Commentary

Auto racing's 10 burning questions

Updated: December 15, 2011, 12:21 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Tony StewartDoug Murray/Icon SMI2011 Sprint Cup champ Tony Stewart caught lightning in a bottle with five victories in 10 Chase races.

What do you want to know about auto racing in 2012?

Every year when the season ends, I hear from fans, friends, readers, viewers and colleagues with a few burning questions about the season to come.

So this time I decided to list the ones I hear most often, 10 questions to ponder before racing starts again in 2012.

1. Can Tony Stewart repeat as the Sprint Cup champion?

Stewart is one of the most talented drivers in motorsports, so he's definitely capable of winning back-to-back titles. But my guess is he won't.

Smoke caught lightning in a bottle with his incredible showing during the Chase -- five victories, including three of the last four races. It was one of the greatest stretch runs in NASCAR history.

[+] EnlargeEarnhardt
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesWill Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver nine years running, get back to Victory Lane?

The odds of repeating that type of performance are stacked against any driver. Stewart will have a new crew chief in Steve Addington, who ranks among the best, but it usually takes a while for any new combination to jell.

And I just don't see a guy running Hendrick Motorsports equipment beating Hendrick Motorsports drivers for the title two years in a row.

2. Where is IndyCar headed?

The IndyCar Series will have newly designed cars next season with a sleeker, somewhat futuristic look, which should bring added attention.

And the 2011 Indy 500 was the best since the open-wheel split in the mid-1990s. The event had its best crowd in years and a dramatic finish when JR Hildebrand crashed while leading on the last lap, enabling Dan Wheldon to slip by for the surprising victory.

The buzz was back, but that now has faded to sorrow and uncertainty heading into 2012. Wheldon's death in the season finale at Las Vegas left the series reeling and seemingly without direction.

The 2012 schedule has yet to be announced, but IndyCar officials said they won't return to Vegas next year, a knee-jerk reaction that doesn't address the actual problems that led to Wheldon's death.

The IndyCar Series appears headed toward more road and street courses, more foreign events and less high-speed ovals. And the original plan to make all the new cars look different with separate aero kits was shelved when team owners complained about the cost.

IndyCar also has lost its most recognizable driver with Danica Patrick's move to NASCAR, but she may compete in the Indy 500.

3. Can Danica Patrick race competitively in NASCAR?

Nothing stirs up the emotions of fans, good and bad, like Patrick. Some people feel she's getting a free ride because of her national popularity. Others love her and feel she has worked hard to get where she is.

Either way, Danica moves the meter. Other than Dale Earnhardt Jr., she is the biggest celebrity in auto racing. Please notice I said biggest celebrity, not the best driver.

However, Patrick is no back-marker on the track. She is a decent race car driver who clearly improved in most of her Nationwide Series events in 2011.

In good equipment, Patrick can race in the top 15 at many tracks, the top 10 at a few, and maybe, just maybe, have a chance to win at a couple of places.

She excels at high-speed, high-banked ovals (especially restrictor-plate races) but struggles at short tracks and road races.

Patrick won only once in IndyCar, but she had 62 top-10 finishes in seven seasons. Not too shabby. She could be a better NASCAR racer than she was in IndyCar because she will compete on more tracks that suit her driving skills.

She also will have the best teacher she could ask for in Tony Stewart, her team owner for her 10-race Cup schedule this year before going full time to Cup in 2013.

Like her or dislike her, Patrick is good for NASCAR because of the attention she brings and the interest from casual fans.

4. Can Jimmie Johnson return to championship form?

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesFor the first time in six seasons, Jimmie Johnson didn't sit at the head table at the Sprint Cup awards banquet.

Anyone who thinks he can't has been sniffing too many gas fumes. Johnson was third in the 2011 Chase with six races to go after winning at Kansas.

His historic five-year run at the top came to an end, but he finished sixth in the standings, the 10th consecutive season he has finished in the top six. That includes the five titles and two other years when he was the runner-up.

Crew chief Chad Knaus is returning, despite rumors to the contrary, and Johnson is only 36 years old. The 48 Chevy will be back at the top soon.

5. Can the Busch brothers behave?

A better question might be, don't they know they are out of options? Kurt Busch lost one of the better rides in Cup (the No. 22 Dodge at Penske Racing) because of constantly berating his team and embarrassing moments of rage with the media.

Kyle Busch kept his Cup ride at Joe Gibbs Racing after intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday Jr. in a truck race at Texas, but surely big brother's fate was an eye-opener for Kyle to show him what might have been.

Kurt reportedly has been offered the iconic No. 43 car for Richard Petty Motorsports, a good car with a respectable team. If he takes it, AJ Allmendinger could be out of a job, but this is sponsor-driven. Without Busch in the car, Best Buy might not return.

