NASCAR has a new look this season. There is a new car, a new defending champion whose team has switched to a different brand of car and, for the first time, two drivers are dating one another. At least it’s the first time such a relationship has been revealed.
All competitors will be driving the Generation 6 car, which has some performance-related design changes and makes the cars more like the stock cars of the past, which means they look more like the cars everyday people see in auto dealer showrooms. Brad Keselowski is the first first-time champion in seven years, when Jimmy Johnson won the first of his five straight overall championships. Keselowski won the 2012 championship in a Dodge, but Penske Racing is racing Fords this season.
As for the dating couple, Sprint Cup rookies Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. revealed they are in a relationship. Can their relationship survive the competitive NASCAR season? Can NASCAR survive their relationship?
Having drivers dating isn’t the only likely change in NASCAR in 2013. Matt Kenseth moved to Joe Gibbs Racing, forcing out Joey Logano, who joined Keselowski at Penske Racing. Carl Edwards remained at Roush Fenway Racing, but, after failing to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup last year, Edwards has a new crew chief.
There are a handful of big names who are trying to bounce back after disappointing – for them – 2012 seasons. Mix in the drivers who are knocking at the door and trying to break into the Chase, as well as Patrick and Stenhouse, and this appears to be a wide-open Sprint Cup Series.
The season begins with the Daytona 500, but it doesn’t end until November in Miami. A lot can happen between Sunday’s race and the end of the season, and this year it wouldn’t be surprising if many of the possibilities come to fruition.
The following is a look at some of the questions and storylines for the 2013 NASCAR season.
Does Danica Patrick deserve our attention this year?
Last year I mocked the coverage Patrick was receiving. This year the attention is warranted. Patrick is running a full-time Sprint Cup Series schedule for Stewart-Haas Racing. She earned the pole for the Daytona 500, becoming the first woman to do so in any Sprint Cup Series race. Last year’s attention was primarily because she is a woman. This year Patrick is making news, at least in part, as a driver.
Can Brad Keselowski retain his title?
Keselowski’s title wasn’t a fluke. But that doesn’t mean he’ll repeat as champion. Other than Jimmie Johnson, no driver has made a successful defense of NASCAR’s overall championship in 14 years. Adding to the challenge is that Penske Racing, Keselowski’s team, is switching from Dodge to Ford this year. That makes Keselowski’s bid to remain champion even more difficult.
Who will finish?
Many of the top drivers had an inordinate number of “Did Not Finish” (DNF) last year. Jimmie Johnson had six DNF’s, followed by Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon, who had five, and Kasey Kahne, who had four. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing each had four DNFs, as did Clint Bowyer. A DNF during the Chase is often fatal to a driver’s championship hopes.
Can the big names bounce back?
Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards missed the Chase last year, as did former overall champion Kurt Busch, who finished 25th. Kyle Busch, Newman and Edwards finished 13th, 14th and 15th, respectively, just outside the Chase qualifiers. Can they bounce back this year?
Edwards, who didn’t win any races last season after losing the overall championship to Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker the previous year, has a new crew chief in veteran Jimmy Fennig. When Matt Kenseth left Roush Fenway Racing for Joe Gibbs Racing, Fennig became Edwards’ crew chief.
Will Michael Waltrip Racing become a top team?
Michael Waltrip Racing broke through in 2012. Clint Bowyer finished second overall and Martin Truex Jr. made the Chase field and finished 11th. The third car this year will be driven by Mark Martin, Brian Vickers and, possibly, Waltrip himself. If Bowyer can contend for the title and Truex again qualifies for the Chase, the Waltrip team can take its place alongside Richard Childress Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Penske Racing and Roush Fenway Racing as the challengers to Hendrick Motorsports.
Does it matter who wins the Daytona 500?
The race definitely matters. Ask Tony Stewart. A Daytona 500 victory is missing from his first-class resume. But a Daytona 500 win doesn’t necessarily translate into championship contention. Only two of the Daytona 500 winners during the past 30 years won a championship that same year. Matt Kenseth won last year’s Daytona 500 and finished seventh in the overall standings. Do you remember the 2011 Daytona 500 winner? I’ll answer that question later in this article.
Will Jimmie Johnson regain his title?
Going two years without a championship must seem like an eternity for Johnson, who won five in a row. As mentioned earlier, if he can cut his DNF’s in half, Johnson could be king once again.
Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. continue his comeback?
Earnhardt ended his victory drought and qualified for the Chase last year. Unfortunately, a concussion sidelined Junior’s championship aspirations. Can he reach the Chase again this year? That’s an intriguing storyline to follow.
Gordon (left) got off to a horrendous start in 2012. Practically everything that could go wrong did go wrong, but Gordon rallied to qualify for the Chase. Bad luck struck Gordon again in the Chase’s first race, although he recovered in time to win the final race. Can Gordon avoid misfortune this season and become a force in the Chase?
Who are the old faces in new places?
Matt Kenseth moves from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing, joining Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin as championship contenders. Kenseth’s arrival forced out Joey Logano, who lands on his feet at Penske Racing, where he is a teammate of defending champion Brad Keselowski. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. steps into Kenseth’s place with Roush Fenway. Kevin Harvick will move to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, so it will be interesting to see how he performs for Richard Childress Racing in the final year of their long relationship.
Speaking of relationships, who will be the top rookie?
The top rookie is expected to be either Danica Patrick or Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won the Nationwide Series the past two years. Patrick and Stenhouse are dating – as you may have heard. Their relationship could make for some interesting moments on and off the track. For example, when they go out to dinner, which one of them drives?
Who won the 2011 Daytona 500?
To answer the question I posed earlier, the 2011 winner was 20-year-old Trevor Bayne, who starts in the 33rd position in this year’s race.
Who could break through the top names and make the Chase?
Paul Menard and Joey Logano seem the best bets to jump into the Chase. Other possibilities include Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose and Jamie McMurray.
Which are the best storylines for 2013?
In addition to the obvious Patrick-Stenhouse rookie battle and relationship, keep an eye on Brad Keselowski. He seems unflappable, but he’s never raced as defending NASCAR champion. The feud between Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer also bears watching. Their pit crews brawled during the Chase after Gordon retaliated by intentionally wrecking Bowyer last season, possibly ruining his chances to win the Sprint Cup title.
Who are the top contenders for the championship?
This year appears to be wide open, so it’s difficult to pick top contenders. Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson appear to be the only “sure things” with regard to contending for a championship.
Who else will qualify for the Chase?
Kasey Kahne, who finished fourth last season, should return to the Chase in his second season with Hendrick Motorsports. It’s difficult to imagine Clint Bowyer missing the Chase after finishing second last season. I can’t believe that Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch would miss the Chase for two straight years, so let’s put them back in the Chase. That means at least two Chase drivers from 2012 won’t qualify this year.
We’ve got half the field. That leaves six remaining spots. Veteran Hendrick teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon experienced some bad luck last season and still made the Chase. With better luck, they should finish better than 12th and 10th, respectively, this year. Denny Hamlin should rebound from a slightly disappointing 2012, and he should be joined in the Chase by new teammate Matt Kenseth. Kenseth’s old Roush Fenway teammate, the consistent Greg Biffle also should qualify for the Chase.
That leaves one spot. I’ll give the final spot to Tony Stewart, which avoids Stewart-Haas Racing being shut out of the Chase. It does, however, mean that Richard Childress Racing won’t have a team in the Chase, although Kevin Harvick or Paul Menard could change that equation.
Who will win the Chase?
My predicted order of finish … (drum roll, please) is:
3. Brad Keselowski
2. Kasey Kahne
1. Jimmie Johnson