The countdown is on. Saturday night, the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season gets under way with the Budweiser Shootout. A mere eight days later, it will be the Daytona 500 taking center stage, as one driver will put their name in an elite category with names such as Allison, Petty, Yarborough and Earnhardt.
Even with the success of the 2009 campaign for many drivers, leading into this year, questions still remained even after the final checkered flag flew at Homestead.
With all the focus on Jimmie Johnson and his unprecedented fourth consecutive championship, there were many other stories behind that success that needed answers.
As we all prepare for a new season and new decade of racing action, I want to take a look at some of the biggest headlines that many fans and the media are watching as Speedweeks is set to begin.
But then I thought, why only give one opinion. These are stories that everyone has a say on, and decided that it would be a good idea to have a debate on the biggest storylines entering 2010.
So, fellow NASCAR columnist Kelly Crandall and I have come together to discuss and debate the top questions as NASCAR is set to make it's return. Although there are many, we both have narrowed it down to the seven storylines that have been on everyone's mind since Homestead.
Here we go...
KELLY—I hope not. I think with the out of bounds staying in place it'll keep drivers from going all over the place, into the grass and trying to come back up on the racetrack which is what I was worried about.
With no bump zones, it should increase the excitement and let the drivers have more freedom to drive their cars as they want, something they were upset about last year not being able to do in Talladega.
DUSTIN—I agree with the idea of having the freedom to do what they want with their cars, but here-in lies the problem. When it gets down to the last few laps, they're gonna try to put their cars in every opening they can.
When they do that, blocking occurs and then we have even more trouble.
KELLY—True, but they do that already.
DUSTIN—Yeah, but now that can happen at any point. One lap you can have 43 cars going nose to tail, then suddenly one corner later a car in the top-10 makes a block and then 20 cars are destroyed. I always said that when we go racing at Daytona and Talladega, I'm scared to death.
Now, I'm literally petrified.
KELLY—I can understand that.
I just try to remind myself that they're professionals and know what they signed up for. Plus, they kept telling NASCAR they wanted the changes, now they have them so go for it as Robin Pemberton said.
I commend them for all the meetings they had and really listening to what the teams wanted.
DUSTIN—True, and that is keeping me open-minded about this because the drivers wanted it. I think if they just opted to do it with no input, we'd have a different situation.
KELLY—I have no idea.
Honesty, when it comes to how Earnhardt Jr. has performed lately it's just expect the unexpected. He seems to always bounce from having a good year to having a bad year and so forth. Which means if that's the case that 2010 will be a success, but I just don't know what to expect anymore.
The whole Hendrick team seems very confident, Junior was excited and pumped during the fan fest, plus there have been changes made to improve the team so all the positive is there. But, you just never know anymore.
DUSTIN—I'm a believer in Junior, but at the same time I'm skeptical. The problem he and his team have are they cannot finish the deal.
They are running in the top-10 or top-five for the majority of the afternoon, then suddenly something happens and they're out. They need to come out right away and establish momentum.
KELLY—And that's my point. You expect and you know that good things can happen but something goes horribly wrong and you have to shake your head.
I think the perfect example was Kansas last year. He started second, dominated the first half of the race, had a loose lug nut and lost a lap and then blew up.
DUSTIN—You can also look at Talladega in the fall. He was up front for practically 170 laps. Then he and others run out of fuel, he's at the back and finishes 20th or so.
KELLY—Yeah, and New Hampshire was another one. Up in the top-five all day and gets wrecked by Reutimann with like 10 laps left. It's like Johnson has all the luck, and Junior has none. So while everything's in place for success, you always have to wonder what's around the corner.
I think him having McGrew back is huge. As the season progressed they really communicated well and showed they can run well. There wasn't much argument on the radio and when they did, it was resolved quickly.
KELLY—And like we said, they ran better, but they have to seal the deal and show they can finish where they run.
