As we enter into this 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, there are a lot of things for all of us to keep our eyes on. The two at the top of my list are: Can Tony Stewart recapture the magic of his 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup run and carry it over into 2012 - and will Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus get their groove back?
If you go back and look at Tony's history in Sprint Cup racing, you'll see he is a slow starter. Now in the past, it seemed that once we got through May and the running of the Indianapolis 500, then Tony would seem to come to life and things would pick up. I always was of the belief that the memories and desires of driving at Indy weighed on Tony's mind, but once May was over, then he refocused and the performance picked up.
Last year, however, you saw pretty much a complete struggle for the first 26 races. May came and went, but the performance didn't improve. He and his Stewart-Haas Racing team had a couple of opportunities to win in the regular season, as we call the first 26 races, but they let them slip through their fingers. Tony and the No. 14 camp performed just well enough to hang on and make it into the 2011 Chase.
Even then, though, Tony said they didn't deserve to be there and were just taking a slot away from someone who probably should be in their place.
For as lackluster as their first 26 races were, the last 10 races of 2011 are now the stuff of legend. Whether it was Tony digging deeper, the team ratcheting up its game or probably the combination of both, that team caught fire like nothing I have ever seen. Like I said last year, Tony's nickname might be Smoke, but Smoke turned into Fire.
To be that mediocre and then turn around and win five of the 10 Chase races is unheard of. There has to have been some magic in there somewhere. The team says it was Tony. He says it was the team. Now I know first-hand what good chemistry can do. When you get a little success rolling your way, the driver feels bullet-proof, the team feels it can't be matched and that momentum feeds off itself right to the championship.
The turnaround in only 10 races of that No. 14 car still fascinates me. I love quoting the late, great Paul Harvey because I always like finding out the "rest of the story." I am going to be spending some time with Tony here in Daytona, so I definitely plan on digging a little deeper into this with him.
Actually, if you stop and think about it, those Penske Racing cars did almost the same thing in 2011. Up until about Kansas in June, the team's Nos. 2 and 22 were out to lunch. They pretty much were non-factors each week up to that point. Obviously you have to point to as bad as those cars were and as bad as the handling was early on, did that set the stage for Kurt Busch's demise at Penske Racing and cost him his job.
That bunch made some personnel changes and some engineering changes to its cars and both teams took off. Remember, at one point Brad Keselowski was outside the top 20 in points as we neared the season halfway point. Look what happened to the rest of his season. He rocketed up the points, made his very first Chase and finished fifth in the points.
He did all that in a little over half a season. That's why Tony's performance is even that much more impressive. Tony accomplished all he did in the span of only ten races. If that isn't enough for you, now we all know that Tony had already let crew chief Darian Grubb know early on in the Chase that Darian wouldn't be returning to the team in 2012.
That speaks volumes about the kind of man Darian Grubb is. I promise you 99 percent of everyone else, once they learned they were done, would have focused on finding a new job or filling in the rest of the season. Not Darian - he laser-locked on one thing and one thing only - winning the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
I love the fact that Tony is our champion. He's a great guy and I love him to death. He is a great ambassador for our sport. To me, he is the People's Champion. He can sit at the bar and talk to the guy who just got off the graveyard shift at the Mill, or he can put on a coat and tie and walk into any boardroom of a Fortune 500 company and speak to the positives of investing in NASCAR racing.
There isn't a team out there right now with the momentum of Tony's Stewart-Haas group. However, there are a couple wrinkles you can't easily overlook and dismiss. Like the old cliche - "heavy is the head that wears the crown" - as champion, Tony has a lot more responsibility on his plate this year. He will be pulled in a lot of different directions in 2012 as our reigning champion when it comes to appearances and requests for his time.
On top of that, they have added Danica Patrick to the family and that program is going to need his attention at times, too. If all that wasn't enough, you can't overlook the fact that our defending champion is starting with a new crew chief in Steve Addington. Will those two be able to mesh and click early? Only time can answer that for us.
Now on the positive side of the equation, Tony is reunited with his dear friend, Greg Zipadelli, who Tony won his previous two championships with. Greg comes over from Joe Gibbs Racing. He will be the Stewart-Haas director of competition and will also be on the front line with Danica and her program.
That's one of the things that have been so impressive to me about Tony the car owner. He has the instinctive ability to put the right people in the right position. Then he also has the ability to step away, trust them to do their job and not try and micromanage everything. That's not easy to do. Trust me, I know.
As I mentioned earlier, the other big story I want to keep an eye on is Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. Will they be able to rebound this year? Will they be able to recapture the magic they had these past five consecutive years?
Now I know it's hard to sit here and believe that with two wins and finishing sixth in the points in 2011 that is was a bad year, but for the No. 48 team, it actually was. Up until last year, they never won less than three races in a season, even in Jimmie's rookie year. Up until last year they never failed to win a pole position, but in 2011 they couldn't buy a pole. For the past five seasons there was no team better. Let's face it, they set NASCAR record after record. That all being said, the magic wasn't there in 2011 or like I say a lot, the Luck Bank had a zero balance.
We started seeing something was going on early in 2011. Unlike previous years, there seemed to be an "edginess" on the radio back and forth. Once the communication started going south at times between the two of them, you could see the frustration build.
