2012 will be full of unknowns

As 2012 is nearly upon us and Daytona is not that far away, I will be looking for a lot of things next season. One thing I will be interested in watching is the difference of five years of Jimmie Johnson representing our sport as our champion vs. that of Tony Stewart making his championship return.

Obviously for the last four years in the media and the general public, it was all about whether Jimmie could repeat yet again as champion and keep the streak going. There’s a different dynamic now with Tony as our champion, so I am curious to see what the focus is.

Another storyline I definitely will be following is will Carl Edwards be able to put it all back together again and make another run for the title. Historically it’s been hard for a guy who came so close to ramp it up again the next year. If you don’t believe me, simply go ask Denny Hamlin. Here’s a guy that won eight races in 2010 and came ever so close to winning the championship. Unfortunately this year, he limped into the Chase and was basically a non-factor all year long.

Something else to watch will be the Busch brothers. Will either or both be able to represent our sport like a lot of us think they can? You have to remember it is about more than just winning races. It’s how you handle yourself outside the race car and away from the track just as much.

In addition to all that, we have a lot of crew chiefs with different teams. Obviously they will want to make their mark and make a difference for their new employer. Most will want to move their programs forward, but in the case of Steve Addington coming over to be the crew chief for Tony Stewart, his goal will simply be to keep things going.

The other dynamic that can’t be overlooked is the impact the economy has had on the sport. Richard Childress Racing is back yet again to only three teams. For the first time in a very long time, Roush-Fenway Racing in 2012 will be fielding only three NASCAR Sprint Cup teams.

You have Michael Waltrip Racing with two new drivers. Clint Bowyer moves over there to run full time. Mark Martin comes over to run a part-time schedule. With Mark out of the No. 5 car at Hendrick Motorsports, now the Kasey Kahne era will begin. A lot of people, me included, expect a lot from that team in 2012. As I have said previously, I expect them to be an instant threat to win races right out of the box.

I was pretty vocal all year long that 2011 was the Year of Surprises. We had a lot of really pleasant surprises, like all the first-time winners. Some of the surprises weren’t all that pleasant. To me this positions 2012 to be the year of the unknowns.

If you stop and think about all the changes, all the reductions, the rule changes and all the realigning that has gone on, there really are a lot of unknowns we are heading into. Darian Grubb and Tony Stewart are the first that come to mind.

Normally the winning crew chief and driver come back the next year to defend their title. Well, obviously everyone knows that isn’t going to happen. Steve Addington is the No. 14 crew chief in 2012, and that is another one of those big unknowns. Was this the right thing to do? Only time will tell.

That is just the tip of the iceberg in my book of the Year of the Unknowns. The rules changes are others. Fuel injection will get its first big test here in a couple of weeks when Daytona testing gets under way. How creative will the folks in the shops get in the gray areas with these proposed rule changes?

We also have schedule changes for 2012. The Daytona 500 is a week later than in past years. Additionally, one off-week has been eliminated the first part of the year. The first Dover race has been moved to after the May Charlotte race. Race teams are creatures of habit. They do things in certain set ways, so when you do things like change the race order or eliminate off-weeks, well, that affects how you prepare your cars, testing and your team work schedules.

Even within our NASCAR on FOX team for 2012, we have unknowns. I am taking on a new and exciting role. Michael Waltrip is joining our team and will be handling the pre-race duties with Chris Myers and Darrell Waltrip. So we are going to be doing things differently as well.

We’re just like a race team. We can’t stand still. It can’t be business as usual year after year. Things have to continue to grow and evolve. I’m excited about the changes and what we have in store for our NASCAR on FOX viewers in 2012. I am also very excited to follow all these new, yet unknown storylines we’ll have to follow in the garage and on the track.