Friday, February 24, 2012

Who will win auto racing's top trophies in 2012?

Sacramento, California – Auto racing season begins in earnest with this weekend’s Daytona 500, and dovetailing with the Academy Awards, it’s a good time to make some predictions.

Racing-wise, that is.

I’m nervous about Sunday’s race on the high-banked Daytona oval. NASCAR technical officials and Sprint Cup Series drivers don’t seem to have a solid grasp of what the cars will do in a pack, and some nasty crashes in last weekend’s Budweiser Shootout and one of the Gatorade Duel 150-mile qualifying races on Thursday only heightened my concerns.

Some drivers are publicly voicing alarm as well. Watching NASCAR newcomer Danica Patrick slam Daytona’s inside wall at tooth-rattling speed on Thursday makes me wonder what things will be like Sunday with 43 cars in the mix.

One thing seems obvious: The two-by-two pack racing that pushed surprise winners to victory at NASCAR’s two Daytona events last year is gone. Notice that the Budweiser Shootout and Gatorade race winners were old-guard NASCAR stars? No surprise there. They know how to race in a 10- to 20-car pack.

Despite all the talk about a “changing of the guard” in NASCAR, I’m expecting a familiar face in Victory Lane at Daytona on Sunday. Defending series champ Tony Stewart appears to have kept his momentum up this year, and he knows how to run up front at Daytona. I like his chances on Sunday.

Last year, I picked Carl Edwards to win NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series title, and he did everything possible to take the trophy … everything but score one more point than Stewart. Edwards is on the pole for Sunday’s Daytona 500 – a nice way to begin the year -- and I still like his ability to win on short tracks, superspeedways and everything else in between.

I’m picking Edwards to claim the Sprint Cup Series title he came oh-so-close to winning last year.

In the IndyCar Series, I can’t remember being more in the dark.

New cars, new race management, new faces in new places. But in the end, can anyone deny Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver Dario Franchitti a fourth consecutive IndyCar Series title? He’s seemingly in a class by himself, although rival team owner Roger Penske’s (pictured) drivers have lost legitimate shots to beat Franchitti for three years running with assorted mishaps in the pits.

The death of 2011 Indy 500 Dan Wheldon in last year’s IndyCar season finale in Las Vegas basically pulled a black sheet over the end of last season; the long duel between Franchitti and Penske driver Will Power was understandably smothered by the violent crash that canceled the race and took Wheldon’s life.

With safety improvements – both mechanical and among race officials – put in place as a result of the crash in Las Vegas, we enter 2012 with hopes renewed.

Just knowing Penske’s history, I have to believe that the team has worked exhaustively to get a jump on the competition with the new-for-2012 cars. But also knowing Ganassi, I can pretty well assure you that racing team hasn’t been sitting around doing nothing all winter. And will team owner Michael Andretti’s drivers step it up a notch this year?

Hard to say. Look for Franchitti and Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon to continue to run up front this year, but I’m expecting one of the Penske drivers – probably Power, given his proven abilities on the road courses – to take the series title. At the Indianapolis 500, I expect Penske driver Helio Castroneves to come back from a deeply disappointing 2011 season and claim his fourth Indy 500 victory.

Enough said. Green flag is out. Let’s go racing.

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