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Saturday, February 23, 2013

2013 NASCAR Preview

When the green flag drops in Daytona on Sunday, NASCAR's 64th season will be underway.  Stock car racing is a purely American sport.  And, it is fair to say that NASCAR is as popular with the American people as any sport besides football.  If you're not already excited about the start of the 2013 season, here are a five things to look forward to this year.

Chevy SS race car and street car
1.  Return to "Stock" Cars.  NASCAR is an acronym for the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing.  But as Robert Duvall's character says in Days of Thunder, "There's nothing stock about a stock car."  Well, for 2013, NASCAR is trying to do a little something about that.  While the engines certainly won't look like the one under the hood of your family sedan, in 2013 the cars on the track will have the same outward appearance as the cars on the street.  Three manufacturers will be participating this season.  Chevy will be running an SS model.  Ford will be running a Fusion, and Toyota will be entering the Camry.  The basic idea here is to capitalize on the fierce brand loyalty that Americans feels towards their own cars.  In the old days, it was easy for fans to pick out a Chevy from a Ford on the track just due to body shape.  That should once again be possible with the 2013 cars.

2.  All About the Drivers.  NASCAR truly is a team sport.  Engineers, mechanics and pit crews build and set up the cars each week before the driver gets behind the wheel.  There are significant differences in the preparation of the cars for each different track on the circuit.  With the new cars making their debut in 2013, the teams have no history and very little research to fall back on when prepping for a race.  Therefore, there will likely be some cars that take the green flag for a race that turn out to be quite a handful to actually drive.  So, many weeks, especially at the start of the season, it's going to be up to the driver to manage the equipment that they're given.  Obviously, anyone who has a ride in the Sprint Cup series knows how to drive a car.  But, there are a few guys out there who truly excel at making the best of an ornery car.  Tony Stewart is one name that jumps to mind immediately.  Kyle Busch and defending champ Brad Keselowski are two others.  That is certainly not an exhaustive list.  There are many others who could jump up and take advantage of the open competition.  But, whoever does take the crown this year will have proven early on in the season that they have more innate driving talent than the rest of the field.

(Michael Hickey/USA Today Sports)
3. Girl Power.  It seems like Danica Patrick has been part of NASCAR for years.  And, while she's been on the periphery for a while, 2013 will actually be her rookie season on the Sprint Cup circuit.  For the first time, Danica will be running a full-time Sprint Cup schedule in the #10 Go Daddy Chevrolet owned by Stewart-Haas racing.  I know that a lot of racing purists are tired of hearing about this girl.  I also know that, thus far, her performance on the track has not measured up to the publicity that she has garnered.  But, love her or hate her, all eyes will be on the only female in the field for every Sprint Cup race this season.  And, when the green flag drops on the season in Daytona this Sunday, it will be Danica Patrick that leads the leads the field to the line.  By virtue of her qualifying laps last weekend, Danica will be starting from the pole position for the Great American Race.  But, that's not Danica's only draw.  As I wrote a few years ago, NASCAR is as much about the personalities and backstories of the drivers as it is about what actually happens on the track.  This year, Danica brings a little extra in that category.  Not only is she the only girl on the track, but she is also dating fellow rookie Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.  This might not be a big deal as long as things are peaceful on the domestic front, but one can only imagine what mayhem might ensue if a mid-season break-up were to occur.

4.  Junior Nation Rising.  As I type this, I am wearing an official Junior Nation staff shirt.  And there is a mini #88 car plugged into my laptop's USB port.  So, I acknowledge I am not the most objective observer on this topic.  But, the Wild Banshee is not alone in this devotion.  Far from it.  Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has been voted the most popular driver in NASCAR for ten straight years.  But, for the first time in many years, Junior Nation has a legitimate reason for optimism as the season opens.  Last season was Junior's first full season with Steve Letarte as crew chief.  And, it was Junior's best season in a long time.  When the 2012 Chase started, Junior was only 9 points out of first place.  Although the Chase didn't turn out the way that Dale's fans would have liked, there is plenty of reason to believe that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will be a strong contender in Letarte's second year on top of the pit box.

5.  Unpredictable.  In some ways this might just be a recap of the first four categories of this post.  But, in other ways, it's a perfect final category for the 2013 NASCAR season.  As described to me by Don Hawk, Sr. VP of SMI, stock car racing is "frantic serenity."  And that is in the best of circumstances.  With the addition of the new car, Danica Patrick in a Stewart-Haas ride, Dale, Jr. on the rise and a multitude of hungry drivers trying to get a piece of the pie, this season is about as unpredictable as any season in recent memory.

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