Will 2011 mark Year VI of King Johnson’s reign?

Welcome to 2011, everybody! Hope 2010 closed out well for you and yours. As the new year kicks off, it dawns on me that we’re so totally living in the future. I mean, check it out — the iPhone is so much better than Star Trek communicators (and the iPhone 5 will feature a laser beam!), we’ve actually got flying cars now (ask Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski), and aliens walk among us. How else to explain the dominance of Jimmie Johnson, huh?

Anyway, as the year begins we’re barely a month from the season starting in Daytona. I know, I know, it seems like we just got done deconstructing the whole Johnson-Denny Hamlin-Kevin Harvick triumvirate, and here we are getting ready to start the whole deal all over again. Having the offseason come at Christmastime makes it just zip by, doesn’t it?

We’ll spend some time over the next few weeks discussing in more detail the big stories of 2011, but for now, let’s take a flyover look at what will be the key issues of the year to come, and we start with that cat right there.

Can Johnson win his sixth straight? The knee-jerk reaction is to say no, somebody will catch him. But then, we said that after wins 1, 2, 3 and 4, too. There’s no sign whatsoever that Johnson is slowing up at all, and as he proved in 2010, you can’t count him out until someone else is at the podium at the champions’ banquet in Vegas. And maybe not even then.

Can Hamlin and Harvick return to form? Fortunately for those seeking some competition in NASCAR, there’s also every indication that both Harvick and Hamlin will be back in the hunt this year. Harvick in particular took his loss in stride, looking ahead to a new sponsor (Budweiser) and paint scheme in 2011, while Hamlin went into self-imposed radio silence for several weeks. But as both learned last year, you can’t let Johnson get too far ahead … or stay too close behind.

Who will be the next championship-caliber driver to step up? Early favorites are Kyle Busch, who ran well all season but let his emotions get the better of him in the Chase, and Carl Edwards, who ran terribly all season but pulled it together to run exceptionally well in the Chase. If either one of them can sustain, or if they can form a single driver named Carlyle Buschward, they’ll be right there in the Cup discussions.

What effect will the new schedule have on the racing? 2011 features a new track (Kentucky), a new Chase schedule (leading off with Chicago) and a new surface at one of NASCAR’s most venerated tracks (Daytona). How will the teams adjust to these wrinkles — or, in Daytona’s case, polished smoothness?

Which teams will rise and which will fall in 2011? Richard Childress Racing rebounded from a hideous 2009 to stuff the Chase in 2010. Roush Fenway struggled for most of the year. Hendrick, aside from you-know-who, had a lackluster year. Gibbs established itself as a team ready to compete for Cups. Penske and Waltrip both underperformed. Which will put 2010 in the rear-view mirror, and which won’t be able to shake it?

So there you go, some stories to kick around as the year begins. By the time we hit Thanksgiving, we’ll have answers to all of these … and either a new champion, or the latest chapter in an era of unquestioned dominance. 

Will 2011 mark Year VI of King Johnson’s reign?

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