“It’s not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required.”
Thanks to Ford Racing for Trevor Bayne quotes.