Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Gordon Regroups, 2’s Trouble for Penske, Red Bull & Nationwide’s Winless Champ?

ONE: Jeff Gordon Will Return to Form in 2011

After trying since 2001, Hendrick Motorsports and even the No. 24 team made the “Drive For Five” a reality.

Well, most of the No. 24 team anyway. Jeff Gordon may have gotten credit for an owners’ championship, but it was instead protege Jimmie Johnson who scored driver’s title number five at Homestead this past November, thanks to some timely help from Gordon’s pit crew. 2010 was another solid if unspectacular year for Gordon, who despite making the Chase for the fifth consecutive season ended a disappointing campaign towards the back of the points standings and riding a winless streak stretching back to April 2009, a span of some 65 races.

On the back of those numbers, the Steve Letarte era of the once-formidable Rainbow Warrior bunch came to a close in the offseason, with Gordon being paired instead with Alan Gustafson as his new top wrench. And though Gustafson himself is coming off an underwhelming 2010 that saw his No. 5 team slide from a runner-up finish in the standings to missing the Chase, the stage is now set for the newly-minted No. 24 team to return not only to victory lane, but title form, in 2011.

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There’s too many similarities between the 2011 No. 24 squad and the 2009 No. 5 team that saw Mark Martin return to victory lane four times and nearly score the Cup title that’s been eluding him since the early 1980s. That season came to be as the result of a supremely hungry driver (Martin hadn’t run full time in Cup since 2006 and had spent the previous two seasons running part-time for a second-tier Cup operation), and because the No. 5 team was top dog in the Hendrick camp, having first choice on engine and chassis every race weekend.

Taking a look at Gustafson’s record with Hendrick Motorsports, that alpha status, being the “A” team, is what has dictated success. When he led Kyle Busch to the Chase in 2006 and 2007, the No. 5 team was undoubtedly the No. 1 squad in the 5/25 camp at Hendrick; Brian Vickers was a lame duck by June of 2006 in the No. 25 only to be replaced by Casey Mears in 2007 (Mears vs. Busch isn’t much of a fight).

Then came 2008. Dale Earnhardt Jr. made one of the biggest Silly Season splashes in NASCAR history when he took over the No. 25 (now No. 88) outfit, leaving Mears to man the No. 5. Earnhardt was the focus, making the Chase while the No. 5 team missed for the first time since 2006 – along with victory lane for the first time since 2004.

Then came 2009. With first pick of equipment and everything at Hendrick thrown towards giving Martin a title, Gustafson’s No. 5 crew won often and finished second in points. In 2010, the No. 5 no longer had the equipment advantage, Dale Jr. needed to run better and the No. 5 retreated back to the R&D slot at Hendrick.

That’s not going to happen in 2011. If 2010 was any indication, Martin’s shot at a Cup with HMS has passed. And with his replacement for 2012 signed, the No. 5 team is going into Daytona with a lame duck behind its wheel. With Hendrick’s reorganization that has the No. 24 paired with the No. 5, it doesn’t take an engineer to figure out which team is going to be No. 1 in that shop.

Being No. 1 has always worked wonders for Gustafson. And there’s few drivers out there better than Gordon to take advantage.

TWO: Penske Racing Likely to Find Two Cars Not for Everyone

Scoring four race wins, including a Daytona 500 trophy, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing shook the NASCAR ranks in 2010 by proving that a two-car operation could still beat the big boys on the sport’s biggest stages. And with sponsorship dollars proving hard to come by, Penske Racing will be hoping to make the same model work in 2011, with Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski the last two standing for his NASCAR operation – and for Dodge.

Let’s be clear. Losing Sam Hornish Jr. and the No. 77 team isn’t likely to dramatically impact the performance of this camp back at the shop. But for Busch and the now No. 22 team, the margin for error in both season preparation and learning as the year progresses has gotten even smaller. If they start missing, it’s either hoping that Keselowski’s team can figure it out or they’re going to find themselves on an island.

To give Busch his fair shake, what he has managed to do since taking over the No. 2 car at Penske Racing has been one of the most underrated performances in recent Cup seasons.

Despite enduring the worst aerodynamic struggles a major Cup squad has endured in recent memory back in 2006, one that saw his teammate Ryan Newman running year and two-year old noses to try and improve handling at the track, and despite enduring season after season of having next to no team structure to lean on (Newman was a lame duck from the spring of 2008 on, David Stremme was in way over his head in 2009, as was Brad last season), Busch has qualified for the Chase three of the past five seasons and found victory lane every year he’s been driving for Dodge’s flagship program.

The elder Busch has found a way, year after year, regardless of the mess that Penske may be in to get the job done.

And Penske is all in that Busch can continue to make it happen on his own. Because despite improvements over the final 10 races of 2010, Keselowski’s rookie season in Cup showed little of the flair that his partial 2009 campaign showed. It was no secret that the No. 12 team was in bad shape when he took over for Stremme. Problem is, it didn’t really get that much better when it comes to results last year. And now, that underachievement isn’t going to be a problem for the team’s third car carrying company colors, it’s going to be the problem of the vaunted blue deuce and longtime backer Miller Lite.

