Looking Ahead To NASCAR In 2012

NASCAR hit a home run in 2011 with an exciting season capped by a compelling Chase for the Sprint Cup; but will a myriad of proposed changes bring about the desired results?

Five first-time Cup winners, Trevor Bayne’s upset win for the Wood Bros. in the Daytona 500, close racing throughout the season and a down-to-the-checkered flag Stewart/Edwards finale at Homestead will be hard to top in 2012; but go back just one year ago and no one would have bet the rent that 2011 would be the whirlwind season that it was.

Let’s take a brief look at some things that could make the upcoming season memorable – or challenging.

• Rule changes have already begun to play a part in how teams are preparing for 2012 competition. In an attempt to reduce or eliminate the controversial tandem drafting, regulations are being adjusted to cause cars to overheat more quickly than before if they “push” a drafting partner for too long. Radio communications between drafting partners have also been eliminated. Pack racing seems to be what fans want restrictor- plate racing to return to. But we seem to remember a time not too long ago when those same spectators complained about boring, close-quarter races at Talladega and Daytona as they waited for the “Big One” to happen. NASCAR rules will go a long way toward determining whether both types of racing can coexist during events. Fortunately, races on the rest of the schedule aren’t affected by these rule changes, but the Daytona 500 is the biggest race on the Sprint Cup calendar, and many hope that NASCAR gets its rules right from the get go.

• Electronic fuel injection is in its first year in NASCAR, replacing the ancient technology of the Holley carburetor; an update that most feel is long overdue. Early testing of EFI was done in 2011, with Brad Keselowski being particularly outspoken about the technology. Problems have cropped up during pre-season testing at Daytona, especially during pit stops and on the track’s banking, but most feel these have been rectified and that the system will bring the at-times technology-starved Cup cars closer to the 21st century. One advantage to EFI is the ability to adapt the fuel flow to changing conditions during an event. NASCAR has ruled that any computer changes to the system may only be done from the garage area, not from the pit box. This will likely be a fluid situation (no pun), to keep an eye on during the upcoming campaign.

• There was a time when team owner Jack Roush was upset that he wasn’t allowed to field five Cup teams. But times and the economy have changed and Roush Fenway Racing is down to three full-time Cup efforts, along with a part-time run for Ricky Stenhouse starting with the Daytona 500. Very few teams have the luxury of the same paint job and sponsor logo each week. Matt Kenseth fans who wear a Best Buy jacket one week may need Valvoline attire next, while Bobby Labonte’s #47 Toyota lists nine different sponsors for the upcoming season. This is certainly not a new issue, but putting together full-time programs has now become an exercise in creativity for even the first tier teams.

• Forty-three cars are required for a full Sprint Cup lineup, but there are some who think that by the time June becomes July, there may not be enough cars to fill the garage area. NASCAR president Mike Helton said recently that the Daytona 500 will have a full field and more, but he has hopes that come summer, “we may have only 43 cars showing up at the race track . But I don’t see us going below 43 this year.” As of this writing 38 teams seem to be set for full time competition, with 12 others scheduled for partial participation. NASCAR has had a way of encouraging cars to show up in the past, especially back in the day when trips to California, Michigan and Pennsylvania weren’t always on every team’s agenda. Hopefully, this won’t mean that we’ll see more “start and park” cars on the starting grid only to disappear by lap 20.

• Event sponsorships, 2013 new car model testing, Danica Patrick’s full time move to NASCAR competition split between Cup and Nationwide races and the continued battle between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards will be among many other stories to pay attention to during the upcoming season. We could only hope that an upcoming Sprint Cup event at Road America was among them.

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