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Fact Or Fiction: 25 IndyCar Storylines for the 2012 Season, Part 5

Photo credit: Ned Leone

All week we’ve been counting down some of the most important storylines in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series. Today, we address the top five. These stories will likely influence the entire complexion of the season, so keep them in mind as the sport puts on its most important championship in years. (If you need to catch up, here are the first, second, third, and fourth parts of the series.)

5. The rumored driver boycott of Texas will be a serious problem for the series.

FICTION: Besides the fact that plenty of drivers have dismissed the notion, a boycott stands fully against common sense. In the series’ many years of racing at Texas, the worst wreck took place in 2003, effectively shortening Kenny Brack’s driving career but not quite ending it. With the new rear wheel covers meant to prevent liftoff in rear-ending situations, the new Dallara DW12s are safer (and reportedly slower on ovals), and clearly the sanctioning body will take every precaution to make sure that this year’s Texas event is as clean as any IndyCar race in history.

4. Rubens Barrichello will be one of the series’ top drivers in 2012.

FACT: The only worry for Rubens will be ovals, which he has never run before, but the stars are aligned for a strong season. Barrichello will drive for KV Racing Technology, perhaps the third-best team in the sport behind Ganassi and Penske, and will have good friend Tony Kanaan’s brain to pick over the nuances of American open-wheel racing. He’s been fast in testing, and with road and street courses comprising the bulk of this year’s schedule, he won’t be too far out of his element after nearly two decades in Formula 1. Expect at least one win.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

3. IndyCar will miss Danica Patrick greatly, for both diversity and marketing reasons.

FICTION: For every reason that the sport may miss her, the rest of the paddock can probably rattle off four others why they won’t. Diversity isn’t an issue, with plenty of female drivers still in the series. And while the marketing end now lacks an international superstar, this will allow both the sport and the networks to focus on other (perhaps more successful) drivers.

2. Dan Wheldon’s passing will lead to major safety changes in IndyCar the way that Dale Earnhardt’s did in NASCAR.

FACT: The safety changes were already somewhat in place before Wheldon’s accident at Las Vegas, with a brand new cockpit and new rear wheel guards on the new Dallara chassis that will now bear his name. But in an age where racing has become much safer than ever before, any fatal accident has significant sway over the public’s perception of the sport. NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow was the long-developed response to Earnhardt’s accident; IndyCar will have no choice but to go further in the wake of Wheldon’s.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

1. Dario Franchitti will win his fourth consecutive IndyCar title.

FICTION: Dario’s going to make me look stupid for saying this, but it just seems like it’s time that a new champion is crowned. Dario’s won each of the past four titles he’s chased (remember, he skipped 2008 for an ill-fated NASCAR adventure), as has Chip Ganassi (Scott Dixon took that title). As Jimmie Johnson showed in NASCAR last season, any streak that lasts longer than a presidential term isn’t much longer for this world, because bad luck has a way of catching up eventually. He’ll challenge, but this might just be somebody else’s year. My money is on Will Power.

– Chris Leone

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Prop Bets: Daytona 500

The fun thing about the Daytona 500 is that nobody ever has any idea what’s going to happen. Who honestly predicted Trevor Bayne to win last year’s race? Part of the fun of Daytona is heading into the race with little to rely on in the way of making accurate predictions. It’s a guessing game, really – and so is this.

For entertainment purposes only (but you knew that, right?), here are our 10 challenge questions for the 2012 Daytona 500. Chances are, nobody’s going to get more than half of these right – remember, Daytona is a big guessing game – but it’s fun to throw darts at the board and see how things shake out. Feel free to comment with your selections at the bottom of the page, and any person to properly predict all 10 might receive a shout-out.

Have fun, and enjoy today’s race.

Who will post the better finish in these pairings?

1. 2011 championship rivals – Tony Stewart or Carl Edwards

2. Most popular drivers – Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Danica Patrick

3. Current vs. former Penske Racing drivers – Kurt Busch or A.J. Allmendinger

4. Roush Fenway Racing’s Nationwide Series drivers – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or Trevor Bayne

5. New Michael Waltrip Racing drivers – Mark Martin or Clint Bowyer

6. Traditional start-and-parkers – Phil Parsons Racing (Michael McDowell) or NEMCO Motorsports (Joe Nemechek)

7. Teams backed by fast food franchisees – Front Row Motorsports (Taco Bell/Long John Silver’s franchisees, Tony Raines, David Ragan, or David Gilliland) or BK Racing (Burger King franchisees, Landon Cassill or David Reutimann)

Over/under predictions:

8. Cautions: Over or under 10.5

9. Lap leaders: Over or under 26.5

10. Lead changes: Over or under 76.5

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Danica Patrick

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing

Born: March 25, 1982

Home: Beloit, Wisconsin

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: In her second limited schedule of Nationwide Series events for JR Motorsports, Patrick cracked the top five for the first time by finishing fourth at Las Vegas. She also announced that she would leave the IndyCar circuit to run the full Nationwide schedule for JRM in 2012, while preparing to transition to Sprint Cup in 2013 with Stewart-Haas Racing.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Patrick’s full-time IndyCar swan song was about as unfocused and uninspired as any results she’s ever posted. For the first time since 2006, Patrick failed to post a podium finish. Her average finish of 12.4 was her lowest since 2005, her rookie year. Patrick lagged at road and street courses, especially in qualifying, and only took a top 10 spot in IndyCar points by two markers over Helio Castroneves.

SEASON OUTLOOK: It only took about half a decade for somebody to finally get Danica to bite the stock car apple, as the brighter spotlight and full-time tutelage of Dale Earnhardt Jr. (in the Nationwide Series) and Tony Stewart (in Sprint Cup) were too great of temptations for Patrick to resist. Then again, with her performance nearly relegating her to fourth best out of four at Andretti Autosport, her former IndyCar team, the decision to leave the series that made her name might not have been as difficult. None of the top IndyCar teams were going to bid for her services, and the personnel ready to aid her transition to stock cars is top notch; Patrick’s Sprint Cup crew chief will likely be new Stewart-Haas competition director Greg Zipadelli, the man who led Stewart to his 2002 and 2005 championships.

Jumping from 29 combined races to 43 will be no easy task, however, especially when many of those races will be much longer than IndyCar events. That’s not to say that Patrick is somehow not fit or talented enough to compete in all 43 (33 Nationwide, 10 Sprint Cup), but keeping the intense promotional schedules of a world-famous advertising spokeswoman in mind, 2012 will be the busiest year of Patrick’s life. That’s a big reason why many of NASCAR’s most popular drivers, including Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart, run only one-off Nationwide events and focus on their Sprint Cup schedules. But while Patrick may be in for a rude awakening to that end that affects her race finishes, everybody involved is aware that this is a learning year for 2013. The finishes may be subpar on the Sprint Cup level this time around, but come her rookie campaign next year, she’ll be ready to contend.

– Chris Leone