It's the holiday season, and we're in a giving mood.
While money is tight, virtual presents don't cost a thing. And, just like the real thing, it's the thought that counts the most, right?
Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza or some other type of festive holiday, it's time to give out some virtual presents to enjoy, particularly with an eye towards the 2013 NASCAR season.
So without further ado, let's reach into our big bag of virtual gifts and start spreading some holiday cheer around.
It's been a hard road for NASCAR and chairman Brian France the last four years, primarily due to the global economic downturn that the world has endured. But we've seen signs, particularly in 2012, that NASCAR is slowly coming back to its high water days of a decade ago.
Money continues to be an issue, not just for NASCAR, but its teams, sponsors and fans. Plus, media coverage has dropped precipitously in recent years.
So our gift to France is the best season NASCAR has enjoyed since 2006, just before things started to go south.
We'd like to see full stands at race tracks, lower travel costs (particularly for hotels) for fans to get to said race tracks, a larger supply of more affordable race tickets (which we've seen occur the last couple of years), and also good luck and fortune for the new NASCAR.com (brought back in-house and which debuts Jan. 3).
And speaking of money, without making NASCAR look too greedy, let's hope that when negotiations for the next big TV contract begin in earnest in 2013 , the rights fees will be significant enough to give NASCAR an opportunity to do some real good for its fans in return.
(Fox has already re-upped for its annual 13-race share through 2022, so bidding for the remainder of races will be a shootout between TNT, ABC/ESPN, CBS and NBC.)
After a great first 26 races, where he was one of the most—if not the most—consistent drivers on the Sprint Cup circuit, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s hopes for his long-awaited first career Sprint Cup championship went up in smoke (pun intended, given it was Tony Stewart who caused it) in a 24-car wreck at Talladega.
Not only was Earnhardt caught up in the resulting carnage after Stewart tried to block Michael Waltrip, triggering the big wreck, Earnhardt suffered his second concussion in six weeks, forcing him to miss the next two races.
So for 2013, our holiday gift to Earnhardt is one we've been trying to give him for the last 12 seasons: his first career Cup championship.
Only this year, though, we're spicing things up with a few other gifts: at least four wins in 2013, to lead the points for the majority of the first 26 races, to head into the Chase as the No. 1 seed and to dominate the 12-driver Chase field en route to finally hoisting the Sprint Cup championship trophy for the first time in his career.
Sure, that's a pretty hefty load of gifts, but if you can't give that many to the NASCAR's 10-time Most Popular Driver, who can you give 'em to, right?
Without question, Patrick's ascension to a full-time ride on the Sprint Cup circuit will be one of the biggest and most anticipated news stories in 2013. Patrick admittedly has had her share of struggles since coming to NASCAR, but we see potential and a cause for optimism in her.
So, our gift to Danica this holiday season is a combination of increased confidence, better finishes and perhaps most importantly, a greater level of respect from both her fellow Cup drivers and NASCAR fans in general.
Patrick deserves a lot of credit for what she's trying to achieve and accomplish, to become the first significant female racing force in NASCAR since Janet Guthrie in the 1970s. If anyone can do it, it's Patrick.
Jeff Gordon's win in the 2012 season finale at Homestead was not a fluke. Gordon's 87th career Sprint Cup victory showed there's still a bit of gas left in Gordon's performance tank.
So, since we're feeling especially generous in this holiday season, we'd like to give Gordon two presents: at least three wins next season to reach the 90-win mark for his career, topped off by the long-awaited fifth career Cup championship for Gordon.
His last title was in 2001. His loyal fans have waited far too long for another Cup crown, so hopefully our guy in the gift-giving department comes through for us and for Gordon in 2013.
We bestow two gifts upon Richard Childress this holiday season. First is to have a dramatic improvement for his entire organization in 2013.
Let's face it, the last several years have been hard on the RCR home front. And it's going to get much harder once Kevin Harvick departs after the upcoming 2013 season and heads to Stewart Haas Racing in 2014.
That's why we'd love to see Harvick become a significant force in the Chase (rather than being an also-ran like he was this past season); to see Jeff Burton see a significant upturn in performance after several seasons of virtual anonymity behind the wheel; and to see Paul Menard step up things and become known for more than just a guy who won the Brickyard 400 once.
