Common sense has also prevailed at NASCAR, whose Sprint Cup Series will feature vehicles that actually look like real cars this year. You only need to watch a NASCAR documentary from as recently as six years ago – or look to the Nationwide Series cars' silhouettes – to realize how welcome and necessary that change is. For five seasons, the fastest-looking car in Sprint Cup has been the pace car; whenever it pulled off, we had 43 examples of something that resembled a Pontiac Aztek with a trunk, an unlovely outline that no strategic placement of transfers could fool anyone into identifying with a Camry, Impala or Fusion. Now we have cars that look butch rather than butchered and, particularly from the front, genuinely appear to be hypercar versions of their roadcar offspring. That's how it should be and how Toyota, Chevrolet and Ford need it to be.
Personally, I'm going to miss Dodge's presence because I like seeing Mopar take on Ford and GM in any motorsport or road car arena; I'm something of a traditionalist and the idea of Detroit's Big Three slugging it out is something to be savored. But departing after winning the Sprint Cup title with Keselowski and Penske Racing is pretty classy!
What caused many to reassess their perception of NASCAR in 2012 is how many talented drivers/crew chief/teams went MIA on racedays. Some welcome this reshuffle in the order, and I can't argue against the fact that Michael Waltrip Racing's surge toward the front is a welcome sight. You have to give Clint Bowyer a lot of credit for being a contender at pretty much every track, and I hope that Martin Truex Jr. gets a sliver of his teammate's good fortune should he again get into the Chase for the Sprint Cup next year.
But if Truex, outgoing champ Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and (for obvious reasons) Dale Earnhardt Jr faded away having made it into the top 12, it's even more astounding who didn't make it into the Chase at all. I firmly believe that both Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards are among the top eight drivers in NASCAR, and yet KyBu scored a solitary win and missed grabbing a place in the Chase by a cat's whisker, while Edwards missed by a whole cat. It's staggering that a guy who came so close to winning the NSCS in 2011 and drives for a team as good as Roush Fenway Racing could score only three top-five finishes in 36 races.
So as someone who always wishes to see talent and application rewarded with results, I hope No. 99 will be in Victory Lanes this coming season. I hope also to see Earnhardt Ganassi Racing take an MWR-style leap in performance now that it's using Hendrick engines, for Stewart-Haas Racing to rediscover its mojo and for Matt Kenseth's understated personality to fit in well at Joe Gibbs Racing and start earning the results that we know he and the No. 20 team are capable of. I hope the man he replaced, Joey Logano, is not overwhelmed with being directly compared with new champ Brad Keselowski at Penske Racing. Special K truly is special in and out of the cockpit, and has that boyish spark that will surely always appeal to Roger Penske. Logano desperately needs to reprove his worth after disappointing seasons at JGR, but if any team can be even handed in spreading the love, it is Penske, and Logano should bloom.
Former No. 22 Penske driver, AJ Allmendinger, doesn't yet have a full-time ride, and it would be a crime to see his talents go to waste.…which is what some of us feel has happened since he switched to NASCAR in 2007. It wouldn't be the worst scenario in the world to see him get back into road racing in time for the U.S. sports car world's rebirth in 2014….
The NHRA Nitro Classes are sure to be as exciting as ever in 2013, and it's great to see Coca-Cola's Mello Yello brand being reintroduced to motorsports (hey, I still prefer Days of Thunder to Talladega Nights, OK?). But there's no question that other teams need to threaten Don Schumacher Racing in the Nitro classes on a more consistent basis than they managed last year. I'm as happy as anyone that Antron Brown and Jack Beckman have the Top Fuel and Funny Car titles; Brown, in particular, is a superbly eloquent spokesperson for drag racing as a whole, a guy who so clearly is still in love with the sport and doesn't see it as a business. But I hope to see him and Beckman face opposition from outside the DSR brotherhood in the final rounds of the year – and I'm confident this can happen.
In Top Fuel, Shawn Langdon is surely going to be in title contention and his Al-Anabi Racing teammate Khalid alBalooshi will only get better as he racks up the seat time. But I also think Morgan Lucas – who led the championship at one stage last year, on the back of three wins – should be able to take the fight down to (or near) the wire. In Funny Car, John Force Racing, has pooled some incredible talents but its four-car operation finishing third, fifth, seventh and ninth in the 2012 standings was less than expected – especially considering John Force, Robert Hight and Mike Neff won the first six races between them!
There were only four more wins for JFR in the remaining 17 events, and most peculiar of all was Hight's sudden slump. Having won four in a row (rounds two through five), the 2009 champion didn't make it past the second round in the final 14 events. The thing about Force's squad, though, is that after a season like 2012 – and let's face it, 10 wins is hardly a disaster – there's always a sharp assessment, regroup and rebuild, so that the following season is an improvement. That should help ensure Courtney Force continues to bloom, having scored her first win last season.
Outside the powerhouses, though, NHRA has always been a fertile ground for underdogs, and while it seems odd to throw 2008 FC champ, Cruz Pedregon into that category, there's no question that his sheer consistency last year was a lesson to all the better-funded teams. Johnny Gray's wins were proof that he also still has potential (at the age of 59!) while in Top Fuel, Steve Torrence's first three nitro wins proved that he too, can slay some of the giants of drag racing. I hope all three continue their momentum – and that Larry Dixon, Melanie Troxel, Cory McClenathan and Doug Herbert are on the scene full-time. It's no less than they deserve.
In Pro Stock, it's going to be great to see reigning champ Allen Johnson and five-time champ Jeg Coughlin Jr as teammates, and observe how they compare to KB Racing's duo of Jason Line and Greg Anderson whose super-sexy Camaro bodyshells will enter their first full season. Other storylines worth watching are how Vincent Nobile and Erica Enders perform, while in the Pro Stock Motorcycles, I hope 2010 champion L.E. Tonglet can find enough dollars to take on the Vance & Hines Harley Davidsons of Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines as well as both junior and senior Hector Aranas. At 23 years of age, Tonglet should have decades of racing ahead of him, but he needs financial support. A familiar plight.
• World Rally Championship – Monte Carlo, Jan. 16-19
• Grand-Am Rolex Series, Daytona, Jan. 26-27
• NHRA, Pomona, Feb. 14-17
• NASCAR, Daytona, Feb. 17-24
• American Le Mans Series, Sebring, March 16