Dirty is good: Southern California horse racing is projecting a happy 2011 season, because Santa Anita has put dirt back in, replacing the controversial synthetic surface. The annual Boxing Day opener, through closing day April 17, can keynote a strong racing year. If the dirt is sound, horses will be, too.
Synthetic worry: Hollywood Park and Del Mar still have the synthetics and Del Mar's appears to be the most problematic, so racing will keep a close watch — presumably in the wake of success at Santa Anita.
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH
He's new to the West anyway. Top national trainer Steve Asmussen's Eastern operation will have a West Coast base at Santa Anita for the first time. Also interesting will be the Triple Crown contender Boys of Tosconova, who finished second to Uncle Mo in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He is headquartered in the East, but runs for Californians Mace and Samantha Siegel, and would be a candidate for Derby preps here.
A new leader? In NASCAR, look for Jimmie Johnson's five-year reign as Sprint Cup Series champion to finally end, with Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin among the drivers to dethrone him. Joey Logano, 20, will have a breakout year and make his debut in the Chase for the Cup title playoff, while Danica Patrick will earn her first top-10 Nationwide Series finish.
Power up: In IndyCar, Penske Racing's Will Power will win his first race on an oval track and again challenge Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon for the championship, and Simona de Silvestro will make headlines with a strong sophomore season.
On the rebound: In Formula One, seven-time champion Michael Schumacher will rebound from his poor 2010 showing but it won't be enough to catch the likes of reigning title holder Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton. And in NHRA top-fuel drag racing, look for Tony Schumacher – whose streak of six consecutive titles was snapped this year by Larry Dixon – to roar back with yet another championship.
It took a lot of doing to arrange the NBA's Year of the Rookie, with Blake Griffin sitting out the 2009-10 season before making his debut this season, along with Washington's John Wall, the most ballyhooed young point guard since Magic Johnson.
Not since Johnson and Larry Bird joined the NBA together in 1979 have two such great prospects come along. Bird won the Rookie of the Year award but, one-upping him in a way no first-year player ever had, Johnson struck back by becoming the Finals MVP after starting at center in place of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the Game 6 victory over the 76ers as the Lakers won the title.
While Griffin wowed fans with each passing game, this season's rookie competition has been undermined by Wall's injuries that have forced him out on four occasions in the first seven weeks.
So if Griffin looks like a good bet to be Rookie of the Year... and an all-time great if he stays healthy. it may be a good thing. As reader Joe Gates of Culver City noted: "I think we can safely say that if John Wall wins Rookie of the Year, Blake Griffin will not win Finals MVP."
Staying out of court: That is, the court of law, not the basketball court. They currently have proceedings involving two former General Managers, Elgin Baylor and Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy is taking the Clippers to arbitration in April, attempting to get paid the money owed him from the remainder of his contract. Baylor is suing the Clippers and owner Donald Sterling for wrongful termination.
Progress of the young Clippers: At times, they have had three rookies in the starting lineup, especially early in the season, because of lingering injuries to veterans Baron Davis and Chris Kaman. High points came with wins against Oklahoma City and San Antonio and low marks were more frequent with games riddled with turnovers.
Rookie of the Year: All Blake Griffin's to lose, right? Debate seemed to cease after he went off for 44 points against the Knicks.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH
Griffin, of course, who is forging a special on-court partnership with third-year guard Eric Gordon. Let's appreciate them while they're still around in Los Angeles.
He's back: The Lakers can look forward to Andrew Bynum getting back in better shape and becoming a factor for them in 2011.
Best of the best: The Lakers will look forward to trying to get the best record in the Western Conference, and perhaps in the NBA.
Defense, defense: The Lakers will look forward to defending their NBA championship, hoping to win a third consecutive title for the second time in franchise history.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Lamar Odom, when and if he goes back to the bench, will have a great impact with a reserve group that already is playing at a high level most of the time.