As the racing ends and the championship parties begin, it’s not too early to contemplate how NASCAR will evolve in 2011. Lee Spencer breaks down the 10 storylines to follow throughout the offseason and what to expect in the future.
What to do about Dale Earnhardt Jr.? NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver finished 21st in the point standings in his third year with Hendrick Motorsports. With two seasons left on his contract, it’s clear the company cannot stay this course. “Still committed to making it work,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “We’ll ... let everybody kind of take a breath and then we’ll see what we need to do.” A couple of names have been mentioned, including a reunion with Tony Eury Jr. or Eury’s former car chief from Dale Earnhardt Inc., Tony Gibson, who is Ryan Newman’s chief. On Saturday, Eury reiterated that he’s happy at JR Motorsports – Dale Jr.’s Nationwide Series team. While Gibson would likely do what’s best for the company, he has built a solid squad with the No. 39 at Stewart-Haas Racing. When it comes to former crew chiefs, including Ray Evernham and Earnhardt Sr.’s chief Kevin Hamlin, both men have likely been off the pit box too long.
Getty Images for NASCARJason Smith
Two of the top drivers in the Chase, Carl Edwards (pictured) and Greg Biffle, have contracts expiring at the end of 2011. Though their team owner Jack Roush has said in the past that he believed Biffle, 40, would retire at Roush Fenway Racing, Edwards’ potential might price the Cat in the Hat out of the market. After winning his second consecutive race with the No. 99 on Sunday, Roush said he has not contemplated driver contracts for next season. “I haven’t thought about that yet,” Roush said. “We have an agreement for 2011 and through 2011 will work on that, but that hasn’t come up yet.” When asked whether he’d like to knock out the contracts in the offseason so it would not become a distraction in 2011, Roush replied: “Now that you brought it up, that would be nice.”
Along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team, expect crew chief changes in the offseason. There have been several teams that have hinted at shifting personnel. Kurt Busch made the Chase for the Sprint Cup but had a miserable postseason. Expect Paul Wolfe to join Brad Keselowski on the Cup side. While Jeff Gordon continues to stand by his man Steve Letarte, he was never a factor in the Chase, and the chemistry seems to be lacking. And despite Pat Tryson’s success in the past, for whatever reason, Martin Truex Jr. could never finish a race where he started. The No. 56 team’s eventual 22nd-place finish in the point standings was not reflective of its potential. On a bright note, Kevin “Bono” Manion said he’s signed for next season — as if there was ever a doubt he would not return with Jamie McMurray.
The week after the Homestead race is generally when the pink slips are handed out. Roger Penske said on Saturday he was still searching for sponsorship for the No. 77 team and Sam Hornish Jr. (pictured), but at this juncture that team could be shut down after the first five races of the season, if not before. Although Red Bull Racing will continue to run two Cup teams in 2011, many employees were displaced in favor of Kasey Kahne’s crew, which is coming from Richard Petty Motorsports. RPM downsized from four teams to two on Monday, but some employees were able to follow departing crew chiefs Kenny Francis and Richard “Slugger” Labbe to their next gigs at Red Bull and Richard Childress Racing, respectively. Further changes could come at RPM, depending on when the company gets its financial house in order.
Getty Images for NASCARJerry Markland
The young guns
What will NASCAR’s next generation look like? Certainly at the top of the list is Trevor Bayne (pictured). The 19-year-old has blossomed over the last year, and Ford would like to see Bayne expand his Sprint Cup horizon in 2011. His Roush Fenway Racing teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 23, won Nationwide Series rookie honors and finished 16th in the points standings despite running just 32 events. Sources say RFR has put together about half of a season for Stenhouse for next year. And don’t be surprised if Ross Kenseth, son of champion Matt Kenseth, makes his NASCAR debut in 2011. Toyota will have Ryan Truex, 18, and Brian Scott, 22, to groom in their camp, while Penske Racing works on Parker Kligermann. In the Chevrolet stable, look no further than Austin Dillon, grandson of Richard Childress and son of former driver Mike Dillon. In his first season on the Truck tour, Dillon, 20, scored two wins and finished fifth in the points standings while attending college.
Getty Images for NASCARJerry Markland
At the season finale, there was lots of buzz about decreasing the length of races — particularly in the Nationwide Series. Drivers were also vocal regarding a shorter schedule, but NASCAR Chairman Brian France did not seem in favor of making that move. With NASCAR currently running into Week 11 of the NFL and football looking to increase its schedule, there will be plenty of discussion as to the shape of the 2012 calendar.
Money buys performance, but there hasn’t been much movement in new business in NASCAR. The last few years, the big operations have scavenged clients away from lesser teams in the absence of establishing new relationships. One of the top players in the sponsor market is Andrew Campagnone. Over the last half of 2010, the senior vice president of Wunderman Charlotte has locked down AARP, eBay Motors and Panasonic. “I’m optimistic for 2012,” Campagnone said. “Most of the deals are set right now, and we’re 90 days away from Daytona. It’s improving. The values are there, but sponsors are going to look at TV ratings, because the whole industry runs on that."
Getty ImagesSam Greenwood
After Daytona International Speedway’s track disintegrated during the season opener in February, International Speedway Corp. officials decided it was time to repave the track for just the second time since it was built in 1959. Lane Construction, the same company that took on the Talladega resurfacing, began repaving the 2.5-mile high-bank track on July 5. Competitors will get a first look at the track during the Goodyear tire test Dec. 15 and 16. Rolex 24 testing is scheduled for Jan. 7 through 9, followed by NASCAR Preseason Thunder for Sprint Cup teams on Jan. 20 through 22.
The evolution of what was once called the Car of Tomorrow and now simply “the car” will continue to morph into a vehicle with stronger brand identification than the model that debuted at Bristol in 2007. NASCAR’s move to introduce pony cars into the Nationwide Series was the first step in easing a similar sporty version to Sprint Car. Cup Series director John Darby hopes to have a new Cup design on track by 2013. The new car will be less boxy. In the short term, a new nose is coming and the awkward braces that held the splitter will be gone. Ford has mentioned the desire to bring the Mustang to Cup, but Dodge currently enjoys marketing the Charger and Challenger on two separate platforms through NNS and Cup. Chevrolet has not shown interest in bringing its performance model — the Camaro — to Cup. Toyota does not have a pony-type car.
Getty Images for NASCARSam Greenwood
Before the Ford 400 began on Sunday, Jimmie Johnson’s dad, Gary, insisted: “We’re going for the six-pack, and you can quote me on that!” While the No. 48 team’s performance in 2010 did not seem as effortless in the past, primarily because other companies have studied their strategy, what competitors can’t replicate is the people. It takes a team to win a title, and Hendrick Motorsports has assembled the best nucleus with the No. 48. Crew chief Chad Knaus says Johnson does not receive the respect he deserves. As long as opponents continue to underestimate Johnson’s talent, he will continue to outrun the competition. And when it comes to equipment, Knaus acknowledged “the facts” Sunday night. “The 2010 season ended two hours ago,” Knaus said. “And 2011 started two hours ago. We have started preparing at Hendrick Motorsports for next year, and we are full force to make sure that we take a better product to the racetrack next year, and it's going to be so. So we are hard at it.”