Daytona Beach, FL – From Trevor Bayne's stunning win in the Daytona 500 to Tony Stewart beating Carl Edwards for the championship in a tiebreaker, NASCAR indeed had an unforgettable season in its premier series in 2011. Now the burning question is: Can this upcoming season in NASCAR top the one from last year.
One thing is for sure. The much-anticipated arrival of Danica Patrick to the Sprint Cup Series is upon us. The hype began the moment Patrick announced her intentions to run in the series last August, and it will continue throughout the season.
And don't be surprised if we have another year of temper tantrums and other shenanigans from Kyle and Kurt Busch on and off the track.
Yes, this should be another eventful year in NASCAR.
Danica-mania is now at an all-time high. All eyes will be on Patrick next week when she makes her Sprint Cup debut at Daytona International Speedway. Thanks to Tommy Baldwin Racing's alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing and therefore a transfer of owner points to Patrick's No.10 team, the former IndyCar star is guaranteed a starting position in the February 26 season-opening Daytona 500.
In addition to her full-time duties with JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series, Patrick is expected to compete in at least 10 Sprint Cup races this season.
Nine of Patrick's races have already been determined. In addition to Daytona, she is slated to compete at Darlington (May 12), Charlotte (May 27), Bristol (August 25), Atlanta (September 2), Chicagoland (Sept. 16), Dover (Sept. 30), Texas (November 4) and Phoenix (Nov. 11).
"I'm excited about the season, and I'm excited about the racing," she said. "I'm a little bit nervous, too, because I want to do well. Any time you feel like you want to do well, whether it's on the track or doing your job, you get a little nervous, because you feel a little pressure to want to do it. But I'm very happy with where I am. I'm very fortunate to have the opportunity I do with two fantastic teams. That's all you can ask for as a driver - to have good racecars and good crew chiefs."
Will the July 29 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway be her 10th one?
"It would be great to go there and do the big NASCAR race and be around," she noted. "I love that track. It's my favorite track. So that's a great idea."
Patrick will not compete in this year's Indianapolis 500, which is scheduled on the same day as the 600-mile race at Charlotte.
While Patrick might be very popular and highly marketable, perhaps more so than Dale Earnhardt Jr. right now, she will have her work cut out on the racetrack in both Sprint Cup and Nationwide this year.
NEW FACES AT STEWART'S TEAM
After a host of personnel changes to his team during the offseason, Stewart is ready to begin his title defense. Stewart did not have much time to celebrate his third Cup championship during the winter break, as he spent a lot of his time getting new crew chief Steve Addington up to speed.
Following the completion of the 2011 season, Addington left Penske Racing and came on board with Stewart-Haas Racing to take over the crew chief role formerly held by Darian Grubb.
"Personality-wise, Steve and I get along really well, and it's similar to where Darian and I started out," Stewart said. "When I say it's a little loose, it's a question of what a little loose means to him. And Steve's worked with different drivers, so he knows how to go through that process too. So, it's literally trying to figure out what that combination is going to be like."
Greg Zipadelli has also joined SHR after spending the past 13 years as a crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing. Zipadelli will serve as SHR's director of competition and Patrick's crew chief in her 10 scheduled races.
Stewart had a phenomenal ending to the '11 season by winning five of the 10 championship Chase races. Will his momentum carry over into the new season?
"Honestly, I think it's easy to keep that intensity up," he said. "The difference is, there are some variables that have changed. So you realize it's a different focus than necessarily what we had at the end of the season last year. There is always something when you get three or four races from the end of the year, and you know you've got a shot at it, that there is a redirected energy. It's like nothing else matters.
"Now, everybody's hit the reset button. We're all starting at zero again. You go down to Daytona and start at day one just like everybody else. You realize that intensity is still there, but you realize there is a learning process that's going to go on with learning a new crew chief. It's just part of the process, but you still keep that focus as high as you can."
Stewart has yet to win the Daytona 500 in 13 starts. How ironic would it be if the driver of the No.14 wins NASCAR's biggest race of the season in his 14th attempt.
