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5 Questions (and answers) heading into the 2012 NASCAR season, Part 1

The return of NASCAR is only weeks away. To prepare for another season of racing, a special guest has offered five intriguing questions (with answers!) to help guide expectations for 2012. Today is Question 1. Remaining questions will follow over the next few days and into next week. Here we go…

[Editor’s Note: We welcome other voices from time to time. As one of America’s most popular sports, it seemed appropriate (and necessary) to bring the slick track, burning rubber, and shiny cars to 4thanddone.com. Since I know very little about racing, I asked… ok, I begged, pleaded and dragged in …an expert.

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. While I’ve rarely watched NASCAR, I’ve always followed from a distance. This year, with Wayne’s updates and analysis, I may even pick a favorite driver. Vroom, vroom.]

The 2011 Chase featured exactly what its creators dreamed of when they introduced the “playoff” format in 2004: competition down to the wire.  In seasons previous to 2004 the champion who clinched with two or three races to go would have the rest of the season as a victory tour.  1992 was the closest points battle in pre-Chase history and is still remembered for its extreme intensity up to the final lap.  I was seven years old and a die-hard Bill Elliott fan at the time.  The pain of seeing my driver win the race but still lose the championship by 10 points would only be eclipsed a year later by Joe Carter and a pretty famous walk-off home run.

Back to 2011: After 9 months, 36 races, and thousands of laps, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards were tied (yes, TIED) atop the series’ points standings.  A tiebreaker determined the outcome of the series championship for the first time in NASCAR history and Tony Stewart’s five wins secured the title.  Coming off such an exciting finale, what can we expect for the upcoming season?

1. Will Tony Stewart’s performance in the 2011 Chase translate into momentum this year?

Watching the Chase finale at Homestead, I saw something I haven’t seen since the prime of the late Dale Earnhardt’s career: A driver willing his car to a win.  [I once watched Dale Sr. crash at Talladega, all but eliminating him from competition only to see him come back with half a car and run with the leaders.  The announcers would even remark that if he won, NASCAR would have to determine whether he had an advantage with the damage.]

No disrespect to Darian Grubb or anyone at Stewart-Haas racing, but that car had no business winning that race.  Edwards had the superior equipment, qualified better, led more laps, had a higher driver rating [if you put any stock into that system], and looked to be on his way to his first championship.  But Tony Stewart had other ideas.  Part of any sport is the mentality that nothing will stop you.  [See Timothy Richard Tebow.]  Leading up to the final race, Stewart made no bones about what he was there to do… and he did it in grand fashion.

So back to the question about whether any of this will have an effect on 2012.  We haven’t heard a whole lot from Tony this offseason, but if his past performance is any indication, I’d say No.  In 2003 during his first title defense, the year was a bit of a letdown as he finished 7th in points.  Same goes for 2006, while defending his second title, Stewart had his worst season as a Cup driver.  I won’t go as far as saying it will be like 2006, but I think a repeat of 2011 is also highly unlikely.  Adding to that, his courtship of Danica Patrick [no not literally] and the media tsunami that comes with it, as well as striving to get Ryan Newman back on track may prove to be too much to also have a championship caliber 2012 for himself.

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