KELLY—I've stated numerous times that I think they'll continue to hate each other and mix it up, but they'll mix it up in the Nationwide Series.
I really don't see them going head to head in Cup unless Penske turns that No. 12 car around to where it's going to be up front where Hamlin and his JGR guys are going to be.
DUSTIN—The thing that has to be kept in mind is that NASCAR is watching them as well in that series. It wouldn't be the first time a driver gets punished for actions they did in another race.
Remember what happened to Harvick in 2002 following the Truck race at Martinsville.
KELLY—That's true, and I still think they're not going to leave each other alone but I just don't see it as a Cup rivalry.
DUSTIN—Yeah, but right now this is the rivalry in the sport. I wouldn't be surprised if there may be one or two incidents between them. Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer had a rivalry that spanned two years and ended with Spencer slugging Busch.
So far it's only been a war of words, thankfully.
KELLY—Not really. They've tangled a few times and I'm sure they were on purpose. They know each other's cars and they just don't like each other.
I don't see that ending anytime soon.
DUSTIN—This is going to go on for a while. Only way it will stop is when NASCAR steps in and tells them to.
KELLY—Definitely. But, I think there needs to be a rivalry since there truly hasn't been a real one in years. These two really have bad blood, they aren't faking it, and are very confident in themselves and their abilities and it's why they tangle.
DUSTIN—Oh yeah, should be fun.
DUSTIN—He can win the championship. He beat the other top Hendrick driver in Gordon, only have one more left.
I discussed this in my predictions article and I'll stand by it and say that I just don't see him backing up the performance that he had in 2009. It was almost too good to be true.
I have no doubt his team is going to go out and do great, but I don't see him beating Johnson or having as good a year he had.
DUSTIN—See, I'm the opposite. I've been a fan of Martin for a long time, and last year I was pulling for him so much to win the title.
I honestly believe he can back up his performance. I can't say he'll win five races, but he'll have an equally impressive season.
KELLY—True, but every year the competition steps up and they'll have to contend with Stewart again, and JGR is ready for a fight. He's going to be good, no doubt, I just don't think he can do it all.
DUSTIN—I think we both want him to go out and be successful, but unlike you, I think he has the potential to get it done.
KELLY-—I don't think so. At least it's there now, and my whole position since this started was that drivers should have nothing to get all worked up about if they aren't doing anything wrong.
I understand why people want it to be clearer, but if you aren't doing what you shouldn't be, then don't make a scene and cause trouble because you don't have a whole book on it.
Adding them in is definitely a good idea. At least now people won't be able to say that NASCAR makes the rules up as they go along.
DUSTIN—The thing that got me was whenever this substance abuse policy was announced, obviously we knew what could potentially be on the list. But, we didn't know how the policy was set up besides the suspension.
It's not so much that it is late being added, I think it's more overdue.
KELLY—Very true and it's going to make things all the more clearer and black and white.
DUSTIN—I also think that the way Mayfield himself handled the situation really led to the decision to add it in. He blew that story way out of proportion. All he needed to do was confess and then it would've been done.
But, without his story, NASCAR may've never put it in the rule book.
KELLY—I think with Mayfield, the whole problem is that he honestly truly believes that NASCAR set him up, which to me is a clear sign that something isn't right with him. The things he was alleging that NASCAR was doing was just outright crazy.
So, while we all want him to come clean, he truly believes that he is innocent. I think he may have even convinced some fans that NASCAR is the "big bad wolf" in this.
DUSTIN—His reputation is ruined, and now he's trying to ruin the reputation of his competition. I'm sure the drivers that sympathized with him can see why he feels that way, but have a different feeling.
KELLY—The biggest thing we got out of all of this in terms of his competitors came months later. Look at how they reacted when he was reinstated before the July race in Daytona. They were all upset that he was going to be back on the track, and especially there.
He definitely put a negative spotlight on both himself and the sport, and unfortunately we may never know the whole, true story.
