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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Three Reasons to Watch NASCAR 2012

Last November, I wrote a post called NASCAR: It's All or Nothing.  The point of the post was that NASCAR is far more entertaining and rewarding to watch if you spend some time getting to know the personalities and the back stories.  The 2012 season starts tomorrow with the Daytona 500.  Here are three story lines worth paying attention to as the green flag drops on a new season.

1. The Return of Pack Racing.  The Daytona 500 is the opening race of the year and the signature race on the NASCAR Sprint Cup calendar.  Daytona is one of the two tracks where NASCAR uses restrictor plates.  Talladega is the other.  For years, that meant that the four races held at those tracks featured one gigantic pack of 43 cars traveling at 200 mph.  But the evolution of the cars caused a change last year that most fans were not fond of.  Instead of a large pack, everyone paired up in two-car tandems.  This felt less competitive, and it definitely looked weird.  In order to remedy the situation, NASCAR made several changes heading into 2012.  Those changes included the rear spoiler, the bumpers and the driver radios in the Sprint Cup Series.  After a few practice sessions and some preliminary races, it looks like the changes have been largely successful.  It appears that pack racing will be back in 2012.

2.  Shakeup for the Champ.  Tony Stewart had many successful seasons driving for Joe Gibbs in the #20 car before he decided to try his hand at ownership in 2009 as part of Stewart-Haas Racing.  Last year, Stewart piloted the #14 car to the Sprint Cup Championship.  A rare feat for an owner-driver.  But, Smoke is not resting on his laurels.  Quite the opposite.  Stewart got rid of his crew chief, Darian Grubb, and brought in Steve Addington to replace him.  This was not an indictment of Grubb.  Apparently this move was planned regardless of how the 2011 season turned out.  Stewart was familiar with Addington from his days at Joe Gibbs Racing.  But that wasn't the only looting that Stewart did from his old team.  Stewart also hired his old crew chief Greg Zipadelli to be the competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing.  But, don't shed too many tears for Joe Gibbs Racing.  Darian Grubb ended up back at JGR as the crew chief for the #11 car of Denny Hamlin.

3.  Luck be a Lady.  For the first time in my memory, when the grand marshall grabs the mic at Daytona tomorrow, they will not be able to say, "Gentlemen, start your engines."  Tomorrow, there will be a lady in the field.  Danica Patrick will be starting the 500 in the Stewart-Haas #10 Chevy.  In 2010 and 2011, Danica ran a part time schedule for Junior Motorsports Racing in the Nationwide Series.  This year, she will be running full time in the NNS for JRM, but she will also be making ten starts in the top series for Stewart-Haas.  Her first start will be tomorrow afternoon in the Great American Race.  Why should you care about this?  Well, because it's new and different.  And NASCAR cares about this because it's a marketing opportunity that their male drivers simply cannot provide.  I don't know the statistical, demographic breakdown, but based on my observations, there are a lot of women who are enthusiastic fans of NASCAR.  Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I am by no means a feminist, but I think it's fun to have a girl to root for.  But, Danica will have her work cut out for her.  In her debut in top-shelf stock car competition this week, she ended up on the hook of a wrecker.  One thing is for sure, though ... Win, lose or wreck, Danica will be a topic of conversation any time she starts in a Sprint Cup race.