2010-01-07 / Sports

Big News Stories Of 2009

By Gerald Hodges THE RACING REPORTER

The two biggest NASCAR news stories of 2009 involved a winner and a loser. The winner was Jimmie Johnson, who streaked to his fourth NASCAR Cup championship. The big loser was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who failed to win a race or make the Chase.

It hadn’t been done in the 60- plus year history of NASCAR, but Jimmie Johnson raced his way into the record books with his fourth straight Sprint Cup title in 2009. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus became one of the greatest combinations in the history of the sport, and team owner Rick Hendrick had his ninth career Cup trophy to put on the mantel. Johnson was also named AP Male Athlete of the Year, the first time a racecar driver had ever won that honor.

As if Johnson’s title wasn’t enough for Hendrick, the successful owner watched two of his other drivers finish second and third in the standings. Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon followed teammate Johnson in the final Sprint Cup points race for the unprecedented feat.

Anyone who thought Martin had lost any of his driving skill during his two-year limited schedule was sadly mistaken when the timeless veteran roared back in a big way last season with Hendrick Motorsports. Martin was in contention for his first Sprint Cup title all season long, and although he came up short in that bid his remarkable career added another impressive chapter with his performance in 2009. And he’ll be back for two more seasons behind the wheel of the potent Hendrick No. 5 entry.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s most popular driver suffered through a miserable season in 2009, failing to win a race and finishing 25th in the Sprint Cup standings. Some people said he’s lost his competitive drive, while others say he just can’t drive NASCAR’s new car.

He was ranked fourth in points in the 2008 NASCAR regular season, when NASCAR’s new car was in use full time.

So, contrary to popular belief, Earnhardt Jr.’s first year (2008) at Hendrick Motorsports wasn’t all that bad. But last year it was a disaster. It seems inconceivable that a driver that talented, with that good of a team, became that bad, that fast. It seemed as though the bad finishes just kept breeding bad finishes, which can happen to any team or driver caught in a downward spiral.

A lot of sports writers think Earnhardt is too caught up in his other business interests and JR Motorsports to focus on his driving career.

I do know he wants to win, is a very competitive driver and will do everything within his power to make 2010, a “turnaround” year.

Whether the signing of Danica Patrick by Earnhardt to drive a limited Nationwide Series schedule will help or further detract from his on-track racing remains to be seen.

The signing of Patrick finally came to fruition when she announced her plans to join JR Motorsports for a stock car career beginning in 2010. Patrick will stay in the IRL while running about a dozen Nationwide races, but she’s already given NASCAR a spotlight simply by announcing her plans and taking part in an ARCA test at Daytona. Patrick’s story promises to make more headlines in 2010.

It was a great season for Stewart Haas Racing. Tony Stewart had many doubters when he announced plans to leave Joe Gibbs Racing operation to start his own team, but the two-time Sprint Cup champ proved everyone wrong with a solid first year of operation for Stewart-Haas Racing. Both Stewart and teammate Ryan Newman made the Chase and showed they will be contenders for additional improvement in 2010, with a potential championship certainly within the realm of possibility for either driver.

Perhaps one of the most thrilling racing moments was Brad Keselowski’s last lap pass of Carl Edwards to win the spring race at Talladega.

Keselowski and Edwards were in a neck-and-neck duel to the checkered flag when they made contact. Edwards’ car was sent flying through the air after getting rammed by Ryan Newman and crashed hard into the frontstretch retaining fence before finally coming to a halt on the infield apron. With the field behind him, Keselowski was the winner of the race in only his fifth Sprint Cup Series start. It also gave his team owner, James Finch, his first Cup win.

Bud Shootout has changes

NASCAR announced last Wednesday a revision to the 2010 Budweiser Shootout at Daytona format that provides fans with a strong lineup of drivers highlighted by last year’s top performers and a collection of previous winners at the sport’s most-storied race track.

The 32nd annual seasonopening event launches Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday, Feb. 6, at 8 p.m. The new criteria is based upon the following qualifications: The 12 drivers that qualified for the 2009 Chase, past Cup Series champions, past Budweiser Shootout champions, past Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400 champions, and the reigning Raybestos Rookie of the Year

“We’re always looking at ways to make this event bigger and better for our fans, and we believe the new format for the Budweiser Shootout puts together an exceptionally strong lineup of our top drivers,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition.

“In our discussions with the track, we thought by placing an additional emphasis on the drivers who had performed well at Daytona over the years would create an even more compelling element for the fans to get excited about at the beginning of the season.”

The race distance will continue to be 75 laps (187.5 miles), consisting of two segments – 25 and 50 laps. Both green-flag laps and yellow-flag laps will count. Between segments there will be a 10-minute pit stop, to allow teams to pit and change tires, add fuel and make normal chassis adjustments. Crews will be permitted to work on cars and will be allowed to perform functions they would do on a normal pit stop in a regular NASCAR Sprint Cup event. All work must be performed on pit road or in the garage. Changing of springs, shock absorbers or rear-ends will not be permitted.

Starting positions will again be determined by a blind-draw on Thursday night, Feb. 4.

The Budweiser Shootout – a “non-points” event for NASCAR Sprint Cup competitors – was first held in 1979, originally known as the Busch Clash. Kevin Harvick won last year’s event.

Drivers eligible for the 2010 Budweiser Shootout include: Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Brian Vickers.

Other eligible drivers: John Andretti, Geoff Bodine, Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, Derrike Cope, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bill Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte, Joey Logano, Sterling Marlin, Jamie McMurray, Ken Schrader, Michael Waltrip.

Racing trivia question: How many Cup teams will Roush Fenway Racing have in 2010?

Last week’s question: Which Cup team will Brad Keselowski drive for in 2010? Answer. Penske Racing.

You may contact the Racing Reporter at: hodgesnews@ earthlink.net.

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