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Harris: Thanks For The Memories

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 26 2009
Mark Martin gets it done at 50 years old. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Mark Martin gets it done at 50 years old. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

It’s Thanksgiving and time to think about why we should be thankful having a sport like motor racing to enjoy.

Let’s reflect a bit on the past, the present and the future as 2009 nears its final laps.

We saw some veteran racers find renewed life this season:

* Fifty-year-old Mark Martin  joined Hendrick Motorsports after two years of part-time competition. He jumped into the No. 5 Chevrolet,  won five races and gave Jimmie Johnson all he could want in the championship NASCAR Sprint Cup championship battle, perhaps proving that 50 is indeed the new 40 – or 30 – or 20. Not even finishing second in the points for the fifth time could discourage Martin, who said 2009 was his “best year ever’’ and that he can hardly wait for Daytona to roll around in 2010.

* Dario Franchitti came back to IndyCars after a frustrating NASCAR experiment and picked up right where he left off in winning the 2007 series championship, beating Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon and Team Penske driver Ryan Briscoe on fuel strategy in the finale and taking another title.

* Ross Brawn became a team owner when Honda dropped out of Formula One and promptly directed the team to both the driver (Jenson Button) championship and the manufacturers’ title, leaving old standby F1 squads Ferrari and McLaren in the dust.

Youngsters also put their talent on display in significant ways.

* Joey Logano, nicknamed Sliced Bread – for being the greatest thing since – was discovered by Mark Martin when he was 14. Martin let everyone know the kid was the real deal and helped him launch a professional career that finally brought him to the Cup series in 2009. At 19, he replaced two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – a risky move. The youngster did struggle at times, but he won a race at New Hampshire, had 13 top-10 finishes, finished 20th in the points and was named the year’s top rookie. The teen is the youngest ever to take that honor.

* Lest we forget, Kyle Busch, the guy fans love to hate, is only 24 years old. Seems like he’s been around a long time already, but he did get started in NASCAR (trucks) at 16. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver had a feast-or-famine season, winning the Nationwide Series champonship – his first in NASCAR  and a total of 20 races – four in Cup, nine in Nationwide and seven in trucks. But he failed to make the Chase and finished 13th in the Cup points, a bitter disappointment for Busch and entire No. 18 Toyota team. And he pulled just enough “Busch’’ stunts – like trying to smash the special guitar trophy after winning at Nashville – to keep the fans booing and the veteran racers shaking their heads. Still, 62 overall wins at such a tender age is downright mind-boggling – and impressive.

* Twenty-year-old Graham Rahal continued to show improvement in the highly competitive IndyCar Series, finishing seventh in the points in his second full season. He wasn’t able to reach Victory Circle in 2009, but the son of longtime racing star Bobby Rahal did managed a pair of poles and two third-place finishes for Newman/Haas/Lanigan.

Foreign drivers made an impact on stock car racing.

* Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya, who was a star in American open-wheel racing and Formula One before dipping his toes into NASCAR, found consistency in his third full season in Cup. The Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver had seven top fives, 18 top 10s and made the 12-man Chase for the Sprint Cup championship for the first time. He wound up eighth in the season points and placed his name squarely in the championship mix for 2010.

* Marcos Ambrose, driving for JTG-Daugherty Racing, finished 18th in his first full season in Cup, showing plenty of natural talent and winning a lot of fans with his friendly demeanor. The driver from Tasmania, an island off the coast of Australia, drew plenty of laughs at the Cup finale in Homestead when he passed Jimmie Johnson for the lead early in the race and let out a whoop of triumph on the radio. Unfortunately, a cut tire, a mechanical problem and a couple of spins made the day less than memorable for Ambrose, but he showed enough promise to stay excited through the offseason.

Speaking of having good reason to be thankful, another compelling story in 2009 centered around an IndyCar driver who faced more than some tough on-track competition.

* That old fence-climber Helio Castroneves was charged with income tax evasion and could have been sitting in a federal prison today instead of enjoying the good life at his home in Miami. But the former Dancing with the Stars champion was exonerated by a jury, jumped back into his Team Penske car after missing the start of the season and wound up winning the Indianapolis 500 for the third time. The emotional victory by the Brazilian was also the 15th for car owner Roger Penske.

Then there’s JJ.

* At the end of the 2008 season, Jimmie Johnson told Cale Yarborough he was honored beyond words to share the record of three straight Cup championships with him. Then he went out and completely erased Yarborough’s name from the record.

Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet had a decent regular season, but their Chase was sensational – as usual. It seems like this format – with the title decided among 12 drivers over the final 10 races – is made to order for Gentleman Jimmie. Since the Chase was first run in 2004, Johnson has 18 wins and has finished out of the top 10 just five times in 60 races. Other than a very scary and motivating hiccup in Texas, where he was crashed out on the third lap and eventually finished 38th, Johnson was overpowering in the 2009 Chase and beat new teammate Martin for the title by 141 points. The scary part is that Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the 48 team will be back for a shot at No. 5 in a row in 2010. Don’t bet against them.

Have a happy holiday season and then let’s go racing again. There will be lots more interesting stories in 2010.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 26 2009
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