Jimmie Johnson's road to a fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship begins at Daytona International Speedway next month, and it promises to be a bumpy one.
And a faster one.
NASCAR announced this week that the restrictions on bump-drafting and horsepower at restrictor-plate tracks such as Daytona and Talladega will be adjusted or lifted outright, in an effort to promote more competitive racing.
"There's an age old saying that in NASCAR, 'If you ain't rubbing, you ain't racing,' " NASCAR president Mike Helton said Thursday. "I think that's what the NASCAR fan, the NASCAR stakeholders all bought into, and all expect."
What Helton didn't say is that the rule changes are in response to the way Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have steamrolled the competition these past four seasons. That doesn't mean he wasn't thinking it though.
While Johnson's reign has been historic for the sport, and thrilling for his fans, most people are tired of seeing the handsome California kid standing on the podium.
They want mustaches, and wrecks, and fights on the infield.
They want drivers with cool nicknames like "The Intimidator" and "The King."
They want their daddy's NASCAR—and it sounds like they're going to get it.
While the 48 will certainly find it difficult to five-peat in the coming season, winning won't come easy for any driver. The rivalries and wrecks should heat up, as drivers will be more free to make contact without the risk of penalties.
Juan Pablo Montoya's 42 sports the Target logo, but if you've got clean air in front of you in 2010, you better believe your fender has a bullseye on it, sponsor check or not.
The field is full of drivers on the brink of breaking through this season. Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch have what it takes to win a half dozen races or more, no problem.
Denny Hamlin and Montoya have made major strides, and are as confident as anybody. Tony Stewart is dangerous in any car. And then there are Johnson's Hendricks teammates (Earnhardt, Gordon, Martin), each of whom, for very different reasons, has plenty of motivation this season.
My point is that the field would be approaching parity on its own this year, but with these restrictions out of the picture, the leaderboard could get really cluttered at the top.
Think wild finishes, with leaders wrecking on the final lap as the ninth-place car threads the needle to victory.
Think twenty drivers arriving at Richmond, each with as good a chance of missing the Chase as securing the No. 1 seed.
Think swapping paint at 200+ MPH, but try not to recall the Edwards 99 car nearly killing an entire section of the grandstand. Don't think about that.
The bottom line is that the fans always get what they want, sooner or later, and when revenue and attendance are down, the sooner the better. The drivers seem restless—and have said as much—so everybody wins.
Except maybe Johnson. But imagine, if you will, if he does somehow win again. With these new circumstances in play and the pressure of the previous four titles pushing down with more force than the new spoiler, he would surely cement his legacy as the greatest driver ever in any era. There could be no argument.
One thing is for sure: this season will likely be the most exciting in years, which is exactly what just about everybody is hoping for, except for the folks with the 48 hats on. They'd be just fine with boring old Jimmie doing donuts, which would look pretty sweet with that new spoiler.