NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing action will take to the track this week to kick off the 2011 NASCAR season, a year many fans and pundits anticipate may be the most-compelling season in recent NASCAR history.
With a bevy of rules changes infusing intrigue for 2011 and coming off a competition and drama-filled year, the NASCAR season is poised to feature storylines both new and recurring during the eagerly awaited 2011 season. Atlanta Motor Speedway president and general manager Ed Clark provided his career of racing insight when previewing storylines to watch entering the 2011 NASCAR season:
NASCAR's New System Will Make for Compelling Points Standings
Under NASCAR's new rules system for 2011, points will be awarded in one-point increments from 43 points for the winner down to just one point for the 43rd-place finisher. According to Clark, this system should be more captivating:
"I don't think there is any doubt that the new points system will deliver a close points race throughout the entire season," said Clark. "You almost had to be an industry expert with a chart in your hand to figure out the points before, but now the points have been simplified. The margin just seems smaller and it's going to make the points race even more exciting. As the schedule comes to Atlanta on Labor Day weekend and we are in the final races before the Chase, I expect the race to qualify for the Chase to be the most compelling since the advent of NASCAR's postseason."
Wins Matter Again, and Will Matter More Leading into Atlanta
NASCAR has placed a greater emphasis on winning in the 2011 season by awarding the final two Chase for the Sprint Cup positions by wins. Because of this change, gunning for a win in the final regular-season races may prove critical in qualifying for the post season.
"Leading up to the championship run, a win at Bristol, Atlanta or Richmond may put someone in the postseason as opposed to being on the outside," explained Clark. "Late in the year, the payoff for taking a risk – two tires instead of four or fuel strategy – will be greater than ever before. You will see some teams taking more chances than ever to make the Chase.
"While it sounded like a small change to some, going from 12 to ten drivers being locked into the Chase will weigh on drivers' minds from the first race of the year. It will even change early season strategy as there will be a premium placed on winning early, so if you do have trouble you have two or three wins to fall back on."
Pastrana Could be a Richmond-esque Breath of Fresh Air
While motorcycle and rally racing champion Travis Pastrana still has to prove himself in the world of NASCAR, Clark believes the star from the world of action sports can bring a lot to NASCAR.
"I think Travis Pastrana can bring excitement to the sport like Tim Richmond did when he came in," said Clark. "He's young, good-looking and is an almost flamboyant type that can back it up and not only run well, but do it in a dramatic fashion. We can't expect him to do everything overnight, but if he can come along and progress he will be a real breath of fresh air for NASCAR. He's somebody a little bit different who can go out and challenge the established group. I think it's a great move on his part to come to NASCAR and a good time in his career to do something different and it's very timely for NASCAR as well."
Joey Logano May be Chase Bound in 2011
After spending his youth racing Legends cars at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Joey Logano has developed into one of NASCAR's top young drivers. And having watched Logano compete for many of those seasons, Clark believes Logano is bound for success in 2011.
"I think Joey is on the cusp of making the Chase and will have a chance to win as many as two or three races," said Clark. "He has learned how to race on the Sprint Cup level. Not only that, but I think his performance towards the end of last year earned him a lot of respect among the veteran drivers and they're going work with him more than they have in the past."
JJ May Not Win Sixth Straight (But Clark Wouldn't Best Against Him)
Jimmie Johnson is the most-dominant driver in NASCAR. But sooner or later, most fans (and Ed Clark included) figure Johnson's days are numbered as the defending champion:
"Within whatever points system we've had, he's always done well," said Clark. "You've got to say Jimmie will be a factor, but with each passing season and considering the odds, sooner or later someone is going to catch him. I don't think it will be as much Jimmie not winning, but rather someone who steps up and will string together 10-good races and knock him off the top."
Red Bull Racing is Back and Better
After struggling in 2010 following Brian Vickers' medical leave, Red Bull Racing will be back and better than ever in the 2011 season. With Vickers healthy and again behind the wheel for 2011 and Kasey Kahne added to the fold, team Red Bull could be poised for the first multi-win NASCAR season since entering the series.
"I think [Brian] Vickers has something to show people and he's going to be very determined and Kasey Kahne will make the Red Bull team a winning organization," said Clark. "The potential is there for Brian and Kasey to win two to four races and really establish their team as a winning operation."
Dark Horse Championship Contender: Mark Martin
At 52-years young, Mark Martin may not be a sexy pick to win the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. But Martin is motivated and has arguably the best equipment in the Series, making him a title contender in Clark's eyes:
"This could be [Mark Martin's] last good chance to do it all," said Clark. "And he's going to be devoting his entire year to running well each week. I think he's going to have a great season and could make a championship run."
Atlanta Motor Speedway's Labor Day NASCAR night racing weekend returns on Sept. 2-4 for the biggest Labor Day party in the USA, featuring the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Tickets will be on sale beginning on Wednesday, March 9 by contacting the Atlanta Motor Speedway Ticket Office at (877) 9-AMS-TIX, (770) 946-4211 orwww.atlantamotorspeedway.com.