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Seven questions for auto racing as it heads toward the 2009 season

An accelerator pedal will not be floored on the track in NASCAR or the Indy Racing League for more than a month, but what portends to be another historic season has already begun, in race shops and garage bays, and in board rooms, attorneys' offices and courtrooms.

Racing will look different by the time 2009 is through, and it won't be dull.

Can Jimmie Johnson do it again?

Absolutely. He tied Cale Yarborough's 30-year-old mark of winning three consecutive championships at NASCAR's highest level and showed no sign of decline. Perhaps most impressive, his No. 48 Chevrolet team recovered from a comparatively poor early performance to peak during the Chase for the Championship. At age 33, with the most successful team (Hendrick Motorsports) and the first crew chief to win three straight titles (Chad Knaus), Johnson is primed to milk this a little longer.

Who can catch Johnson?

Carl Edwards deserved better than a second-place finish in the Sprint Cup chase. The 29-year-old won a series-best nine races, including three of the last four, but he has the misfortune of being very good when Johnson is otherworldly.

How will the flagging auto industry affect racing?

That remains to be seen, but as long as Chrysler, Ford and General Motors are still churning out cars and hoping to sell them to American consumers, they are likely to remain involved. The Big 3 uses NASCAR as a marketing tool and contend they reap a sizable return on the investment.

Are teams in jeopardy?

Yes. Revenue streams are dwindling because Wall Street malaise has either walloped or really worried the Fortune 500 companies that for decades have pumped sponsorship money into NASCAR. Many teams attempted to cobble together multiple partial deals to amass the $20-million to $25-million needed to field one competitive car. Mergers and acquisitions have become a way to survive with no guarantee. Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates and Dale Earnhardt Inc. have melded into one four-car team, but it still lacks full sponsorship on two cars and needs a driver for a fourth. Legendary Petty Enterprises is expected to be absorbed by Gillett Evernham, and the iconic Wood Brothers has committed to just 12 Sprint Cup races next year.

Has Jeff Gordon entered the winter phase of his career?

The four-time series champion failed to win a race this year for the first time since his rookie season, 1993. In 2007 he won six races and appeared to have the title within his grasp with three races left, but Johnson ripped it away. Gordon, 37, and crew chief Steve Letarte struggled for consistency, still qualified for the Chase but were never really a threat to win it. It's unfathomable that Gordon won't rebound and win again. He could pile up enough races to contend again, but a young crop of hungry drivers — especially his teammate, Johnson — is making it tough to burnish his legend before he transitions into a comfortable post-racing life.

Is Tony Stewart in over his head?

It helps that his majority stake in Haas CNC racing was basically a gift, but payroll, bills and taxes will start coming due in a dreadful climate for ownership, especially for a team that's a fixer-upper. Stewart was savvy enough to parlay his clout into a strong second driver, Ryan Newman, and full sponsorships for both before the financial structure of NASCAR's sponsor community began to crater. Stewart-Haas Racing will get by on guile alone for a while, and Stewart, with a large management team, has proved to be an astute businessman.

What does Team Penske do if Helio Castroneves is convicted on federal tax evasion charges?

Penske Performance president Tim Cindric told the St. Petersburg Times that the team would not make a hasty decision on the two-time Indianapolis 500 and Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner. Castroneves could get prison time if convicted, and his scheduled March trial would leave the Indy Racing League team little time to find a viable option to pair with Ryan Briscoe. Serviceable drivers are available (Justin Wilson and Will Power won races this year), but an intriguing option could be former St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais, who won a record four straight Champ Car titles before signing with the Toro Rosso Formula One team for last season. His F1 return dependent on bringing his own sponsor, Bourdais told Autosport that he could consider a return to North America. That would be quite a Plan B.

Major NASCAR driver changes for 2009

Driver From To

Tony StewartJoe Gibbs Racing Stewart-Haas

Ryan NewmanPenske Stewart-Haas

Casey MearsHendrick Motorsports Richard Childress

Racing

Mark Martinsemiretirement at full time at

Dale Earnhardt Inc. Hendrick Motorsports

Bobby Labontereleased from contract unemployed

at Petty Enterprises

Seven questions for auto racing as it heads toward the 2009 season 12/26/08 [Last modified: Saturday, December 27, 2008 12:57am]
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