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Our Top Ten motorsports stories of 2009

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1- Jimmie Johnson won his fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in 2009. This is simply an incredible, amazing achievement. Associated Press just named Johnson their Athlete of the Year. I've known champions in many forms of racing, and there's always something which sets them apart from their competitors; a focus and fearlessness not apparent in others. NASCAR is a tough sport, and to see someone like Johnson, from Southern California, soft-spoken and polite, win these four titles proves drivers don't have to be outwardly wild, angry, upset, whatever; sometimes nice guys do finish first.

2- Brawn Grand Prix didn't exist in 2008 in the Formula 1 circus, but in its first year of competition, 2009, team driver Jenson Button won the World Driving Championship and Brawn won the coveted manufacturer's title in an unprecedented attack on the series. Button was considered a-soon-to-retire F1 driver with few wins and certainly no championships. Ross Brawn, formerly the genius behind Ferrari's string of championships with Michael Schumacher, took over the Honda team when the Japanese maker dropped out of the sport in '08, switched to Mercedes engines and proceeded to dominate F1. Next year, the team will be known as Mercedes Grand Prix, the first time in over 50 years Mercedes has used their name as the title of a race team; the company left racing for many years after a privateer Mercedes crashed into the main grandstand at LeMans, killing some 80 people.
2009-12-24-brawngpbuttonsmiling.jpg Jenson Button on his way to the F1 world championship

3- Danica Patrick will run in NASCAR and IndyCar this coming season. The most-popular driver in IndyCar, the only woman to ever win an IndyCar race, will drive a limited Nationwide Series schedule for JR Motorsports, co-owned by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Rick Hendrick. Earnhardt has been NASCAR's most popular driver seven years in a row. American racing's best-known names on the same team will be good for all motorsports. Patrick will open her NASCAR season at California Speedway the third week of February. She plans to compete in the entire IndyCar series.

4- Rick Hendrick has the strongest, most dominant team in NASCAR Sprint Cup. He counts drivers Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon among his stable, and co-owns a team with Dale Earnhardt, Jr, Hendrick is one of the country's biggest car dealers, focusing on Chevrolet and Honda. He's had his challenges, too. In 2004, a plane crash claimed the lives of 10 Hendrick relatives and associates, including his son, an up-and-coming NASCAR driver. Hendrick has also had leukemia. But he's won four consecutive NASCAR titles with Jimmie Johnson, and each one of his drivers is a serious contender for next year's championship.

5- Tony George, who ran Indianapolis Motor Speedway for several years, and whose family saved the track from becoming a housing development in the 1950s, was fired from his top position by his own family and board of directors. Apparently due to his pouring never-ending millions into the Indy Racing League, being in-charge when the most-embarrassing F1 race in history ran at Indy (just six cars started), watching the Indy 500 lose customers and TV viewers, and working out a deal to put most IndyCar races on an unknown cable channel called Versus, they'd had enough. Now bean-counters run the place, and it remains to be seen if they have the passion for racing Indy needs. One more thing: George didn't get along with F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone, but with George gone, it's possible the USGP will return to the track in 2011.
2009-12-24-danicapatrrickblackorangecar.jpg Danica Patrick is bringing her magic to NASCAR

6- Michael Schumacher is returning to F1, at least for the upcoming season. He'll be paid about $10 million for the year, and the 7-time world champion of driving will be with the Mercedes team, formerly Braun GP and the current world championship team. Schumacher's appearance will excite F1 fans worldwide, who want to see if he can regain some of his former glory. And Schuie will be working again with Ross Brawn, who strategized the driver's world championships at Ferrari (last one in 2004). Danica Patrick signing a NASCAR deal and Schumacher's return are the most important driver stories of the year, so far.

7- In 2012, IndyCar will introduce an entirely new, wingless race car to the series. A consortium of top IndyCar people, owners and officials, are funding the car's development. No outsider has seen it yet, but there are no wings, front or rear, and it's described as looking like a Stealth fighter. Crucial is the development of a new turbocharged engine which will be able to get (they hope) as many as ten miles per gallon, while current cars achieve between one and three mpg (these cars run on ethanol, not gasoline). The whole idea is a spec car which is less expensive to buy and maintain than the current racers. This could be a big boost to the sport's popularity and introduce a new generation with the 'green' theme.

8- Trying to connect with their fans and make new ones, after almost three decades of NASCAR holding their Sprint Cup awards ceremony in New York City, this year they moved the celebrations to Las Vegas. And let the public buy tickets to certain events, another first. The Waldorf Astoria Hotel was NASCAR's NYC host, a fit that never seemed completely right. You don't hear a lot of "southern" spoken near the Hudson River. But NYC is the media center of the world, guaranteeing lots of TV appearances for drivers (Jeff Gordon even co-hosted 'Regis and Kelly' and has an apartment in NYC), and many of the sport's largest sponsors have their headquarters in New York. We'll see if it worked.
2009-12-24-jimmiejohnsonand4trophies.jpg Jimmie Johnson and his four NASCAR Srpint Cup championship trophies

9- Formula 1 is nothing if not dynamic, during the racing season and off. The sport has made rules changes for 2010 which most of the drivers like, especially those to the points system, which instead of awarding points to the top eight drivers in a race, will award the top ten. The points have also been changed to favor race winners. Refueling during races is banned, a good safety move. There will be 13 teams, 26 cars, starting in F1 in 2010, some of the highest numbers ever.

10- This past year was the first NHRA ran a full season with their shortened track, done to slow the cars. The change was made in mid-2008 after several injuries and deaths in professional drag racing. The ¼-mile, 1320 feet, is now 1,000 feet for the fastest professional classes. It's worked, but now 5 second races are in the 4's and all the old records no longer count. Many think the cars will eventually be made to go just as fast as they did in the full ¼. Word is NHRA is considering mechanical or electrical governors on the cars among other solutions to get them back on the traditional ¼-mile.

What did we leave out? What should not be on the list? And happy, safe holidays.