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Tuesday, January 12, 2010
JJ and Schumi down; Danica, Junior up

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

The powers-that-be here at the ESPN mother ship have talked me into another prediction column for 2010.

Sure, no problem, even though these are the kind of things that can make you look like a blithering idiot at the end of the year.

Someone always remembers, taking enormous joy in pointing out how I predicted something about someone that turned out to be about as accurate as a tee shot in a hurricane.

That's OK. I'm game to look into my Magic 8 Ball (yes, I'm old enough to remember those) and make 10 calculated guesses about the upcoming year in racing.

Some will surprise you; some won't. A few will make you angry; a few might make you smile, depending on your point of view and your driver loyalties.

So here goes:

1) Johnson becomes a proud dad, but not a five-time champ -- Yes, 2010 will be a memorable year for Jimmie Johnson because he becomes a father for the first time. But his days as the unbeatable Sprint Cup champion will end, at least for a year.

Jimmie Johnson and Chandra Johnson
Jimmie Johnson and wife Chandra celebrated title No. 4 together and they will celebrate baby No. 1 later this year. But will they celebrate title No. 5 in 2010?

Why? Because the odds are against him continuing to dominate a series as competitive as Sprint Cup.

Some of you will remember I said the same thing last year at this time. And I'll probably keep saying it until it happens. But there are some issues to consider.

A little complacency will set in, not to mention the distraction of a baby. Sleep is no longer an option.

2) Hamlin doesn't become a father, but he does become a champion -- The time is right for Denny Hamlin. He's starting his fourth full season in Cup. Historically, Year 4 has been a big one for a few current NASCAR drivers.

Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch each won their first Cup title in their fourth season, still the only Cup championship for Kenseth and Busch.

Jimmie Johnson started his championship run in his fifth Cup season at age 31. Right around age 30, give or a take a year, often is the time when a talented driver steps up.

Kenseth and Stewart were 31 when they won Cup crown No. 1. Ned Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt were 29 when they earned a first Cup title.

Hamlin is 29 and turns 30 on Nov. 11, which is 10 days before the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But it isn't just about historical timetables. Hamlin made huge strides at the end of last season. He won races, he got tough and he got mean. Ask Brad Keselowski.

Hamlin can be a wild hair at times. His tweets are quite entertaining. He says what he thinks. That's great. I wish more drivers did the same.

But Hamlin showed an inner confidence last season that made it clear he believes in himself and knows he has the ability to out-race anyone, including Johnson.

It's Hamlin's time and he knows it.

3) Schumi flops -- Michael Schumacher is one of the greatest race car drivers in history and was just selected as ESPN.com's driver of the decade. But his greatness is over.

Schumacher will find things a little dicey in his return to Formula One at age 41. It's not that he's too old. He's been gone too long -- three full seasons.

It isn't like riding a bicycle. Three years is a long time.

4) Kahne and Harvick announce new deals to move on -- Before the 2010 season ends, Kasey Kahne will sign a long-term contract to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2011.

Kevin Harvick will shake hands with his buddy Tony Stewart and ink a deal to drive for Stewart Haas Racing in 2011.

Both Kahne and Harvick try to keep their future plans quiet, but it proves impossible. It's a distraction for their teams, but both drivers will race well in 2010.

Harvick will end his long winless streak in the No. 29 Chevy for Richard Childress Racing. Kahne will make the most of his one Ford season and make the Chase again for Richard Petty Motorsports.

But too little too late to keep either of them.

5) Danica wins -- In the IndyCar Series, but not in NASCAR. Danica Patrick will win an IndyCar event for the second time in her career, but the first time in the USA. And she won't have to do it on fuel mileage.

Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick is looking for win No. 2 in the IndyCar Series -- which our man says she will get. NASCAR win No. 1 will likely have to wait, though.

As for her Nationwide experiment, winning is not an option, not yet. But it will be one hell of a show, especially her stock-car debut at Daytona in the ARCA Series.

It's a tripleheader at Daytona on Feb. 6 with Daytona 500 Pole Day, the ARCA race with Patrick and the Bud Shootout. Which one do you think will get the most attention?

6) Junior wins -- You didn't really think Dale Earnhardt Jr. was going to go the rest of his career without winning again, did you?

Earnhardt is not the best driver in Cup, but he's far from the worst and he's much better than last season's debacle would indicate. Junior will win twice in 2010. And here's the big shocker: He won't finish last in the Hendrick Motorsports standings.

7) Force Hood wins her first championship -- Ashley Force Hood, John's talented daughter, will be the most successful female racer in 2010, becoming the first woman to win an NHRA Funny Car championship.

Ashley was the runner-up to her brother-in-law, Robert Hight, in 2009. But she tops the class in 2010 as her reaction times continue to improve.

8) Wingless travel -- Sometime in March, NASCAR will eliminate the rear wing on the Cup car and replace it with a spoiler.

Initially, it won't make a visible difference in the quality of the racing. But it's a major step in the right direction because it shows for the first time that NASCAR realizes the new car isn't perfect and will need various adjustments to improve racing and safety.

NASCAR is listening to the fans, including all the screams from the November race last season at Talladega. NASCAR will announce relaxed rules on bump drafting and yellow-line passing.

9) No. 2 for Hamilton -- All eyes are on Michael Schumacher in F1. And defending champ Jenson Button is the new guy at McLaren, but it's the other McLaren driver, Lewis Hamilton, who wins the championship.

Hamilton earns his second F1 title, proving his championship run in 2008 was no fluke. He outraces his teammate for the crown as both men push each other, on and off the track.

10) Helio finally wins a non-dancing championship -- Helio Castroneves finished fourth in the IndyCar Series standings last season despite missing the first event while awaiting the results of his tax evasion trial.

He won in court, ending a long and emotionally difficult period in his life. He returned and won the Indy 500 for a third time, but he has one goal missing in his career -- an IndyCar championship.

Castroneves won't win his fourth Indy 500 this year, but he will win the title at age 35. "Dancing with the Stars" won't be his only championship any longer.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.