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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Updated: November 20, 12:44 PM ET
Racing's lull still promises storylines

By Rupen Fofaria
Special to ESPN.com

Rupen Fofaria The engines are off and, for the die-hards, the silence is deafening. Like Keyshawn, NASCAR fans are left wondering what to do with Sunday afternoons, now?

As long as the season might seem to a forty-something driver or a thirty-something crew chief, the offseason can seem even longer for the racing junkie forced to turn to rooting for little Billy at the Putt-Putt go-kart track during the winter months.

But there is no need to fear. This offseason will be a busy one for many drivers looking for race teams and many race teams looking for sponsors. All of them are going to be wondering what points system they'll be racing under next year and whether Bill Elliott will suit up for one more season. Are there going to be any more open-wheel party crashers?

For two months, the routine will be broken. In the meantime, though, there are several unfinished NASCAR storylines to watch out for as you bide the time until Daytona.

Will Elliott retire? The Georgian has given us 21 years of million-dollar victories and thrilling title runs. After finishing in the top 10 with a group of bonded and experienced teammates surrounding him, will he give it another go? He's meeting with team owner Ray Evernham this week and will make a decision.

"I'll (say something) pretty soon," Elliott said. "I'm going to sit down and talk to Ray and it'll be settled."

Meanwhile, a subplot involves his crew. They are reportedly talking to Robert Yates Racing and could move to Dale Jarrett's No. 88 Ford team as a group. The No. 9 crew is a cohesive group that can set up a fast rig and turn an even faster stop.

And speaking of crew-swapping, who else is vulnerable? Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s pit crew won the McDonald's Drive Thru Pit Championship for keeping their driver on pit road the least amount of time over the season. DEI teammate Michael Waltrip's crew finished second. But will DEI be able to hang onto these synchronized mechanics? Junior expressed concern late in the season, and he should be worried. Junior's pit crew showed the biggest improvement in the team this year, when he finished a career-best third in the standings.

While some teams are trying to hang onto their pit crews, one is trying to hang onto its sponsor. After enduring almost a decade of disappointment since Sterling Marlin won back-to-back Daytona 500s in the No. 4 Morgan McClure Motorsports car, Kodak is considering leaving and taking a large amount of sponsorship dollars with it.

There are several race cars looking for sponsorship next season -- among them are Roush Racing's No. 99, DEI's No. 1, Bill Davis Racing's No. 23, both Andy Petree Racing entries and Petty Enterprises' No. 44 car. Penske Racing South might also be making a run at Kodak as it contemplates starting a third Nextel Cup team.

And speaking of race teams in need ... where are the seatless drivers going to end up? John Andretti, Johnny Benson, Jeff Green and Steve Park all are looking for deals for 2004; the Nos. 1, 4, 9 and 30 cars could be possibilities (not that we're trying to rush you out, Bill).

Benson, a former rookie-of-the-year who's won races in back-to-back seasons, finished fourth in his final race with the No. 10 Pontiac this year and should find a ride soon.

"I'm not going to complain," he said after his last race. "We had 15 top-five finishes and a win for the team, and that's great. They can't take that away from me and no one can take it away from them either, so that's cool."

Will NASCAR drivers have to fight with any open-wheel racers thinking about making the jump? Paul Tracy was sighted at Homestead-Miami Speedway and owner Richard Childress said he'd like to see how Tracy handled a stock car. Tracy is bound by contract to stick with CART, to which he publicly has been supportive, but the future of that series remains uncertain. Sam Hornish Jr. and other names from the open-wheel ranks often are mentioned as NASCAR possibilities, too.

Perhaps the biggest storyline to watch, though, is whether or not NASCAR will change its points system. This season, Matt Kenseth won the championship while winning just one race but averaging about a 10th-place finish. NASCAR has always rewarded consistency, a notion that dates to the times when not all drivers traveled to every race and the sport wanted its champion to be a guy who did.

It's unlikely that consistency will drop very low on the priority list, but it's possible that race winners might earn a few more points for a feat which is becoming increasingly rare as teams become more competitive.

"I don't think there needs to be a big change," said Jimmie Johnson, who has been ranked in NASCAR's top 10 for 69 consecutive weeks. "Maybe a little more for the winner of a race so that the winner always wins the most points."

As you can see, there's plenty to stay on top of, and before you know it the boys'll be testing in Florida.

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.