It's a far better opportunity than I thought Kurt would get for 2012, but maybe he knows something we don't and he's holding out for something else.

Whatever he does, Kurt needs to play nice and be a Boy Scout all year. Talent gives a guy plenty of chances, and Kurt is one of the most talented drivers in NASCAR. But acting like a spoiled child will not be tolerated if he hopes to get back to the top.

6. Will the Austin F1 race be a success?

Until last week, the question was whether there would be a Formula One race in Austin, Texas.

Now that F1 king Bernie Ecclestone got his big fat check (a reported $25 million) from the Austin promoters, it appears the race is on for 2012, assuming the facility can be completed on time. That's a big assumption.

Promoters have invested $70 million in the facility, which looks like a lot of displaced dirt right now, and may spend another $150 million to complete the project.

So back to the original question: Will it succeed? If the race happens as scheduled in November 2012, the novelty aspect alone will draw a big crowd.

F1 is the most popular racing series in the world and will bring thousands of fans from across the globe to the Austin event. However, it has some disadvantages.

The race is scheduled for Nov. 18, the same day as the Cup finale in Homestead, Fla. Ecclestone couldn't care less about NASCAR, but a lot of people in Texas do. And it will limit American media attention.

The Austin race also comes two weeks after the Cup weekend at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. That will limit the number of crossover racing fans attending, but F1 followers tend to be a different breed than NASCAR fans.

It's great to have F1 back in the U.S. for the first time in five years, but whether the Austin race will work in the long run is questionable at best.

7. Can Carl Edwards get over the hump and win a Cup title?

Many experts will list Edwards as the favorite to win the championship in 2012. After all, he tied Stewart for the title (points-wise) in 2011.

But the runner-up guy hasn't done so well as a follow-up in recent years. In the last nine seasons, no Cup runner-up has gone on to win the title the next season.

Only three times did that man finish in the top five. The average points finish for the previous season runner-up is ninth over the last nine years.

After finishing the 2008 season at No. 2, Edwards was 11th in 2009. In 2005, Edwards tied Greg Biffle in the points standings for the runner-up spot (technically, Edwards was third with fewer wins), but Edwards finished 12th in 2006.

However, that Edwards was a much different guy from the man we saw at Homestead last month. In a final race for the ages in which Edwards finished second while Stewart won, Edwards handled his disappointment with class and dignity.

He was a consummate pro. So 2012 could be the year to end the bad-luck string for previous runner-ups.

8. Will soon-to-be 63-year-old John Force have more wins than soon-to-be 23-year-old rookie daughter Courtney Force?

[+] EnlargeForce
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesJohn Force will have some new competition in 2012 -- youngest daughter Courtney.

The old man is going to school his youngest daughter for a little while, but not for long.

Courtney, who turns 23 in July, will move up to Funny Car in 2012 after taking a full year to learn the ropes testing for his father's team. She has made more than 50 practice runs at tracks across the country, impressing team members with her progress.

By all indications, Courtney is the real deal. Unlike her older sister, Ashley, a quietly accomplished driver who has happily retired to motherhood, Courtney is much more like her dad.

Well, no one on the planet is really like John, but Courtney is outgoing, talkative and highly competitive. She may drive her dad nuts in the process, but she's going to win eventually.

As for her father, the 15-time NHRA champion, he's coming off knee surgery and believes he can compete for a 16th title. He turns 63 in May.

FYI: Courtney will be a regular on ESPN.com in 2012 with a video blog from NHRA events. And she might allow Dad to chime in every now and then. If you haven't seen the two of them interact, you're missing quite a show.

9. Should NASCAR stop fielding 43 cars in Cup?

The fact that four or five drivers start every Cup race with no intention of actually trying to compete has become an embarrassment for the sport.

Does NASCAR really need 43 cars in each race? Of course not. Cutting back to 36 or 38 cars in each race would improve the show and greatly cut down on the start-and-park entries.

As it stands, Cup will start 2012 without four cars that finished in the top 25 last season -- one fewer at Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway Racing, and two cars from Red Bull Racing, which closed its doors.

You won't see short fields, but you will see fewer quality entries.

10. Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. win again?

You really didn't think I would go through 10 questions without one about Dale Jr., did you?

Yes, Earnhardt will win again. Full disclosure here: It's the same answer I gave in 2011, 2010 and 2009, so I'm 0-for-3. However, Earnhardt made a big jump forward in 2011 with Steve Letarte as his crew chief.

A victory is coming and Junior is going to need it to keep from looking bad. New teammate Kasey Kahne is going to win in his first season at Hendrick.

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.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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