Everyone wanted to believe as the season wore on that, like in past years, the No. 48 was experimenting and trying things in preparation for the Chase. We'd seen it before that once the Chase started, the No. 48 would catch fire and be the class of the field. That simply didn't happen in 2011. Sure they won a race in last year's Chase, but their performance overall in the Chase paled in comparison to previous seasons and in particular to the red-hot Tony Stewart's performance.
So the question for the No. 48 camp for 2012 is can they get back the magic that they had? As always, car owner Rick Hendrick had given them everything they need to be successful. With the God-given talent Jimmie has behind the wheel, combined with the brilliance of Chad Knaus as a strategist and crew chief, plus having probably more resources at their fingertips than most other teams, then it is expected they will be right up there in the hunt for another championship.
I think the answer of whether all that happens sits squarely on the shoulders of two men - Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. They've been the dominate team, but unfortunately it slipped away in 2011. Now the real test will be can those two recapture their magic together and take back what they believe to be rightfully theirs?
If I had to pick a third major story to watch, well it will probably be Carl Edwards. Will there be a 2011 hangover or slump? It happens. If you don't believe me, go ask Denny Hamlin. The man won eight races in 2010 and had the championship within his grasp and it slipped away.
Last year, that team barely made the Chase. They only went to Victory Circle one time the entire year and limped to a ninth -finish in the points.
Will that happen to Carl this year? I don't know. I hope not, but then again I never thought it would happen to Denny last year. The question is going to be can Carl and crew chief Bob Osborne put what happened to them in 2011 into a box and just pack it away someplace.
They were all but perfect in 2011. What they and no one saw coming was Tony Stewart being perfect. To work that hard all year long, to finish in a tie for first place at the end of the year yet lose the championship in a tie-breaker has to be rough mentally. I am sure there had to be many a sleepless night early on after the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway when you consider that with the new points system, what the difference of finishing one spot higher in any race could have meant. In Carl's case, it would have meant his very first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship and all the perks that come with it.
So 2012 is going to be a perfect opportunity for all of us to see how mentally tough Carl and Bob are. Those two guys are another of those rare perfect driver/crew chief combinations. Can they close the door on 2011 and make sure there are no negative lingering effects? That is going to be crucial to the team's success this year.
The one big change I do expect to see from the No. 99 team is the focus on winning. They were so consistent last year. Out of our 36 races, they racked up 19 top-five and 26 top-10 finishes. The glaring statistic, however, is the single win in 2011.
The new points system, and Tony Stewart in particular, showed the racing world the importance of winning. That's why I love the new points system and the addition of the wild-card factor. In the past if you were behind, you had to "points" your way back in. The focus became the dreaded "we had a good points day" at the race.
Now you can race your way in. Being conservative and banking on points is no longer the key. Now winning is the key. So if you get behind in the points, going out and winning two or three races in the first 26 events will all but guarantee you a Chase spot.
That was one of the biggest contributing factors to the excitement of 2011. Guys that were struggling in the points all of a sudden became a major factor simply by winning. Again, go look at Brad Keselowski and how he upset a bunch of apple carts by winning three races.
So 2012 is shaping up to be another incredible year. Our sport is riding a huge wave of momentum coming off what happened last year with the five first-time winners and 18 different winners in 36 races. Naturally the cherry on top was the Homestead race where Tony had to win the race to win the championship - and he did - all that plus finishing in a tie in the points.
We have a lot of unknowns as things kick off this week in Daytona. How will the rule changes affect the two-car tandems at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway? Now that teams have a better understanding or template for the new points system from last year, will that affect how these drivers approach each race?
I think one of the biggest factors early on is the unknown of all the driver/crew chief changes from last year. We mentioned Tony and Steve Addington. Tony's old crew chief, Darian Grubb, is now paired with Denny Hamlin. Shane Wilson is now at the helm of Kevin Harvick's No. 29 car. Bobby Labonte has Todd Berrier up on the box making the calls. Jason Ratcliff is now with Joey Logano. Danica Patrick can lean on the experience of Greg Zipadelli as her crew chief. Todd Gordon will be running the No. 22 pits with new driver AJ Allmendinger. Additionally, Clint Bowyer has Brian Pattie calling the shots. Veteran Jeff Burton has Drew Blickensderfer now as his crew chief, too. Finally, there is Juan Pablo Montoya now paired with Chris Heroy, who was a top engineer at Hendrick Motorsports.
It is just an amazing list of changes and it will be interesting to see what combinations work and which ones surprise us and don't. Speaking of surprises, don't be surprised to see Danica Patrick do well during Speedweeks here at Daytona. A lot of people want to already write her off at Daytona and I am just saying don't be so quick to jump on that bandwagon.
Lastly, I think AJ Allmendinger and Kasey Kahne are going to surprise a bunch of folks in their new rides. I think it is safe to say for the first time, both guys are in the best rides of their career with all the resources available at their fingertips.
It's going to be fun to watch and it all gets started Saturday night under the lights here at Daytona! Tune in at 8 p.m. eastern on FOX for the Budweiser Shootout. It's finally time to go racin' again!