Thursday, February 17, 2011

Let's race ... and watch out for Carl, Helio

Sacramento, California -- And so it begins.

Auto racing returns in earnest with this Sunday's Daytona 500, and it's staggering to think that NASCAR will be competing on a regular basis right up to Thanksgiving time.

Now that's a long season!

As always, NASCAR starts off its year with its Super Bowl event, the Daytona 500, and then a couple weeks later, it’s like it never happened as everyone lasers in on the chase for the season crown.

Jimmie Johnson will be going for a mind-blowing sixth series title in a row, and that, friends, is some serious history in the making. Just getting five is amazing, and drivers Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick made it very tough for Johnson last year. I think it will be even tougher this year.

I have the sense that fellow Cup competitors have reached the limit of their patience with Johnson winning. That includes Johnson’s teammates. I think Jimmie will find cooperation from fellow drivers very difficult to find on the big superspeedways, where cooperation is a must.

I also don’t think Jimmie will be getting too many breaks from his colleagues on short, tight tracks. My guess is they’ll be more inclined to bump him aside than they were in years past. Hamlin and Harvick will get their share of nods in preseason predictions, but let’s face it, Johnson and his No. 48 team loom as the favorites until someone knocks them off.

As for me, I’m looking at Carl Edwards as the most likely driver to end Johnson’s streak. Edwards can drive short, long, medium-fast and super-fast tracks at a high level. It’s just a matter of time before he puts a consistent campaign together. This could be the year.

In INDYCAR – that’s the latest “new” series name, one word and all caps -- you’re going to be hearing about the Indianapolis 500 centennial celebration early and often leading up to the May 29 race.

Keep in mind that the first Indy 500 was run 100 years ago in 1911, but this will be the 95th running of the race this year. Why? The track went dark in 1917-18 during World War I and from 1942-45 during World War II.

Defending 500 winner and Indy car series champion Dario Franchitti remains the top contender, but I kind of think the Roger Penske team is out for redemption after seeing the last two season titles snatched from its grasp due to uncharacteristic team mistakes.

Look for Penske pilot Helio Castroneves to claim his fourth Indy 500 victory in May and then finally put together a solid season to take the series crown as well.

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