No other professional sport has as short an offseason as NASCAR; it’s less than 90 days between the checkered flag flying at Homestead and the drop of the green for Sunday’s Daytona 500. So why does it feel like it gets longer and longer every year?
Especially this one. As you might imagine, I’m raring to go-go-go in 2013 for what, at least at first blush, might be one of the sport’s fantastic seasons with plenty of changes designed to bring back its competitive edge. Here’s five things to report on, as of now with Daytona continuing to unfold…
*1) Gen-6: More Questions than Answers*
We’ll start, as is appropriate, with the new Gen-6 cars. Since the dawn of Speedweeks, they’ve been front and center, every handling blip or potential equipment shortage making front-page news. But ahead of the serious business on the high banks in sunny Florida, the plain truth is we still have absolutely no idea how they’ll run from week to week. How the Gen-6ers performed in the Sprint Unlimited doesn’t matter, in the long run nor does the outcome of Sunday’s Daytona 500. Plate racing accounts for just four weeks within a 36-race schedule – or nine percent, for those so mathematically inclined. It’s how they do in the meat of the schedule – the cookie-cutter tracks so prevalent on today’s calendar – that is, for now, a huge unknown.
So relax, those concerned about the product on Saturday night. What happens at Phoenix, Las Vegas, and beyond will be a far bigger indicator as to the overall health of the new vehicle as it relates to competition. Those in the know suggest there is every reason for an optimistic prognosis – albeit on extremely limited data so far. But as Daytona is dissected, in too much detail there is at least one fact we can all agree on: how good they look. The car sure is pretty with the return of a genuine manufacturer identity across all three major players in the Chevy SS, the Ford Fusion and the Toyota Camry.
After that? It’s nothing but pure speculation. So let’s hope, then, that the old adage of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” rings true this year, with some good old-fashioned manufacturer pride returning at the track and throughout the fan base. This sport needs a tremendous debut for their new Gen-6 car and competition that goes way beyond our current level of expectations.
*2) Danica Starts As She Hopes To Continue*
The last time a Cup rookie won the Daytona 500 pole was eleven years ago. Back in 2002, a largely unknown driver from El Cajon, CA named Jimmie Johnson (you might have heard of him now) picked up the prize and raised some eyebrows. During the race, he failed to lead a lap but ran respectably, coming home 15th in what back then was a successful result. Looking back, it didn’t work out so bad for the five-time champ now, did it?
I’m not suggesting the same sort of career trajectory will follow for Danica – far from it – but this accomplishment is a milestone more than worth recognizing, despite the white noise from the haters. Patrick’s qualifying time was the fastest for the pole position in the 500 since 1990, setting a number of NASCAR records in its path. She also beat Janet Guthrie’s previous record for a woman of an 18th-place starting spot in the big race, the first of her gender to start on a Cup Series front row.
She also knows where to give credit where it’s due, particularly at a track where a poor engine means a poor performance.
“I appreciate the recognition, but it really falls 90% on Tony and his guys,” said Patrick to the assembled media in Sunday’s post-qualifying press conference. “Everybody that gives me the car to go out there and be fast, and maybe 10% [falls] on me.”
That humility will help as she adjusts to the challenge ahead. Chances are much of 2013 will feel like pushing water up a hill for Patrick, veteran crew chief Tony Gibson and the rest of the No. 10 team. There’s even a chance this pole might be the high point of the year, a point Patrick’s acknowledged during a flurry of interviews. She admitted going to Tony Gibson, in the midst of the celebration intentionally to remind him this season will not always be “great,” a level-headed comment that shows both are ready to handle the rollercoaster any rookie season presents.
So what if Gibson, plus the engineers played a large part in this accomplishment? No matter what you feel on Danica, it’s a huge confidence booster for arguably the most famous Cup rookie in history (except perhaps Dale Junior). You couldn’t have a more perfect start to what is sure to be a difficult season.
*3) Happy For Now*
Since the announcement at the back end of last season that Kevin Harvick would be driving for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, there has been plenty of talk about his “lame duck status” and troubled times ahead for one of the garage’s toughest racers. But his third victory in the traditional curtain-raiser for the season, Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited showed that despite all the gossip, there’s life yet in the No. 29 Chevy SS. The opening statement in his post-race press conference was typically biting and totally priceless.
“Yeah, I think the biggest thing is how are we going to get Danica and Ricky on the front page tomorrow?” said Harvick, laughing. “I missed all you guys because you were all busy being TMZ the other day. So now you all have to talk to me and I can be a complete prick (more laughter).”
Great stuff from the 12-year, 19-win, 430-race veteran. Of course, there might be a weekend this season when Harvick longs for Danicky to be the focus of the media attention and related trending hash tag in the Twitter world. On paper, the odds are stacked against him as most “lame ducks,” like Kasey Kahne during his one-year stint with Red Bull Racing never come close to title contention.
Sometimes, there’s an exception to the rule; Matt Kenseth proved last year in the Chase, with a pair of wins, that pending divorces don’t preclude victories. But in all honesty, I would be surprised if Harvick mounted a sustained push for the title this year.
*4) Don’t Bet Against Brad In 2013*
I’ve read a lot this offseason about how hard it will be for Brad Keselowski to retain his Sprint Cup title in 2013. Some of the argument is both rational and compelling: the switch to a new engine manufacturer, the pressure of being the champion, and a completely new car in the Gen-6 post formidable obstacles, for starters.
I’m on the other side of the fence: A firm believer that Keselowski can absolutely repeat. Let’s not forget, he was essentially a one-car team for a departing manufacturer last year and he still got it done. In 2013, under the aegis of Ford, there will be access to data from the other organizations that can help. Also, with Joey Logano, Brad might just have found a perfect partner running the No. 22. Add in Paul Wolfe, with whom the champ has developed a symbiotic partnership and there’s an “X” factor for sustained success. (Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have already set the template for how you can parlay that sort of a relationship into multiple titles.)
He may not make a peep at Daytona — just 23rd quick — but don’t be fooled. Even if Keselowski starts out slowly, expect the champ to win races, make the Chase and be a key player in the title race all the way through to Homestead.
*5) The Best Race The United States Can Bring Us*
There is a magic to the Daytona 500 that is rare not just in NASCAR, but in all forms of motorsport. “The Great American Race” is aptly named since one win can cement a driver’s legacy. The legendary Dale Sr., who we’ve lost some 12 years ago on Monday never felt complete as a driver until he ended that 0-for-20 jinx in this event.
In 2013, I think the odds lean towards busting up another drought. My tip to win this Sunday is Tony Stewart, breaking his 0-for-14 hoodoo in the 500. If not Smoke, then I’d back Kevin Harvick or Matt Kenseth. But the beauty of this particular contest is that pre-race prognostication is largely irrelevant. Anyone can win, as we saw not so long ago in 2011 when Trevor Bayne pulled off a miracle in the famed Wood Brothers No. 21 car.
After gaping potholes and exploding jet dryers, Daytona is a race that needs no gimmicks. Just the cars, the drivers and 500 miles on the high banks of the two-and-a-half mile track will be good enough.
It’s time to start out the year in a grand old manner, with a 500 for the history books that unfolds under all the right reasons.
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