- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2004

This is being dubbed a season of change for NASCAR, which starts the year with a new title sponsor, a new set of championship rules and new races and old faces in different places.

A long list of variables heading into Daytona makes prognostication difficult, but The Washington Times offers five things you can expect to happen.

1. Youth movement

Remember the fan backlash when young Jeff Gordon showed up midway through the 1990s and immediately started dominating? Well, look around the garage now — better yet, look at the top of the standings.

Gordon and series champion Matt Kenseth were the only drivers in the top five older than 30 in 2003 — and it was only Kenseth’s fourth full season. Thirtysomethings Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte and fortysomethings Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte — all past champions — rounded out the top 10.

But the Young Guns are closing in, and soon there may be no room left for the veterans atop the leader board. Waiting in the wings are up-and-comers Jamie McMurray, Elliott Sadler and Kurt Busch, who finished 11th despite winning four races. Rookies Brian Vickers and Brendan Gaughan could steal some wins, and some expect Vickers to crack the top 10.

The 10-race shootout to close the season should be filled with fresh young faces, leaving the veterans steamed.

2. Last lap for Petty

Speaking of veterans, this one is on his last legs. He’s the son of NASCAR’s King, but Kyle Petty has had no charmed racing life. Petty, 43, hasn’t won a race since 1993 and hasn’t had a top-five finish since 1995. Petty even missed three races last year after failing to qualify. Losing his son, Adam, at the track — and taking over his ride, the No. 45 car — in 2000 has only made things tougher.

Don’t be surprised if the last racing Petty hangs it up after the season. After all, he’s got a multi-car operation to run, which provides even more strain. If Petty is able to focus solely on that, it may help save the family business.

3. Someone will do something stupid

OK, we’re cheating on this one, because the always entertaining NASCAR drivers got off to an early start. Veteran Jimmy Spencer, who ended last season by slugging Kurt Busch, started this one by claiming he hoped Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge won all of the Truck Series events at the expense of new entry Toyota because those sons of a guns “bombed Pearl Harbor, don’t forget.” And former Georgetown Hoyas hoopster Brendan Gaughan told reporters this week that he bet on himself (at his father’s casino?) in Las Vegas last year and hinted that he might throw some bones on his name for Sunday’s race.

When you combine hot tempers with fast speeds, big money and huge egos — not to mention somewhat sheltered lives — you get a volatile combination. NASCAR’s drivers never seem to disappoint when it comes to silliness on and off the track. And remember those veterans we mentioned earlier? With the influx of new money and young talent, the old guys are only getting chippier. It’ll make things even more interesting.

4. New champion

NASCAR has had a new champ in each of the last five years. Kenseth has virtually no shot at repeating — the rules changes are stacked against him. Recent champs Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett have shown too much inconsistency of late to make a run at the title.

5. Ryan Newman: Nextel Cup Champion

It’s his time. Newman was the flip side of last year’s coin of a points debate. While Kenseth won only once while cruising to the title, Newman won eight races to lead the series but finished sixth in the championship standings. But his career path is similar to that of Tony Stewart, who won the 2002 title. In his abbreviated 2001 campaign and a full year in 2002, Newman got good at qualifying. Last season the youngster learned how to win.

And now? The changes to the system seem to suit a driver like Ryan Newman. With a little more consistency early in the season and a couple of wins down the stretch — and a little luck — Newman should end the season with a champagne shower and the first Nextel Cup Championship.

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