While much of America only begins to recover from winter, NASCAR is already off to a blazing start under the sun of Daytona Beach. With the Sprint Unlimited and qualifying for the Great American Race already in the books, the action continues to heat up in preparation for the much anticipated Budweiser Duels.
This Speedweeks edition of *Who’s Hot and Who’s Not* shows that many of the usual restrictor plate racing suspects have already emerged at the historic superspeedway leading up to Sunday’s main event, while other favorites have yet to thaw out. Here’s who’s on their way to a strong start for 2013…
After turning a blistering 196.434 mph lap, the fastest qualifying speed since 1990 (Ken Schrader), rookie *Danica Patrick* finds herself on the pole for the Daytona 500 and in the record books.
By guiding the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet to the first Coors Light Pole Award of the season, Patrick became the only female driver to win a pole in 64 years of Sprint Cup history.
That type of landmark achievement is enough to keep Patrick in the spotlight for now. Certainly, crew chief Tony Gibson and company have found a horsepower package within Stewart-Haas Racing that gives her the speed to contend. Now, she’ll spend the week working on finding drafting partners capable of sticking with her during the stretch run of Sunday’s big race; right now at Daytona, even the fastest car won’t be capable of winning anything on their own.
For most racing observers, it’s clear the pole only does so much; Patrick will need to convert this early accomplishment into a solid run during the Great American Race in order to reverse a reputation for catastrophe at the 2.5-mile track. She won the pole for the Nationwide Series prelude DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona last season only to lose control and wreck when bump drafted by former JR Motorsports teammate Cole Whitt during the race. Last February, her ’12 Cup debut at the venue also ended prematurely after colliding with a spinning Jimmie Johnson after two laps under green.
Meanwhile, teammate and owner *Tony Stewart* finds himself in a familiar spot at the “World Center of Racing”. The three-time series champion is no stranger to success at restrictor plate tracks; judging by his form thus far during Speedweeks, he could be a factor on Sunday to end his infamous 0-for-14 in the sport’s Great American Race.
Saturday night, Stewart took blame for a multi-car accident that claimed six cars during segment one of the Sprint Unlimited, but continued to look impressive afterwards en route to a fourth-place finish. While the move he made, the result of a spotter’s mistake caused the crash it’s important to note the impressive save; if the No. 14 got sideways there, wrecking the Shootout might have finished with just six or seven cars running. He later posted the fifth-fastest lap during qualifying, setting up for another premium opportunity to capture an elusive first win in stock car racing’s most prestigious event.
*Kevin Harvick* showcased elite drafting capabilities while consistently improving through each progressive segment of the Sprint Unlimited. Learning the Gen-6 car quickly, he darted out front during the last 20 laps and was virtually unchallenged all the way to Victory Lane. The exhibition proved to be a perfect showing for Happy, who didn’t live up to lofty expectations last season.
Harvick started his quest for a third Daytona 500 crown by qualifying 25th and will begin Budweiser Duel No. 1 from the 13th position on Thursday. The other entries from the *Richard Childress Racing* stable including Jeff Burton, Austin Dillon, and Paul Menard will lineup in the top 10 of the second 150-mile race, all having avoided several multi-car accidents other the past two weeks. That’s important; as a whole, RCR machines have remained almost entirely undamaged while many other multi-car organizations haven’t fared nearly as well. With equipment at a premium right now, that gives them a decided advantage as well as plenty of experience with their primary cars.
RCR’s fleet, while not as quick individually were fast in drafting during both the January test and practices during Speedweeks. All four, per usual at Daytona should be a force to reckon with on Sunday.
Sure, *Hendrick Motorsports* has an elite driver lineup teamed with some of best engineers and crew members in the industry, but Rick Hendrick can’t be pleased with the way things have unfolded out of the gates. Jeff Gordon’s second-fastest time during qualifying, insuring that he’ll start from the first row, serves as one of the only bright spots for an organization that has been pained with a lot of destroyed equipment during the season’s early goings.
Gordon and teammate Kasey Kahne were both involved in a Preseason Thunder “Big One” that was sprung because of bump drafting on the backstretch. Gordon was also involved in another wreck that included Jimmie Johnson during the Sprint Unlimited. For Johnson, that mishap was just one of several recent misfortunes at the track since winning the 2006 Daytona 500. Since then, Mr. Five-Time has accounted for a 33rd-place average finish, the worst of any driver competing in each of those races.
Even plate ace Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who avoided any major damage, ended his exhibition night looking for more speed after finishing eighth out the 12 cars running when the checkered flag flew. Engine issues were reportedly the culprit at the No. 88 Chevy, who has two second-place finishes in the last three 500s but failed to lead a lap in the Sprint Unlimited. So did all three of his HMS teammates, an auspicious start they hope to reverse beginning with Thursday’s Duels.
*Brad Keselowski’s* biggest moment during Speedweeks so far was his appearance during the telecast of the Sprint Unlimited. Perhaps the newest Sprint Cup champion hasn’t fully recovered from his celebration last season, or maybe the Blue Deuce is having a hard time adjusting to the manufacturer change to Ford along with the move to the Generation-6 car. But the intensity that helped Keselowski to the title hasn’t returned yet, surprisingly quiet while other headlines, from Patrick to Harvick have taken center stage.
Even before his no-show during the Unlimited — he failed to win a pole in 2012 — Keselowski was involved in the preseason testing wreck that also collected teammate Joey Logano. The icing on the cake, though has to be the driver’s mediocre testing results last weekend that culminated in a 23rd-place qualifying effort. Will Daytona be a harbinger of a downer season?
Brother *Brian Keselowski* can’t be feeling all that great, either after a last-minute effort to come to Daytona just hasn’t panned out as of yet. The No. 52 car, a partnership with Hamilton-Means Racing failed to start before its qualifying run then put up the slowest time of the 45 drivers who went out and made an attempt. The underdog has been here before, using his brother to make the field through drafting within Thursday’s Duels but may need a bigger miracle this year without the ability to pair up.
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