Ten things to watch at Daytona
The watch list is a long one, and a fun one -- a new car, a new couple, some new alignments and new chances for a few major stars.
Welcome to Daytona 2013.
An interesting couple of weeks are ahead as NASCAR kicks off the new season, starting with the annual media day Thursday before the new Gen-6 cars hit the track.
Pay attention. There's a lot to see. Here's my list of 10 things to follow at Daytona this time around:
1. Danica/Ricky -- Or Danicky, as some people are calling them. Love it or hate it, this will be a big story. Media day will be the first time both Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. directly address their relationship in front of reporters.
Plenty of questions are coming. Tony Stewart and Jack Roush, their respective team owners, also will get asked about it, along with many drivers.
And everyone will want to see how they race each other once the two Cup rookies get on the track. The crazy comments will be unstoppable if they actually end up drafting with each other in practice or the 500. It's not likely since they are on competing teams and manufacturers, but you never know.
2. The Gen-6 -- I doubt if any car, not even the move to rear-engine machines at Indy or the old turbine racers at the Brickyard, ever has entered auto racing with more hype or higher expectations than the Gen-6 this year in Cup.
After all the praise and all the testing, fans finally get to see how it races. Don't expect any miracles, but it will be different than the much-despised Car of Tomorrow. If nothing else, at least the cars look good.
3. The new Sprint Unlimited -- A new name, a new format (still to be determined) and a new car. Speaking of the Gen-6, the all-star event (the former Bud Shootout) Saturday night will be the first racing action for this car.Two things to note:
• What happens in this race, a series of short sprints with a go-for-broke mindset since no points are on the line, isn't indicative of how the teams will race in the 500, which is 200 laps with everything on the line.
• And what happens in Daytona isn't indicative of how the cars will race anywhere else expect Talladega.
However, it will be interesting to see how this car changes restrictor-plate racing. As we saw in Daytona testing last month, courtesy of the Dale Earnhardt Jr.-induced crash, the bumpers don't line up well. So the pairs racing may be over and bump-drafting will be altered in some fashion.
4. Earnhardt hoping to regain restrictor-plate glory -- The multicar crash he started in testing, which he called "embarrassing," could be a good thing. It taught him, and probably everyone else, a little something about what can and can't be done in the Gen-6 on a plate track.
But Earnhardt remains confident this car will race similar to the Gen-4, the one that made him a restrictor-plate star.
From the middle of the 2001 season through the end of 2004, Earnhardt won an incredible seven of 14 plate races -- two at Daytona (the 2001 July race after his father's death in the 500 and the 2004 Daytona 500) and five at Talladega.
He didn't win any plate races in the COT, and won only two races overall, both at Michigan. So Earnhardt hopes the Gen-6 is a bit of rebirth for him at a time when his career already is on an upswing.
5. Gordon/Bowyer feud -- Almost everyone wants to know if Clint Bowyer will have a payback moment at Daytona and wreck Gordon to retaliate for Gordon intentionally wrecking him last November at Phoenix.
Don't bet on it. First of all, it's Daytona. Intentionally wrecking someone on a plate track is a really bad idea, possibly causing a 20-car melee.
Second, Bowyer is a serious title contender and he knows it. Hunting down Gordon to "get even" is not in Bowyer's best interest in the big picture. Things could go wrong and he could end up wrecking himself in the process.
Maybe somewhere along the way this season the circumstances will be right for a little "Hey, remember me?" moment with Gordon. But at Daytona? Not likely.
6. Joe Gibbs Racing's star-filled lineup -- NASCAR's new dream team. Yes, the Hendrick Motorsports quartet is impressive -- Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Earnhardt -- but it's just in Cup. JGR also has two title contenders now in the Nationwide Series with Elliott Sadler and Brian Vickers.
Kenseth can become the first driver since Sterling Marlin (1994-95) to win the Daytona 500 in back-to-back years. But Kenseth would be the first driver to do it with two different teams.
7. Tony Stewart ending his jinx? -- The best driver in NASCAR today without a win in the Daytona 500. His Daytona victories keep piling up, just not in the biggest race.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. knew the feeling. He won consistently at Daytona, but it took him 20 tries to win the Daytona 500, finally getting it done in 1998.
Stewart will make his 15th attempt at winning the 500, but he's no stranger to Victory Lane on the historic 2.5-mile oval. Stewart has 18 Daytona victories -- four July Cup races, six Nationwide events, three Sprint Unlimiteds, three qualifying races and two IROC events.
He has five more chances to win the big one faster than Earnhardt did.
8. Kurt Busch charging for the underdog -- He's never won a Cup points race at Daytona and never had won any points race on the track until his victory in the Nationwide event last summer. Now he's racing for a team that's never won at Daytona.
If Busch can win it this year for Furniture Row Racing, it will send a message that the one-car team in on the rise with the former Cup champ behind the wheel, and the No. 78 Chevy might contend for a Chase spot.
9. Nationwide and Trucks doing it right -- Finally, both series are back to doing what they should do: showcasing upcoming talent and creating championship drama with quality drivers who aren't running full time in Cup.
The Nationwide Series is loaded with guys who have a shot at the title -- Sadler, Vickers, Austin Dillon and Trevor Bayne, who takes over the Roush Fenway Racing Ford Stenhouse drove to the championship the past two years.
Travis Pastrana will bring plenty of attention from the X Games fans, and an Earnhardt (Dale Sr.'s grandson, Jeffrey) also is competing.
The Camping World Truck Series has its rising stars with defending champ James Buescher, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Darrell Wallace Jr., only the fourth African American in history to race full time in a national NASCAR series.
10. The champ and Penske Racing changing the game -- Last but not least, the team at the top. Brad Keselowski is the champion NASCAR needed -- young, brash and brainy. But he's also proving to be a driver who respects the sport, developing into a leader and spokesmen.
Roger Penske has a driver who could win consistently for many years while becoming one of the sport's biggest stars. But how the team adapts to the switch from Dodge to Ford, along with leasing motors from the Roush-Yates Engines, is a big unknown.
Another unknown is Joey Logano, Keselowski's new teammate. Hard to believe that Logano still is only 22 years old. He's getting a fresh start to try to show he can become the contending Cup racer most people always believed he would be.
Keselowski has yet to win a race at Daytona and Logano's only win came in a 2011 Nationwide event. But a Ford driver has won the past two Daytona 500s and three of the past four Daytona Cup races. A win in this one for either of the Penske boys would build confidence during the team's transition.
And that's 10 things to watch. At least 10 others will pop up before the checkered flag waves in the 2013 Daytona 500. It's all new, and hopefully, improved in many ways.