When all the dust settles from the Daytona 500 and fans and drivers have become accustomed to the new rules and to seeing spoilers on backs of the cars instead of wings, a familiar topic in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will return to the front burner.
It’s the same one that has had fans buzzing for the past four seasons and it’s simply this: Can anyone stop Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 team when it comes down to the season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup?
Based on last season’s results as well as on conventional wisdom, the top candidates are those who ran well in last year’s Chase. Two of those -- the second- and third-place finishers Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon -- race from the same Hendrick Motorsports complex as the champion.
And even though the Hendrick drivers share information and in many ways function as a single unit, Martin and Gordon seem confident they can park the Cup trophy in a different corner of the shop.
“First of all, how do we know that Jimmie Johnson is the team to beat in 2010?” asked Martin, who finished a close second in the standings in his first full year at Hendrick.
He explained that winning the title isn’t so much about what others do as what you and your team do internally.
“You can't really control what other people do and how they perform," Martin said. "What you can do is focus on your performance and strengthening everything in your program. And [crew chief Alan Gustafson] and I and the team have looked at every piece of it and we have tried to add strength to every part of it.
“When you're performing on the level that we performed in 2009, it's hard to make large gains in any one area. But if you can make just a little bit of gain in most areas, then hopefully that will be you that the field is chasing.”
Gordon, who finished third last year, pointed out that the “baby curse” could work against the defending champ this year. And this comes from a driver who has some recent first-hand experience in trying to win championships with a newborn in the next room.
Johnson and his wife Chandra are expecting their first child in July.
“It doesn't affect your desire to want to win,” Gordon said of becoming a father. “It doesn't affect you in the car not wanting to take risks. It didn't affect me that way and I don't think it's going to affect Jimmie. I haven't seen it affect other drivers that way.
“Where it affects you is it’s a very important part of your life that is amazing and you want to experience it to the fullest and there's no way that that can't affect your priorities a little bit or a lot.”
Plus, he said, it can cost a driver a lot of sleep in the beginning.
Gordon thinks he and his team will be more formidable this year too, and that’s based on the fact that they weren’t exactly bad last year.
“It's not like we need to reinvent the wheel here,” he said, adding that he and crew chief Steve Letarte have talked over the winter about improving their communication during races.
“I feel like we started off a lot of races this year as one of the best cars, but I don't feel like we maintained that throughout the season or throughout the race and to the finish. And I feel like a lot of that is just information I'm giving him and some of that interaction,” he said.
Gordon also said he has worked out hard over the winter and believes that will be a factor too.
“I'm a lot stronger and I'm excited about that and maintaining that throughout the season,” he said.
Others in the garage see Johnson as beatable as well.
Carl Edwards, who like Johnson will be attempting to head off the baby curse, said his team showed in 2008 that it’s possible to run fender to fender with the 48, even during the Chase.
“We beat them in pretty much everything except total points in last 10 races of 2008,” he said. “You just have to keep your head down and keep working.”
According to many trackside observers, Denny Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 team have matured to the point where they’re ready to win a title. If not for a rare driving error at Auto Club Speedway and an engine failure at Charlotte, Hamlin would have been right there with Johnson in the 2009 Chase.
As it was, he finished the season with six top-five finishes in the Chase, including wins at Martinsville and Homestead. And then there’s Tony Stewart, a two-time champion and excellent points chaser, who will have the new-team blues behind him as he enters his second season as both team owner and driver. Don't rule out Juan Pablo Montoya, who was remarkably fast in the opening races of the 2009 Chase.
It's a new season. Every driver heads to the Daytona 500 tied for the points lead. Then it gets really interesting, all the way to the last lap at Homestead in November.