Five non-Jimmie Johnson NASCAR trends to watch

BY foxsports • March 22, 2010

It’s a new NASCAR season, but it’s the same old Jimmie Johnson decimating competitors and series records on his path to a fifth Sprint Cup Series title.

So what do fans have to look forward to that is different?

Here are five trends to watch in the coming weeks.

The Franchise

Fans are conditioned to expect Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon among the top 12 in points. But there’s only one Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Junior Nation has missed seeing their fair-haired boy running up front.

Yes, we expect Earnhardt to race well at Bristol; after all, it’s the track where he’s enjoyed his best average finish. His second-place finish at Daytona — again, a given. Qualifying fourth at Las Vegas and winning the pole at Atlanta is proof the cars are set up to Junior’s liking and fast.

However, as Rick Hendrick said Sunday, “Lance (McGrew) and Dale have great chemistry.”

Now, to define "great chemistry." Crew chief Lance McGrew can provide Junior with top equipment and has figured out how to tune the car to get results from his driver. That was evident when Earnhardt picked up eight positions despite complaining that his car was “loose” on Sunday. McGrew, similar to Tony (Pops) Eury Sr., is not afraid to tell his driver to get up on the wheel.

Hurt feelings? Collateral damage. Results? That’s why they race.

Roush's Resurgence

Three of the Roush Fenway Racing Fords finished in the top six Sunday at Bristol, with Carl Edwards making the greatest gains in the standings. Edwards jumped seven positions to 13th in the standings with his sixth-place finish.

Certainly, the addition of the Richard Petty Motorsports group has pumped up the engineering data that RFR has to draw from on a weekly basis. RPM made the move from Statesville, N.C., last month and with all eight teams working out of Concord, N.C., the concentration is on building better cars.

Crew chief changes, including Todd Parrott’s move to the No. 17 car with Matt Kenseth and Slugger Labbe taking over on the No. 98 with Paul Menard, have offered a diverse lineup in management by blending veteran racers with traditional engineer types. Both Parrott and Labbe have maintained a Chase Zone presence with their teams through the first five races.

The New Dodge

It’s a one-team show for Dodge and it’s all on Roger Penske’s shoulders.

Good thing the Captain has broad shoulders.

Last year when Penske Racing reorganized and went hard-core into building a development program that would feed its Sprint Cup operation, it was apparent that the drive and desire were there. Similar to Chip Ganassi, Penske has been accused of using NASCAR to subsidize his open-wheel programs in the past. But the commitment with investing in ARCA programs, enlisting Brad Keselowski to run side-by-side with Justin Allgaier in the Nationwide Series is paying early returns for Dodge - and Penske.

“We’ve made a big step forward with Dodge helping us and certainly on the engine side, we think that we’re at par," Penske said. “We never have enough power for these guys (Penske drivers), but Dodge has been terrific with us.

“They’re doing everything they can to help us from an aerodynamic standpoint, engine development standpoint, supporting our drivers and it’s great for the brand. I think we’re in the best spot. I don’t know if we need a lot other teams running Dodges. We’re going to try and do the job. I don’t feel that I’m at a disadvantage. I think that we’re at an advantage, quite honestly.”

The dividends are benefiting the Cup program as well. Kurt Busch won handily at Atlanta and certainly had the car to beat on Sunday before finishing third. The Blue Deuce led 278 of 500 laps and has jumped from 19th in the points standings to sixth in the last two races.

The New Car Spoiler Package

NASCAR has been working overtime in conjunction with the garage to make the new car safer, more competitive and aesthetically pleasing.

When it comes to safety, preventing a liftoff (as was witnessed not only at both Talladega races last season but also two weeks ago at Atlanta) is an ongoing concern for the sanctioning body. In ongoing tests, the wing versus the spoiler did not significantly increase the rate of cars going airborne, however, air forced under the back end of the car (since the body is designed for going in a forward direction) is a contributing factor.

Bernie Marcis, Ford aerodynamicist, says NASCAR is working on systems in conjunction with the new spoiler to “prevent air from going underneath the rear of the car." Marcis adds that there has been testing with flaps similar to the current roof flaps that would deploy under the car when air comes from behind and slots to redirect air current.

NASCAR is holding a two-day test on Tuesday and Wednesday to get a better baseline on how the new spoiler package reacts in traffic. Up to now, NASCAR hasn’t been able to develop a baseline with enough cars on the track to simulate race conditions.

The New Spoiler Restrictor-Plate Package

Although several managers insist that working on the new spoiler for restricted motor tracks would have been better suited at Daytona International Speedway - a handling track - with the Talladega event just four races away NASCAR opted for the latter.

The initial baseline spoiler was altered at the Talladega test last week and is expected to remain at 4.5-inches in height. Quarter-panel extensions combined with the tall shark fin along the roof to the back glass will restore the side force the cars that existed with the wing. Although teams ended with a 31/32-inch restrictor plate at the test, NASCAR appears to be focusing on a 15/16-inch plate to slow the cars even further.

“We may change it at Talladega, but Talladega and Daytona have a number of tools we have to use to keep speeds down, to help competition, closure rate, how cars draft,“ said NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton. “As it relates to all of the unrestricted racetracks, we feel confident that the size spoiler (four-inch) that we gave them at the open racetracks is a step in the direction of more downforce, more opportunity to tune with their side forces, with the deck-lid fin.

“So we’re pretty confident that it’s up to the teams now to work their setups around that downforce package.”

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