RECLAIMING THE TITLE
Jimmie Johnson's record string of championships came to an end this past year. After winning five straight titles from 2006-10, Johnson endured a somewhat disappointing '11 season by finishing a career-worst sixth in points.
No doubt, Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the No.48 Hendrick Motorsports team have spent extra hours at the race shop this winter, gearing up for what they hope will be a comeback season. Knaus was on vacation in South Africa during last month's preseason testing at Daytona, but hey, all of us need to take a break every once in a while.
"Not winning last year has been a good thing for the race team," Johnson said. "It's really tough to strip things down and critically evaluate yourself, your team, the guys around you, when you have great success. We had a great run, and things were amazing, but having lost this last championship, I think we've all looked at ourselves differently. There's been a lot of great conversation and bonding that's taken place. There has been a lot of growth."
In a NASCAR media poll released on Thursday, Johnson was selected as the preseason favorite to win the Sprint Cup championship. He received 147 votes, just two more than Edwards, who finished second in last year's point standings. Defending champ Stewart trailed Johnson by three votes.
CAN THE BUSCH BROTHERS BEHAVE THIS YEAR?
The 2011 season was a "rowdy" one for Kyle Busch and his elder brother, Kurt, and their actions during the tail end of the season cost them dearly.
In wake of his retaliation against Ron Hornaday Jr. in last November's truck race at Texas, NASCAR suspended Kyle for the Sprint Cup and Nationwide events there. The sanctioning body later fined him $50,000.
"Certainly, we went through a lot during the first few weeks and months after the Texas incident, but since then, it's been good," Kyle said. "We're back to a new year and starting off fresh and being able to get to Daytona, race how I need to race in order to get wins."
Kurt's inappropriate hand gesture and use of foul language while waiting to be interviewed by an ESPN reporter during the season-ending race at Homestead, FL not only led to a $50,000 fine from NASCAR but his dismissal from Penske Racing as well.
This year, Kurt has a one-year deal with Phoenix Racing. But he's hoping it will end up being a long-term relationship with the team.
"Phoenix Racing could be a place that I stay forever, with the amount of fun I know we're going to have," Kurt said. "It's been that way already. And now we just go to each race and settle in."
According to a recent poll from Forbes, Busch was voted as America's 10th most-disliked sports figure.
One thing the Busch brothers can look forward to this year is sharing driving duties at Kyle's new Nationwide team. Kyle will drive the car in the first five races this season, starting at Daytona. Kurt is also running a limited Nationwide schedule for Phoenix Racing.
NEW RIDES IN '12
Kahne is now the driver of the No.5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports after a "lame duck" season with Red Bull Racing, though he did win at Phoenix three months ago. Kahne has settled in well with Hendrick and is figured to be a strong contender to make this year's Chase.
"The Daytona test [last month] was the first time I started to feel like kind of part of the team, and it's been really good," Kahne said. "It's been everything that I expected up to this point. I still am pretty fresh with the whole deal, so I think it only gets better from here."
After driving the No.5 car full-time the past three years, Martin begins a new chapter in his Cup career by running a limited schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing. MWR has beefed up its operation with the addition of Bowyer.
David Reutimann became the odd-man out at MWR, but Reutimann will team up with Patrick at Tommy Baldwin's team. He will drive the No.10 car in the races that she is not entered.
Busch's departure at Penske opened the door for Allmendinger in the No.22.
Aric Almirola moves up from the Nationwide ranks to replace Allmendinger in Richard Petty Motorsports' No.43, while David Ragan landed a ride at Front Row Motorsports after spending five seasons with Roush Fenway Racing.
A WIN FOR JUNIOR?
One other burning question for the '12 season: Will Earnhardt Jr. finally get back into victory lane? It's sure been a long time -- 129 races to be exact -- since Earnhardt Jr. has taken the checkered flag.
It's time for him to get another win.
It's also time to say gentlemen and a lady, start your engines and have at it.