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New rules and a new star highlight the 2010 season

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - After a quick two-month off-season, NASCAR is back on track later this week with Daytona 500 qualifying and the Budweiser Shootout -- the two events kicking off Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway.

The 2010 NASCAR season begins with many storylines, most notably the new rule adjustments to change the present Sprint Cup Series car and ease up some on- track rules for drivers. Danica Patrick's foray into stock car racing will make for plenty of headlines in the early season as well.

As the season progresses, much attention will be focused on Jimmie Johnson's bid for an unprecedented fifth straight Cup championship. Will Johnson's dynasty continue, or will someone dethrone him this year?

HAVE AT IT BOYS

Next week's season-opening Daytona 500 could be the best one in recent memory, thanks in part to NASCAR relaxing on its bump-drafting rules at Daytona as well as Talladega Superspeedway. Drivers once again will be allowed to bump draft each other throughout the high-banked turns at both tracks. NASCAR revised the rules for drivers to make racing more competitive and enjoyable for the fans.

Danica Patrick's foray into stock car racing will make for plenty of headlines in the early season.
"We are going to open it up, because we want to see what you want to see -- more contact," NASCAR chairman Brian France said. "This is a contact sport. We want to see drivers mixing it up. We want to see the emotion of the world's best drivers just as much as everybody else does, and that is the goal for 2010 and beyond.

NASCAR also will increase the size of the restrictor plate for Daytona this time around. The plate restricts airflow from the carburetor to the engine and therefore reduces the car's speed. The larger holes on the plate now will give drivers more horsepower.

The transition from the rear wing to the spoiler on the current Cup car will occur later in the season. NASCAR recently held a test session with the spoiler at Texas, and a full-field test is scheduled in late March at Charlotte.

Teams have raised concerns about the wing due to its reduced downforce on the cars. The spoiler was used on the previous cars.

NASCAR hopes to have the spoiler back on the car in time for the April race at Texas.

DANICA'S DEBUT

Get ready for Danica-mania. Patrick -- IndyCar's biggest star -- will capture many of the headlines in NASCAR this year, as she runs a partial Nationwide schedule for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team JR Motorsports.

Patrick is scheduled to kick off her 12-race Nationwide schedule February 20 at California, but her series debut could come in the Feb. 13 season-opener at Daytona. How well she performs in Saturday's ARCA event at Daytona will determine if she runs in the Nationwide event there the following week.

For quite some time, NASCAR savored the possibility that Patrick would make a transition into their sport, given her enormous popularity on and off the track, as well as her wide marketability. Patrick's stardom likely will help NASCAR's efforts to raise television ratings and boost ticket sales at the tracks.

HIGH FIVE?

Last year, Johnson made NASCAR history by becoming the first driver to win four consecutive Cup championships. He had a sensational performance in the chase for the title, finishing 141 points ahead of runner-up and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin.

Johnson once again enters the season as a favorite to win the championship.

"We've had an amazing run of four years," Johnson said. "We certainly want to keep it up, keep it going. I feel very good with the fact that our team is intact and together."

With all members of the No.48 team, including crew chief Chad Knaus, returning for another season, it raises the question -- can anyone spoil Johnson's "drive for five?"

NEXT IN LINE

Johnson may be the guy to beat, but several drivers have a genuine shot of taking the title away from him.

In 2009, Rick Hendrick arguably had his best year as a NASCAR team owner, with Johnson, Martin and Jeff Gordon finishing 1-2-3, respectively, in points. Despite turning 51 years old last month, Martin is showing no signs of slowing down.

"I feel really good about, and certainly better than I did a year ago, as I wondered how it was going to work out on the race track. If they gave me a trophy for having fun, I would have the won the championship last year."

Martin notched five wins in his first season with Hendrick this past year.

Time may be running out for Gordon. The four-time Cup champion has only one victory to his credit since the end of the 2007 season. If Gordon's ailing back continues to be an issue, it may hinder his efforts for a fifth title.

"If we are going to be a factor in the championship, we have to win more races," Gordon said. Last season, we were very competitive everywhere we went, but along the way, we lost what we had or the competition caught up to us. This year, we want to reverse that and put ourselves in position to win more races. The fire and desire are still there, as are the tools and resources to get the job done."

Look for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to rebound this year. NASCAR's most popular driver finished a disappointing 25th in points and failed to make it into victory lane last season. Hendrick said in November he intends to make Earnhardt Jr. his number-one priority.

Crew chief Lance McGrew will continue to guide Earnhardt Jr.'s efforts this year. McGrew served in the role on an interim basis for a majority of last season, but Hendrick recently elevated him to full-time.

"We have made a number of changes, but you are sitting here with a bunch of anxiety as you don't know what will work," Earnhardt Jr. said. "None of us want to go through another year like we had last year. Lance seems optimistic as to how they have changed."

During the offseason, Denny Hamlin has been regarded as Johnson's biggest threat. Hamlin scored a career-high four wins last year, including a victory in the season finale at Homestead. He was the only driver from Joe Gibbs Racing to make the chase this past season.

"A year ago, I said I didn't want to be a contender anymore, I wanted to be a champion," Hamlin said. "I was sick of expectations without results. (Last season) we did well, but we didn't have the reliability to win the championship. I know how to do it, and now we will be executing it."

Hamlin recently tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while playing basketball. The JGR driver does not expect the ACL injury to affect his driving, and he plans to have surgery to repair it at the end of the season.

The Busch brothers will be a factor as well this year. Kurt finished fourth in the chase, while younger brother Kyle came up eight points short of making the playoffs last season. Kyle hopes to get back to his winning ways with new crew chief Dave Rogers at JGR, while his former crew chief, Steve Addington, has moved over to Penske Racing to guide Kurt's efforts.

Tony Stewart should have another impressive season after winning four races in his first year as driver and owner. Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards -- all of whom made the chase in '09 -- likely will be in the title hunt again this year.

NEW RIDES

Martin Truex Jr.'s move to Michael Waltrip Racing highlights the driver changes in NASCAR's top-tier series this year. Truex will drive the No.56 Toyota for Waltrip, with Kurt Busch's former crew chief, Pat Tryson, on board with the team. Waltrip, meanwhile, will run a partial schedule in the No.51 car, starting with the Daytona 500.

Truex, a two-time Nationwide Series champion, drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc. from 2006-08 and remained with the team last year when it merged with Chip Ganassi's organization and became Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. He qualified for the chase in 2007, finishing 11th in points.

"I think it's going to be an easier transition than I thought," Truex said. "Everybody at MWR has welcomed me with open arms. They've been very good to work with, very straightforward, very fair, and a lot of fun. It's really going well so far."

Jamie McMurray takes over Truex's seat in the No.1 Chevrolet at EGR. McMurray spent the past four seasons with Roush Fenway Racing.

Former Richard Childress Racing driver Casey Mears landed a ride with startup team Keyed-Up Motorsports. Mears drove for RCR last year, but became a free agent at the end of the season when sponsorship could not be found for his team in the upcoming campaign.

Brad Keselowski could make some noise in his first full-season in Cup, driving the No.12 Dodge for Penske Racing. Keselowski and Hamlin had an ongoing feud in Nationwide last year, and that might spill over into the Cup ranks this season.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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