SPEED.com’s agents have been hard at work, going behind the scenes to ferret out what’s going on up at the North Pole, while Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, the elves and reindeer get ready for the big day.
Sources familiar with Santa’s NASCAR Christmas list told SPEED.com that the first 10 items on the list are as follows:
1. DALE EARNHARDT JR. — For NASCAR’s perennially most popular driver, just one thing is on top of his list: Victories. Lots of them. In fact the 2011 Daytona 500 would be a great place for Earnhardt to return to victory lane for the first time in forever.
So why did Earnhardt winning become No. 1 on the gift list? Because it’s what Earnhardt wants. And his fans. And his team owner and crew chief. And every NASCAR track operator. And Brian France, and, and, and ... 90 percent of what’s “wrong” with NASCAR would suddenly quit being issues if Earnhardt won five races a year and contended for the title.
2. BRIAN FRANCE — Besides Earnhardt winning, high on the gift list for the NASCAR Chairman and CEO is a new Chase format, one that combines racing drama “Super Bowl moments” and — wait for it — a new series champion to break the stranglehold Jimmie Johnson has had since what seems like the Eisenhower administration.
Signs point to 15 drivers in the Chase, along with knockout rounds, culminating in the top three drivers settling it at Phoenix and Homestead, which is what happened this year. Details are likely to be announced during Daytona testing in January.
3. JACK ROUSH — A spare rabbit’s foot to go with the one you already carry. You’ve got to be one unlucky son of a gun to get in one airplane crash, let alone two. And you have to be the luckiest sumbitch on earth to survive two crashes. As one of the sport’s most successful and colorful characters, here’s hoping Roush’s luck stays good for a very, very long time. NASCAR is far better off with Roush around.
4. BRIAN VICKERS — Obviously, the gift here is a full recovery from the blood clots that sidelined him for most of 2010. Santa always wants everyone to be healthy and Vickers is no exception. More than that, though, Vickers is exactly the kind of driver NASCAR needs right now: Young, talented, intelligent, eclectic, interesting and with a lot of personality, he could really inject some much-needed interest into the Sprint Cup Series next season.
5. RICHARD PETTY — What does Santa have for The King? Nothing whatsoever. And by “nothing whatsoever,” that means just a year of solid, productive racing with no new partners, mergers, managers, realignments, brand changes or fiscal upheaval. Just get out and race, without the drama and suspense of years past.
6. KYLE BUSCH — A copy of the season one boxed-set of “The Closer.” Because as unquestionably amazing as Busch is as a driver — at the tender age of 25, he has 86 race victories in NASCAR’s top three divisions — he has one just once in 60 races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. For Busch to cement his legacy, he needs to win a Cup championship. And that means he has to learn to be a closer in the Cup series.
7. MARK MARTIN — For the Ageless One, who is one of the sport’s true gentlemen and a superb racer, a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship at the age of 52. If Martin can somehow win a title in what likely will be his last full season of Cup racing, it would be one of the greatest story lines in NASCAR’s long, rich history.
8. THE FIELD — Someone to step up and Be The Man by Beating The Man. It doesn’t matter who. Could be Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch or Greg Biffle. It could even be Jeff Gordon, a/k/a Original Four-Time. But someone — anyone — needs to man up and become the new champ in 2011.
9. BRAD KESELOWSKI — For the reigning NASCAR Nationwide Series champion, a strong 2011 Sprint Cup campaign would be very welcome indeed. That’s especially true since Brad K. will be piloting the No. 2 Penske Racing “Blue Deuce” next season. While Keselowski turns off some fans and fellow drivers with his brash, aggressive nature, in truth he’s a breath of fresh air in a series with way too many company men.
10. DANICA PATRICK — Will she or won’t she? As she bounces back and forth between the IZOD IndyCar Series and the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Patrick has given no indication whatsoever about which league she’ll end up playing for. Her coy and indecisive answers about the future make her resemble the Smurfette edition of Lebron James. “The Decision, Part Deux: Danica’s Dilemma.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.