*Did You Notice?…* The influx of young talent entering prime rides in 2013? The Frontstretch Staff “discussed this one”:https://frontstretch.com/tbowles/42294/ in the sixth and final part of our season preview but, instead of answering there I wanted to expand on the topic elsewhere. For me, it’s a copout because I have a hard time cutting down the drivers I’m watching to just one or two…
So, without further ado, here’s who you should put on the radar screen:
*Austin Dillon.* Yes, he’s someone that’s already grabbed attention after nearly winning the Nationwide Series title in his rookie season. But I have a feeling, a sneaky one that year two is going to blow everyone’s expectations out of the water. Austin, in his sophomore year driving the Truck Series went on to win the title there with ease. Owner/grandfather Richard Childress would like nothing more than for it to happen again, in Nationwide considering longtime crown jewel Kevin Harvick is leaving the hen house for rival Stewart-Haas Racing come 2014. Dillon is fighting for sponsorship to replace Harvick in Cup; he, along with brother Ty are also the keys to RCR surviving over the long-term. If this company was throwing everything they had at the No. 3 car before… you can only imagine what’s going to happen now. The difference? I fully expect Dillon to rise to the occasion like never before. Five, maybe six wins are not out of the question even within one of the most competitive Nationwide Series lineups in years. With those types of numbers, I would be shocked if he wasn’t in the best position to take the title come Homestead.
*Kyle Larson.* The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing phenom, just 20 years of age has been talked about ad nauseum so I won’t go into too much detail. But with EGR struggling at the Cup level, combined with NASCAR’s push to have some sort of diversity driver succeed you know the red carpet is being laid out for this kid. You don’t enter four Truck Series races, with so-so equipment and score three top-10 finishes if you’re talentless. Add in the support of Turner Scott and it’d be a shock if Larson had anything _less_ than the type of rookie performance Austin had last year: multiple wins, a top-5 points finish and brief flirtation with the title.
*Ryan Blaney.* Make no bones about it; this kid is the real deal. Just stop and consider for a second that Brad Keselowski, Roger Penske and company released Parker Kligerman in order to make room for Blaney. How much of a slouch is Kligerman? Oh, a total schlub; he only won a Truck Series race, with another team after his departure, _challenged for the championship_ and earned himself a full-time ride with Kyle Busch Motorsports for 2013. At the time of said “parting of the ways,” Kligerman was firmly within the top 10 in points driving Keselowski’s truck and was considered, by all accounts a star in the making.
To make that type of switch, ala the Alex Smith/Colin Kaepernick quarterback swap down we saw in NFL-land you’ve got to be supremely confident in the man you’re putting in the driver’s seat (Blaney). As a rookie, the youngster did have a tendency to get overaggressive, wrecking twice in his final three Truck events. But in nine starts, when he had it together Blaney was borderline unstoppable. He’s already won once, and is the type of driver who will let it all hang out, every lap when the equipment will support him. That’s the type of competition the fans wants to see, the attitude Keselowski wants to have in his Truck and a “must watch” result that should net him three, maybe four wins in 2013.
*Jeb Burton.* Father Ward had a fantastic strategy in 2012, whether he wanted to admit it or not that paid off. Taking longtime backer from his Cup days, State Water Heaters, he threw enough money at it for son Jeb to make a handful of starts, in competitive equipment hoping once they ran out of cash a top team would see enough to sign him over the long-term. After a series of quality performances, including an eighth at tricky Charlotte that’s exactly what happened with Turner Scott Motorsports. Just 20 years old, the tall kid with the famous name will have every opportunity to prove himself; and with the Trucks heading to Martinsville, twice as always it would be a shock if the Virginian wasn’t in contention to win at least one of those.
*Did You Notice?…* Valentine’s Day is coming up? Sadly, 2013 is not the best year for NASCAR to be celebrating it; their tandem, weird pairing system of drafting is a thing of the past. So in honor of a holiday I’ve never really been all that fond of (there are a lot of males out there quietly nodding their heads, after checking to make sure their wives aren’t around) let’s check on the status of a few rivalries heading into Daytona.
*Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer.*
*REASON FOR RIVALRY: Phoenix, November 2012.* Do we really need to explain here? We’ll assume you have a brain and have watched this sport at least once in the last 12 months… moving on.
*Valentines?:* Absolutely NOT. Bowyer and Gordon may have seen each other, randomly at a New Year’s Party while on vacation but they still remain on bad terms. Bowyer, especially is irked because of the way the wreck mathematically eliminated him from the title. Considering how much Keselowski struggled at Homestead, he really felt the pressure could have been applied and understands, with Jimmie Johnson still breathing (along with several other stars entering their prime) that may be the best chance at a trophy one could get in the next decade. I think there may be further revenge on the horizon here before this one gets resolved.
*Danica Patrick and Landon Cassill.*
*REASON FOR RIVALRY: Kansas, October 2012.* Danica wasn’t happy with the way Landon was racing her, so she divebombed her No. 10 in an attempt to cause a wreck… and just took herself out instead. Not the way to make things better…
*Valentines?:* NO. Patrick and Cassill, at last check have never fully cleared the air and Danica especially remains upset. The problem here is getting both of them on-track at the same time; claiming a lack of payment, Cassill left his Cup ride (BK Racing) about a month ago and remains without a ride for Daytona.
*Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth.*
*REASON FOR RIVALRY: Bristol, August 2012.* The infamous helmet throw.
*Valentines?:* YES. The two have long since made up, and in a touch of irony Kenseth is now slotted into Stewart’s old car at Joe Gibbs Racing. If anything, Kenseth’s surprise new rival, besides longtime foil Jeff Gordon could be best friend Greg Biffle now that the two are detached at the hip. Biffle has a tendency to get overaggressive, making mistakes that have roughed up Kenseth on more than one occasion. Without the “teammate” label, the 2003 Cup champ now has the leeway to strike back.
*Did You Notice?…* Some quick hits before we take off…
– I see a lot of criticism on Facebook and Twitter over the Sprint Unlimited shrinking back to 19 cars. Um… why? Some of the best races in the past, for this event, happened when the lineup was around 19 or 20. Didn’t we want this race to be more “elite,” paired with the old rules where only pole winners from the previous season (combined with past winners of this event) were eligible? I thought it was supposed to give extra incentive to qualifying; so what if certain favorites aren’t in it? I’m ambivalent on Brad Keselowski, since he’s the reigning series champ but you know what? He also didn’t win a pole. If everyone is special … to some extent, no one is, right? Sometimes, I want to throw up my hands at NASCAR fans and scream, “What do you want!?!”
– One thing you’d see in the past with the Bud Shootout / Sprint Unlimited is teams bring their junky car to the exhibition race – something they didn’t care got torn into a million pieces. Well, with the new Gen-6 race car that’s pretty much impossible; everyone has been building from scratch, with certain pieces of equipment running in limited supply. I have to wonder if it’ll lead to a more conservative race than we’re used to seeing Saturday night; after all, organizations like FAS Lane Racing, for example, can’t afford to leave the race with scrap metal disguised as a race car. With the Duels meaning more, too, lessening the freedom to try things I have fears a giant test session party will develop this weekend — especially during the race’s midsection.
– I’m happy about this new track-drying equipment, technology that should reduce a rain-delay at Daytona to as little as 30 minutes. But NASCAR’s relentless hype surrounding it? That, I could do without. I don’t think fans want a one hour, _National Geographic_ special on how we’re working to replace the jet dryer… good racing with the Gen-6 is far more important. K?
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