Theme for '13: Great expectations
Watch closely, folks. The 2013 NASCAR season will be one to remember.
I'm counting on it, if not betting on it.
A few things are going to happen in NASCAR this year that have never happened before. And a few things might happen that no one has seen in many years.
Let's start with a couple of sure things, or almost sure things:
• 43 years ago -- The last time NASCAR raced on dirt. It was Sept. 30, 1970, on the fairgrounds in Raleigh, N.C. Richard Petty won on the 1-mile oval.
NASCAR goes vintage racing this year with a Camping World Truck Series event on the dirt at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, a half-mile oval owned by Tony Stewart.
This race will be one of the most anticipated events of the season. It takes place on July 24, a Wednesday night before the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis (90 miles away) four days later.
The field will be limited to 30 trucks. Eldora has 16,000 seats, but additional grandstands will be brought in for a likely sellout crowd.
• A female first -- No woman ever has run a full Cup season, except for the six-race inaugural NASCAR season in 1949, when Sara Christian raced in all six events.
She finished 13th overall, best ever for a woman, but a six-race season hardly counts by today's standards.
Danica Patrick will become the first woman of the modern era to race a full Cup schedule (barring injury or suspension) this season when she runs full time for Stewart-Haas Racing.
By modern standards, Janet Guthrie posted the best ranking for a woman when she finished 23rd in the 1977 standings while running 19 of 30 events, earning four top-10s.
Equaling that mark is a tall task for Patrick, but not impossible. Bobby Labonte was 23rd in the 2012 standings with two top-5s and an average finish of 22.6. Patrick will be in a better car (Hendrick Motorsports equipment) than Labonte has.
Here are several other things that could happen for the first time in a long time and some others that would be a first in NASCAR:
• 51 years ago -- The 1962 season marked the last time NASCAR had three consecutive seasons where a team owner won a Cup title for the first time.
It will happen this year if Michael Waltrip Racing claims its first title with either Clint Bowyer or Martin Truex Jr. Both men made the 2012 Chase, and Bowyer finished as the championship runner-up to Brad Keselowski.
"We have the capability to improve on our success from last season," said Scott Miller, MWR's vice president of competition. "We developed a process last season to get from point A to point B, and we found a lot of success with the process. We will use the same process to help us with the development of the 2013 car.
"Toyota Racing Development is working really hard on the engines to give us more reliability and more power. I think we can elevate our program this season and compete for a championship again."
Stewart's 2011 title was the first Cup crown for Stewart-Haas Racing. Keselowski gave Roger Penske his long-awaited Cup championship in 2012.
Rex White (1960), Ned Jarrett (1961) and Joe Weatherly (1962) gave team owners first-time championships half a century ago. The interesting thing is that all three of them ran races in those championship years for more than one team owner, not uncommon in those days.
• 32 years ago -- Darrell Waltrip won the 1981 title in his first season driving for Junior Johnson. No one has done it since, but Matt Kenseth has a good shot at it this year in his first season for Joe Gibbs Racing.
• 17 years ago -- The 1996 season was the only time a driver won the championship 12 years removed from his last one. Terry Labonte did it at Hendrick Motorsports. Jeff Gordon could equal the feat this year for boss Rick Hendrick. Gordon's fourth and last Cup title came in 2001.
• 14 years ago -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his second consecutive Nationwide title (the Busch Series at the time) in 1999. That was the last time the Earnhardt name had a championship banner.
There are two ways that could happen this year. Earnhardt could win the Cup crown in what may be his best chance ever. And Regan Smith could win the Nationwide title driving his first full season for JR Motorsports.
• 13 years ago -- Bobby Labonte's Cup championship in 2000 was the last time NASCAR had a driver who was the brother of a champion win a title in the same series.
Austin also is a contender for the Nationwide Series title this year, so they could become the first brothers to win titles in the same season.
• 10 years ago -- Brian Vickers won the Nationwide title in 2003. He's one of the favorites to win it this year in his first season driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. If he does, he'll become the first man to win championships in the series 10 years apart.
• Back-to-back titles in two series -- That never has happened, but Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has a shot at it this year. Granted, it's a long shot, but he is driving a quality car for a team that made the Chase last year. Stenhouse, who won the past two Nationwide titles, replaces Kenseth at Roush Fenway Racing.
Keselowski and Greg Biffle came close to accomplishing this feat. Keselowski's Cup crown last year came two years after he won the 2010 Nationwide title. Biffle won the 2002 Nationwide championship two years after winning the CWTS title.
Keselowski and Bobby Labonte are the only Nationwide champs (so far) who went on to win a Cup title.