It's a new year, and with every new year, questions arise concerning the upcoming campaign. In addition to usual questions that accompany the fallout of silly season and given the economic seismic events rippling across the globe, NASCAR fans are seeking answers to questions they haven't had to ask in a long, long time—if ever—questions about the health of the sport itself.
Here are 10 questions to focus on as the teams ready the haulers for Daytona Speedweeks next month:
1) Can Tony Stewart succeed as an owner/driver at Stewart Haas Racing?
Driver/owners have had a tough go of it in the past decade (or two). Will Tony be just as willing to run a competitor into the grass (or the wall) in retaliation as he has in the past when he now has to foot the repair bill for his own car? Ownership might cost him some of his edge.
2) Will the recent mergers succeed in improving the performance of struggling teams?
In the past couple of months, we've seen the long-suffering Petty organization merging with a Gillette Evernham shop that has proved steady, if unspectacular, since its inception.
Chip Ganassi Racing has merged with a Dale Earnhardt Inc. group and is still trying to find itself after the defection of the prince (Dale Jr.). Hall of Fame Racing's lone entry—the No. 96 car—is also on the move for 2009. The car, a perennial also-ran but piloted this year by 2000 Champion Bobby Labonte (and his champion's provisional), has been welcomed into the Robert Yates' stable which has had its own struggles over the past five years.
3) In the absence of the 10-year veteran Stewart, is Kyle Busch, fresh off a strong 2008, mature enough to lead a young Joe Gibbs Racing outfit, or will Denny Hamlin emerge as a leader?
Kyle and Denny are not well-known for handling themselves with aplomb when things start going awry. But then again, neither was Stewart. Young Joey Logano may need to find veteran mentoring outside of JGR.
4) Will attendance continue to suffer this year?
Gas prices are less than half what they were last summer. However, fewer people are working and, despite Chairman and CEO Brian France's 2008 pledge to get the sport "Back to Basics," there doesn't yet seem to be a seriously concerted effort by NASCAR to win back longtime fans.
These fans have felt taken for granted in recent years—suffering whiplash from some rather dramatic changes to the series they love, not to mention dramatic changes to their own wallets and nest eggs.
5) Will the sponsorship climate improve by year's end?
In recent history, it's hard to remember a year with this many good drivers in unstable (or nonexistent) situations. We'll probably have to get used to the sight of unsponsored cars trying to qualify for races. And don't be surprised when it is a familiar car number (No. 8 or No. 28).
6) Will we see a manufacturer go belly up in 2009 or withdraw support from teams?
Doubtful, but then, who'd have thought we'd see half of what we've seen in the
financial markets over the past six months?
7) Can Mark Martin be a contender for his first championship now that he's driving full-time for Hendrick Motorsports?
Hard to see him not making the Chase, but you have to wonder if Mark can get it done
in the first year driving for a new team and at his age. He performed well for DEI in 2008 as a part-timer, but a full schedule is brutal—even on the youngsters.
8) Now that the Labor Day weekend race has returned to the south (albeit Atlanta instead of traditional Darlington), will the cache of the Southern 500 return with it?
The yawn fests that plagued the Labor Day weekend race at California Speedway over the past few years are gone in favor of night racing at Atlanta—one of the faster speedways on the circuit. But Atlanta has been plagued by attendance problems—even prior to 2008.
They finally have the fair-weather date that they've been coveting, after years of early spring/late fall dates that often featured inclement weather.
9) Will the Chase survive 2009 intact?
We've had five years of the Chase, and it has yet to deliver consistent drama and certainly hasn't garnered NFL-style attention. Football still rules the roost in the fall. Heck, even America's Funniest Home Videos seems to rank higher in the network pecking order than a Chase race. Eh, ABC?
10) Will the newly imposed ban on testing at NASCAR-sanctioned tracks have any significant benefit to the teams?
Financially speaking...almost certainly. But it's unlikely that it will in any way usurp the balance of power in the sport. The Roush and Hendrick organizations should still lay claim to the lion's share of winner's trophies, but the ban will help the bottom line for teams that are fighting to stay inside the top-35 and perhaps nab them a few more top-10 showings as some favorites struggle with set-ups.
These questions and many more will be on our minds in 2009 and new ones will arise along the way to Homestead in November. You can be sure of that, at least, in these unsure times.