Don’t bet against the No. 48 team
Last week I mentioned that I wouldn’t bet against Jimmie Johnson to win a fifth Sprint Cup championship in a row. Well, after Sunday’s Cup race at Las Vegas I’m even more likely to take my own advice. Yes, I know that the season isn’t even 10 percent over yet, but Johnson is two for three already. His competition looks like it will come from two of his other three teammates (except for a thrilling last lap at Daytona, Junior hasn’t shown much yet in 2010) and the Childress Chevrolets. Kevin Harvick has the points lead because of Johnson’s horrible Daytona race, and Childress teammate Clint Bowyer is second.
In fact, all three Hendrick teams and all three Childress teams make up half of the top 12 in points, the number of finishing positions that will be in the Chase for the Championship. Of the remaining six Chase spots, three are held down by Roush Fords and three by Toyotas, two of them Gibbs Racing teams. There is nary a Dodge in sight, and one has to wonder if the Dodge brand will survive the 2010 season in Cup.
Heading into Atlanta, the Johnson juggernaut may not be easily stopped. The 48 team has three wins at Atlanta in the past 11 races there, matched only by Roush Ford driver Carl Edwards. And looking further into the season, one game-changer may be the switch from the rear wing to a blade-type spoiler on the rear of the Cup cars, starting at Martinsville. Unfortunately for the rest of the field, the Hendrick teams have proven themselves the most adept at adjusting to changes. There is no reason to think that the switch to the spoiler will be any different. My big concern, – and that of other observers – is that the spoiler, combined with the new car’s front splitter, will bring back the dreaded “aero push” that created a lot of follow-the-leader races in the final years of the old car design. I hope the NASCAR engineers have done enough testing to be sure that this effect will be minimal.
One casualty of the economy in American racing this year is the Formula Atlantic championship series. The series has long been the premier stepping-stone to the top level of open-wheel road racing in this country. I’ve been following the Atlantics for almost 40 years, and I remember seeing Bobby Rahal, Gilles Villeneuve, Jimmy Vasser, Michael Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. among others in the old days. More recently, the series has produced Grand Am champion Jon Fogarty, Canadian stock car champ Andrew Ranger, Indycar (and now NASCAR) racer Danica Patrick, and countless others. The official story is that the series is on hiatus for the season because of lack of sponsored teams and drivers, but it is no better than 50-50 that it will ever return.
Another disappointment for U.S. open-wheel racing fans, particularly Formula 1 aficionados, is the withdrawal of the USF1 team from Grand Prix competition this season. There was speculation that their spot would be filled with another team, but just last week new FIA head Jean Todt ended the speculation, saying there would not be a replacement team for 2010. The Stefan GP team, which was formed from the former Toyota F1 team, had been in line to take USF1’s position with drivers Jacques Villeneuve and Kaz Nakajima. If they can find the funds, the team can benefit from a year of testing, something that teams in the F1 championship are forbidden by the rules to do.
Speaking of Formula 1, we have an extremely interesting season coming up. The two most recent world champions, Jensen Button (2009) and Lewis Hamilton will be teamed together at McLaren. Former champion Fernando Alonso is joining Ferrari, and seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher is coming out of retirement to drive for Mercedes (formerly Brawn) for a reported 21 million Euros. I think I’d come out of retirement for that much, myself.