I spent time with Dale Earnhardt Jr. this week, and let me tell you he is ready to go racing. I think you will see him more motivated than ever because he has redemption on his mind. I think his overall approach during the offseason was very positive.
I like the Dale Jr. I was talking to. Seriously, I liked what I saw. I think 2010 can be very exciting for this young man.
It was also very interesting and refreshing to hear Earnhardt talk about his teammate Mark Martin. The respect that was coming from Junior about Mark speaks volumes about Mark and his legacy whenever he decides to leave this sport. I think there is a lot to be gained by those two working so closely together.
The other positive, in addition to the changes within the No. 88 team, is the trust level between Dale Jr. and his crew chief Lance McGrew. It was clear to me that there is a bond there between the two. So that should pay big dividends in getting Dale Jr. back up front where we all expect him to be.
It's the mark of a man how he responds to adversity. Dale Jr. faced an enormous amount of criticism for his 2009 performance. There is also enormous pressure not only because of his last name, but because he is low man on the Hendrick Motorsports totem pole. He addressed that quite well to me and is ready to change that.
Can he do it? Well naturally we won't know until we get this season under way, but after spending time with him this week, I firmly believe we will see a much more competitive No. 88 on the race track. I think it is safe to say it's something that his fans and our sport as a whole want to see. He's the face of our sport worldwide.
And speaking of his face, yes he has it covered up. He's going with the Jimmie Johnson look from early last year. If I was him, I would try anything. It can't hurt. If I believed it would make a positive difference, heck I would try anything.
There are other notable changes going into Speedweeks, but like I mentioned about Dale Jr., until we get to Daytona and into the season, we just won't know how some of these new combinations will pay off.
I like what Michael Waltrip Racing has done combining Pat Tryson and Martin Truex Jr. That should help that team and Martin get back to being competitive again.
There are also more subtle changes within race teams that hopefully will pay off. I think we will see Stewart-Haas Racing be even stronger in their second year. I see both Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway Racing being even stronger this year and finding their way back to the front.
You have to always remember, just because you make a change and just because something looks good on paper, there is no guarantee that it will work. There is no guarantee it will be enough to unseat the No. 48 car. Jimmie Johnson's team does not slow down. I see that group being just as motivated as they have ever been.
Trust me, I am not going to make this mistake again. If you want to win the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship, the road goes through the No. 48 camp. You will have to take the crown from them.
If there is a guy, attitude-wise, to be my pick today to do it, it would be Carl Edwards. I spent time with Carl recently and I really like his attitude going into the start of the season. Has that organization fixed everything that held them back last year? I don't know. Again, we won't know until the cars hit the track. Remember, we thought they were going to be really good last year but it simply didn't happen.
Realistically I don't think you can judge a team until you have about five races under your belt in the new season. As we all know, the Daytona 500 is its own race. You can't say your favorite driver's year is made or broken by how he finishes on Feb. 14.
Sure if you come out of that race with a win or a great finish, that gives you and the team that positive motivation you need to spring forward. However, if the race doesn't go your way, it doesn't mean you throw in the 2010 towel either. Daytona pays just as many points as the next race and the next race and so on.
Look at Matt Kenseth's 2009 season. He came out of the box winning the first two races of the year and we all thought he was going to set the NASCAR world on fire. But what happened? Well, basically nothing after that. The team's season went flat.
So for me, that's why over the years I have always used the first five races as my measuring stick. You will have a pretty good indication by that point whether a team has things figured out or not.