DUSTIN— It's a travesty that it had to go down this way.
DUSTIN—Thank you NASCAR. It's about time.
KELLY—I think a lot of people feel that way. It's nice they once again listened to what others want and time will tell if it was a right move. From what I heard during the test with the spoiler the drivers say there wasn't too much difference and things went well, so that's good news.
DUSTIN—More than anything, I think the rear downforce is going to improve. With the wing, it was much like one on an airplane. Air was going over and under, not really good for setups.
The spoiler will help keep the rear of the car on the ground, and hopefully will help prevent something like we saw at Talladega this past year.
KELLY—I don't think we'll ever see the time when there aren't cars leaving the ground. Whether it's a spoiler or a wing, the car will always leave the track if it's meant to leave the track.
But I do think the spoiler will help with good racing and things of that nature.
DUSTIN—I never liked the wing when it came out. That was more for Indy Car and the Sports Car Series, but not NASCAR.
KELLY—That's a very popular sentiment.
DUSTIN—Whenever the new Nationwide car debuted, it had a spoiler and testing went well with it on, so I applaud NASCAR for even just considering the change. I hope switch comes very soon.
Although there is one downside for the change to the spoiler.
KELLY—There will always be good and bad things to every change, just a matter of how we want to look at them and if we pay attention to the negative more than the positive.
DUSTIN—True, everyone remembers the negatives about the wing and not the positive. But, it's a good change and everyone is on board.
This will be good for the sport.
DUSTIN—As much as I hate to admit it, it's going to be Johnson.
KELLY—I also believe it's going to be Johnson. Either this year or before he retires. I just don't think that Gordon's team is up to standards to win a title, and not under the Chase format. He is much better under the old format as 2007 showed, and Johnson and his team are masters of the Chase.
Plus, Johnson has Chad Knaus.
DUSTIN—Yeah, Chad is the man in the Chase. The bigger question is can Gordon get a fifth title before he calls it quits.
I want him to, but reality shows he may retire with just four.
KELLY— I think Gordon's title days are over, as much as people have yelled at me that I'm wrong. I just don't think he has it in him, he's definitely a contender, but like I said about Mark Martin, I don't think he can pull it out. I think those days are over.
DUSTIN—Gordon has shown he can run up front and win races, but I agree that 2007 was his peak. I see him maybe winning two or three races this year, but he won't get the title unless for some reason Knaus gets suspended from the Chase.
It's unfortunate, but Gordon's prime was in the early to mid-2000s. Johnson is well in his prime, and he's got more titles in him.
KELLY—I also think that Gordon won't be around much longer, even though Hendrick said three or four years, I give it two tops and Johnson has 10 more easily in him.
If Johnson gets five, be it this year or whenever, he's not done with just five. We might be very well talking about him tying Earnhardt and Petty which many said Gordon would do.
Even in the win column, Johnson is climbing, he's almost at 50 so that's another storyline.
DUSTIN—I think Gordon will be done with racing around 2013. He's a father and he's established a healthy lifestyle for him and his family. He'll be fine.
Johnson can reach the Earnhardt and Petty milestone, and he'll do it quickly.
KELLY—At least it'll keep us and the rest of the media writing for a long time to come. We''ll always have jobs so there's one thing to be happy about Johnson for.
Everyone is on edge and wants to get the racing season under way. NASCAR made many changes for this year to better suit the fans, which is the driving force behind the sport.
The 2010 season looks to be a very good one for the Sprint Cup Series, and expectations are high for many drivers and teams. It will certainly be exciting to watch and listen as the racing gets under way.
The Budweiser Shootout will start the season off this Saturday night. Coverage begins at 8 PM ET on FOX.
Then next Sunday's Daytona 500 will kick off with coverage on FOX starting at Noon ET, including a performance by Tim McGraw. The race is set to go green shortly after 1 PM.
NOTE: A big thanks to fellow writer Kelly Crandall for her assistance on this slideshow.