Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Just Start Your Engines, Already!

I always look forward to the Daytona 500; being a NASCAR fan, I'm naturally amped for the start of the now-Sprint Cup season and the Great American Race.

But this year, I'm more excited than ever. Perhaps it's a desire to get away from all the scandal in sports right now. I've grown tired of Congress butting its nose into such matters as steroids and Spygate.

I no longer care what goes on between Roger Clemens and Brian McNamee. They're both unsavory sleazabags and they both deserve public scorn and possibly jail time. But I just don't give a damn anymore.

As far as I'm concerned, Arlen Specter needs to give Spygate a rest. The Super Bowl's over, the Pro Bowl apparently slipped past us (did anyone notice or care?), so why subject Roger Goodell and the rest of us to this poor attempt at espionage?

The NBA trades are somewhat intriguing, but given the marathon regular season, the overall lack of defense and the fact that the playoffs take about a decade to slog through, I just don't care enough to offer much in the way of time or opinion. So I'll just pick the Spurs -- until they don't win.

NHL players getting their necks and faces slashed by skates is too gruesome; it's sad that we only talk hockey when something bad happens. So I'll just pass on the ice boxing.

And until college basketball barrels into March (and with my Monarchs struggling this year with a young squad), I find myself needing an actual sports fix. Which makes NASCAR's return to the beaches of Daytona a godsend.

There is no cheating drama this year, as there was last February when Michael Waltrip got busted for using an illegal additive in his carbeurator. This year, the stories are more varied and much more interesting:

-How much has Toyota improved from its 2007 debut? The deal with Joe Gibbs Racing gives the Japanese manufacturer instant credibility -- and three week-in-week-out contenders in Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin -- and can only help the likes of Red Bull Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing.

-Can Jimmie Johnson join Cale Yarborough as the only Cup Series driver to win three consecutive championships? With Hendrick Motorsports' equipment and the genuis of Chad Knaus atop the pit box, why not?

-How far will Jeff Gordon's ascent in the record books continue? He's within reach of Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison on the all-time wins list, and another Cup title would give him five -- he's the only driver other than Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt to win more than three Cup championships.

-The Car of Tomorrow is now the Car of Today, and how will it handle speedway racing? The car ran 16 times last year, mostly on tracks a mile in length or less. With much of the schedlue running at venues 1.5 miles or longer, how will the larger, boxier car handle? And for that matter, how will the racing be?

-And of course, the biggest story coming into the season: Dale Earnhardt Jr., now free of his stepmother's clutches, joining the sport's most dominant team in Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick drivers won 18 of the 36 Cup races last season, and Earnhardt Jr. has already paid dividends, winning the Buweiser Shootout this past Saturday night.

Junior is a master of restrictor-plate racing -- just like his late father was -- and he won the 2004 Daytona 500, but Junior will be expected to contend for the championship this year. And why not? With the best equipment and people working with him in the business, there's no reason Junior can't return to Victory Lane at least four or five times this season. I won't come right out and say Junior will win the Sprint Cup this season, but he will make the Chase for the Championship and finish in the top five.

But mark this down: when the checkered flag waves on the 50th annual Daytona 500 on Sunday, Earnhardt Jr. will be the first to the line.

I knew there was a reason I was so excited about NASCAR coming back ...

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