New season brings challenges

A new racing season generally produces new hope for every team in the Sprint Cup Series garage. The sense of renewed interest has been replaced with concern throughout the sport.

Like everyone else, NASCAR remains vulnerable to economic conditions. For many, the new season brings a greater sense of survival. The new season brings a lot of questions and challenges, like:

1. CAN ANYONE UNSEAT JIMMIE JOHNSON? Anything's possible in racing, especially when there are 1,000 moving parts on every car. But no team is better prepared than Johnson's.

Crew chief Chad Knaus might be one of the smartest people the sport's ever known. His preparation is both relentless and flawless, and that is transformed throughout the No. 48 shop.

2. CAN THE SPORT SURVIVE THE CURRENT ECONOMIC CRISIS? Probably, but not without changing the way it does business.

The elite teams -- Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing -- are, for now, immune to many of the financial pressures facing everyone else. They have long-term sponsorships in place and most of the best drivers.

Nothing, however, is certain. Companies are folding every day. Toyota, once considered bulletproof, announced Tuesday it was shutting down plants in Japan for 11 days in response to poor sales.

The elite teams' domination will be more prominent than ever. They will win the overwhelming majority of the races and everyone else will be left to fight for the scraps.

3. WHAT DOES THE AUTOMOTIVE BAILOUT MEAN TO NASCAR? The trickle-down theory applies here. When Detroit flinches, so does NASCAR.

Dodge already has reduced its support by nearly 30 percent. Chevrolet is withdrawing some of its funding to racetracks and television advertising. Ford essentially is concentrating on one organization -- Roush Fenway.

The sport survived without factory backing in the 1970s, but that was long before the technical revolution that prompted weekly budgets of $1 million.

4. WHAT'S AHEAD FOR TONY STEWART'S NEW TEAM? Stewart is back with Chevrolet as a co-owner of a two-car operation that includes driver Ryan Newman, but new teams usually have to work through a lot of growing pains.

Stewart will get engine and technical support from Hendrick Motorsports, but make no mistake: he's not going to get the same parts, pieces and information Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will get.

Don't be surprised if Stewart's new teams don't win this year.

If both Stewart and Newman can finish in the top 15, it will be a good year. They can use that platform to contend for wins in 2010.

5. WILL JEFF GORDON AND MATT KENSETH WIN AGAIN? Of course. To get back on top, they need to start running in the top 5 every week. When they do that, they eventually will win.

6. WHAT SHOULD WE EXPECT AT THE DAYTONA 500? Since NASCAR outlawed testing at Daytona leading up to Speed Weeks, there should be a lot of anticipation for the race.

No matter how desperate the situation, the race itself is a necessary diversion. For more than three hours, fans won't worry about how much they've lost in their 401(k) plans or whether they will have a job when they get home.

For that reason alone, everyone is eager to get the season started.

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