As a season approaches for any professional sport, when it comes to the quest for a championship there are, among others, three classifications of contenders:
The team that won it last season and wants to win it again. The team that narrowly lost it last season and is compelled to earn it. And the team that used to earn it on a regular basis, but then failed to do so, and wants to regain what it lost.
Those same classifications – again, among many others – can be applied to NASCAR Sprint Cup racing and are clearly defined as we move into the 2012 season.
The driver who won the championship last season and wants to win it again is Tony Stewart.
The driver who narrowly lost it and is compelled to become this year’s titlist is Carl Edwards.
The driver who used to earn a title on a regular basis, then failed to do so a season ago and wants to regain what was lost, is Jimmie Johnson.
I think it is well within reason to assume that any discussion about who will become the 2012 champion has to prominently include these three.
I daresay all three will be cast as pre-season favorites. Boy, that’s getting a grasp of the obvious, isn’t it?
All three will be facing their own competitive challenges, and, of course, we never know what will happen – what unexpected circumstances will arise – during the course of the season.
Stewart went through most of the 2010 season without a victory and at one point, clearly discouraged, he declared that his Stewart Haas Racing team wasn’t good enough to compete in the Chase.
Stewart did indeed make the Chase but was ninth in points and still winless after 26 races. That he would rise to win a title over the course of the year’s final 10 races was not given much of a chance.
But then came along one of those unexpected circumstances. Stewart won the first two races in the Chase and sped his way into No. 1 in points. No longer an also-ran, he was now a contender.
In perhaps the most dramatic finish ever in the Chase, Stewart won three of the final four races in a duel with Edwards.
The two were tied in points – the first time ever in NASCAR – but Stewart claimed the title with more victories. His five, all earned during the Chase, to Edwards’ one.
That Stewart will win the 2012 title again in such a dramatic way is probably not likely even though he’s shown it can be done.
I think Stewart would prefer a calmer scenario. To achieve that, he can’t be winless over 26 races and sweat out making the top 12 in points. He will be best served if he wins early and as often as he can.
That way he’ll enter the Chase higher in points and as an established contender. Seems that could make things a bit easier.
There are other circumstances to consider, such as the relationship Stewart builds with new crew chief Steve Addington.
But Stewart has obviously shown he can overcome sizable adversity to win a title. Thing is, if he can avoid it, he doesn’t want to have to do it that way again.
Losing a championship the way Edwards did is the kind of thing that can send a competitor to a psychiatrist.
To match a rival in a torrid duel only to lose by a tiebreaker rule has got to be disheartening and emotionally draining.
There are many who have said that if Edwards can overcome the obvious disappointment of 2011, he will go a long way toward claiming his first career championship.
Judging by what Edwards has said lately he won’t experience any emotional or mental funk in 2012. He said he learned a lot about himself and the competition last year and will simply be a tougher driver this season.
He added he didn’t need any time to himself nor did he go into an introverted funk at the end of 2011. He was ready to race. He could have started the year’s final race at Homestead all over again.
That’s all well and good but basic math says Edwards is going to make his championship quest a lot easier if he can win more than one race in 2012 – especially before the Chase begins.
For the first time in five years, from 2006-2010, Johnson won’t be starting a season as the defending champion.
I have a suspicion that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are so unfamiliar with this situation, and so determined to change it, that they intend to do all they can in 2012 to restore past glory.
Johnson has said as much. He said his team has done everything it could to learn what did not work in 2010, avoid it and start the season strongly.
He added his Hendrick Motorsports team could make some changes as to how it does things, but there will not be any major restructuring. It is not needed.
He also said he must avoid the few mistakes that he felt cost him the championship. “We need to learn from those mistakes,” he declared.
Despite a lost title Johnson did not have a bad season in 2011. He won five races. He finished sixth in points.
I think he’s right on target when he says no major changes need be made.
Still, Stewart, Edwards and Johnson, like all the others, will have to deal with those pesky “unexpected circumstances.”
But, together, they are thus: The driver who wants to repeat, the driver who came close and wants to win and the driver who is determined to restore what was his for so long.
It’s clear any talk of a championship has to include them.