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5 Questions (and answers) heading into the 2012 NASCAR season, Part 3

Thanks to a special guest, 4thandDone is preparing you for another season of racing. Today, we present question three of our five intriguing questions (with answers!) to help guide expectations for the 2012 NASCAR season.

[Editor’s Note: Over the next few weeks, and hopefully throughout the NASCAR season, my cousin, Wayne, will be bringing racing insight to ignorant dopes such as myself. Enjoy.]

If you missed how Tony Stewart’s 2011 success could impact his 2012 campaign or whether or not this is the year Carl Edwards finally breaks through, check them out.

3.  What does Jimmie Johnson’s disappointing 2011 mean for 2012?

While many teams would be content with a sixth place points finish, 2011 was understandably a frustrating year for the 5-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson.  He has been at the top of the sport since his debut in 2002, finishing no lower than 5th until last year.  For fans tired of seeing him win, 2011 was a welcomed change of pace.  Don’t count me among them.  For some reason, I don’t dislike Johnson like I did Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham when they seemed to be untouchable in the mid-late 90s.

Growing up a Philadelphia sports fanatic, it’s easy to become jaded against the teams that win all the time like the Yankees, Lakers, and Cowboys (not lately, but the 90s were painful years for Eagles fans).  Maybe my cynicism has faded a little since I’m a huge fan of a team that is oh so close to joining those ranks (the Phillies), and would rather not be called a hypocrite.  Though, I still hate the Yankees, Lakers, and Cowboys (don’t want you to think I have completely lost my edge).

The 2011 season for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, was uncharted territory.  The lucky horseshoe Kevin Harvick once mentioned seemed to vacate the #48 team for the first time in 5 years.  But before pointing toward the 27th place finish in the Daytona 500, let’s remember that, in the previous four season-openers, his average finish was 33rd.  And we all know how those seasons ended.  Instead, I’m looking at the first two Chase races where the tone is set for the rest of the “playoffs.”

A tenth place finish in the Chase opener at Chicagoland was respectable but an 18th place finish was a stark deviation from the wins he posted in each of the previous two years.  After 2010’s Chase opener, Johnson finished inside the top five six times and posted 2 more top tens.  Contrast that with only four top tens in the 2011 Chase and with an average finish of 23rd in the other six events, and it’s easy to see why last year was not like the previous five.

The question of whether 2012 will be a bounce back year or if the rest of the series has reeled in the #48 team for good, is certainly a valid one.  I hate to open such recent wounds, but the Patriots haven’t won squat since they declared themselves a dynasty after the 2004-05 season.  With that said, this isn’t football.  The divide between top-tier, championship caliber teams and the rest of the pack is a lot like baseball was up until this century.

If you have read the book Moneyball or seen the movie, Johnson’s team is like the Yankees (two references in one column; I may have to take a shower after this).  With no limit on what NASCAR teams can spend, Rick Hendrick (Johnson’s car owner) has reached into those deep pockets and spared no expense paying the best engineers to put the best equipment on the track.  I see another championship in Johnson’s future.  Maybe not this year, but the team has been assembled too well to be held down for very long.

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