So let’s review: You’ve got a veteran driver in Busch that’s been forced year after year to figure it out himself, and now, his only life raft should something go wrong is a second-year driver saddled with the pressure of both becoming as relevant on the track as off in the Cup ranks and taking over one of NASCAR’s most recognizable rides. That’s a far cry from the environment that EGR thrived in last year.

THREE: Red Bull Racing Is In for a Stagnant 2011

There’s no real way to sugarcoat how much of a letdown the 2010 season was for the Red Bull camp. Fresh off the organization’s first ever NASCAR win and Chase berth, last year saw the team’s lead driver Vickers have his season cut short by a bout with blood clots while Red Bull darling Scott Speed failed to capitalize on an impressive opening run at Daytona (he was unceremoniously cut from the team after finishing a distant 30th in points with only two top-10 finishes).

Speed’s stalled development as well as the driver by committee that ensued following Vickers’s removal from the No. 83 (Reed Sorenson, Mears and Kasey Kahne amongst others all drove the ride) also proved detrimental to the team’s race setups.

More specifically, the organization’s once formidable intermediate package (Vickers challenged for wins on the 1.5 and 2-mile cookie-cutter ovals even during Toyota’s disastrous 2007 campaign) all but disappeared; Red Bull Racing scored only three top-10 finishes all season on the tracks that were their bread and butter, with two of those coming in the fourth race of the season at Atlanta.

Now, with Daytona looming, the team faces a challenge with each of its drivers. For Vickers, it’s a welcome homecoming to the No. 83, but also the first time in well over six months that he will race a Sprint Cup machine. And considering the turnover that his team endured over the course of last year, it’s anyone’s guess as to what kind of baseline, if any, the team has to fall back on.

And then there’s Kahne, the one-year wonder hired to keep the No. 4’s seat warm until he can take over at Hendrick Motorsports. Kahne ran well in his limited stint with Red Bull late last season, scoring a pole at Miami and three top 15s in five races. How long that focus and drive will carry over, though, is a whole other question. Kahne has no stake in the future of Red Bull Racing, and yet is expected for one year to play the dutiful soldier in what, even with Vickers back on board, is going to be an arduous rebuilding project.

After seeing him walk out on his No. 9 team last year as a lame duck driver, it’s not hard to see him throwing his hands up in the air if the going gets tough for RBR. And based on how far they fell last year, there will be times when the going will get tough.

FOUR: 2011 Will Go Down as the Year of the Dillon Brothers

And it will likely go down as the first of many such years. Austin Dillon took the Truck Series by storm last season not only on the back of bringing the No. 3 back to NASCAR, but on the strength of two wins, seven poles and being the highest-finishing rookie the Truck Series has seen since Travis Kvapil finished fourth in points back in 2001. Meanwhile, younger brother Ty Dillon made waves of his own in a limited ARCA campaign, scoring back-to-back wins at Kansas and Rockingham to close out that series’ season.

Now, both are poised to make championship runs. Austin returns to the Truck Series for 2011 while Ty will race full time in ARCA. Make no mistake, the 2011 crown in that series is Ty’s to lose. He finished no worse than second in his limited schedule last season and with most of last year’s title contenders gone (Patrick Sheltra and Craig Goess have graduated on while Tom Hessert will be starting with a new team at Ken Schrader Racing), RCR power and a driver that has many questioning already which of the two Dillons is more talented, the No. 41 is the horse to bet on in ARCA this year.

As for Austin, there’s not much that needs to be said. The consistency may not have been there for a strong title push last year, but all the wins and poles demonstrate that Dillon knows how to find the front and stay there.

Plus, with RCR as a whole now having a year of organizational experience under their belts, having returned to the Truck Series last year, and Austin getting a teammate in Joey Coulter, all the pieces are there for continued success. Keep in mind that Penske Racing on the Nationwide Series side won their first title in their second full-time season on that circuit largely on the strength of adding a second team and capitalizing on the lessons of year one. If Penske can do it, RCR certainly can.

FIVE: Will the Nationwide Series Champion Win a Race?

Those prospects are uncertain at best. Look at the past three seasons; under the new points system, the Nationwide Series champion would have won at least one race in each of them. But now, let’s take away one Keselowski. Suddenly, two of the last three Nationwide champions would not have scored a single win (Jason Leffler in 2009, Mike Bliss in 2008). On the flip side, over the past three seasons, Brad, Carl and Kyle have averaged 20 of the 35 race wins per season between the three of them.

What’s certain is that this year none of those three will be the series champion, even if they do score 57% of the trophies under these new rules. How does this change make any sense or do anything positive for the Nationwide Series?

All this worry about a six-peat champion, and NASCAR’s batting an eye at the prospect of a winless one in a top national series. Quite the brain trust running this here sport.

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