Our second gift to Childress is to build a successful foundation going forward after 2013. Once Harvick departs, we're likely going to see both of Childress's grandsons, Austin and Ty Dillon, driving for old granddad in the Cup series (Austin likely in 2014, expected to drive the legendary No. 3 Chevrolet made famous by the late Dale Earnhardt; and Ty in either 2015 or 2016).
This one is easy. We bestow the gift of a repeat championship for the reigning Sprint Cup champion.
Keselowski came out of virtually nowhere to not only win five races in 2012, but then capped it off with a great performance in the Chase and ultimately the championship in just over three-and-a-half full-time seasons on the Cup circuit.
He may still be a young'un, but Keselowski is a throwback to drivers of yore, folks like David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty. While he's a social media whiz, his driving style reflects that of an old school racer like those former greats. And with a good 20 more years ahead of him, Keselowski could ultimately become one of the all-time greats himself.
Now that Roger Penske finally won his first Sprint Cup championship as a team owner after more than 30 years of trying, it's time for the Chipster to enjoy an equal level of success in the stock car world. Sure, Ganassi has had success in the IndyCar world, but ever since he bought into NASCAR over a decade ago, Ganassi's Cup teams have done little more than struggle.
The 2013 season could—and should—be better with the Ganassi organization purchasing motors and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports. And it's pretty clear that unless Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya have the best seasons of their Cup careers in 2013, significant changes could potentially be on the horizon.
So our gift to Chip Ganassi Racing is its most productive and competitive year ever, at least three or four wins and a legitimate chance for both McMurray and Montoya to make the Chase.
Otherwise, next year, there may be more than a few people at CGR finding coal in their stockings as a "reward" for yet another underperforming, uninspiring and unproductive season.
Cousin Carl gets several gifts from us, not just because he was such a good boy in 2012, but more because he deserves a lot for all the bad luck and bad breaks he endured this past season.
First, since he's stuck in a 69-race winless streak, Edwards gets at least three wins in 2013 with new crew chief Jimmy Fennig. If anyone can get Edwards back to victory lane, it's Fennig (don't forget, Fennig led Kurt Busch to the first Nextel Cup championship in 2004).
In addition, Edwards gets a legitimate shot to rebound in 2013 and become as significant of a championship contender as he was in 2011, when he lost the title to Tony Stewart by a one-point tiebreaker.
Last but not least, Edwards gets a different attitude for 2013. No more Mr. Nice Guy, Edwards is gifted with a new, harder edged personality more akin to that of Tony Stewart or Kevin Harvick. Edwards has a great deal of talent, but sometimes he's just too nice for his own good.
Since he retired as a driver, The King has had far too man disappointing seasons as a team owner. He has two drivers in Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola that have a great deal of talent between them, but the end results just haven't been there.
So our gift to Petty is at least three wins between the two drivers, the most competitive year for Richard Petty Motorsports in the last 20 years at least, and an opportunity for The King to relive some of the greatness and success he enjoyed at the height of his own racing career as a driver.
For all of the negative comments and criticism that the younger Busch brother has endured over the majority of his Cup career, the fact remains he is one of the most talented race car drivers in NASCAR today. While he had a bad season in 2012 on the Sprint Cup side, we're looking for a big comeback in 2013.
But that's not the gift we want to give Kyle for this holiday season. What we want to bestow upon KyBusch is the ability to be more tolerant of criticism and misfortune, particularly on the race track. That's been one of the biggest impediments to Busch's career, the inability to take negativity and negative comments.
If he can learn to be more accepting, for lack of a better word, and become more open to accepting some of that criticism, we believe you'll see Busch become more of a fan favorite and not be the constant target of boos from fans. While he likely will never be NASCAR's most popular driver, Busch can do a lot to help himself.
Let's hope he takes our gift, accepts it in the spirit it is given and meant and changes his persona and attitude for the better.
Last but not least, we bestow upon NASCAR fans the gift of optimism for 2013, one that comes with lots of great, exciting racing, more affordable ways to attend races in person, to see their favorite driver (particularly those drivers who've struggled in recent years) rebound and have potential Chase-qualifying seasons and to see a new year filled with prosperity, good health and nothing but the best in 2013.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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