NASCAR season preview

The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season saw prominent veterans lose their tempers, while a new young-gun took home the Sprint Cup championship.

Penske Racing driver, Brad Keselowski surprised many by beating the five-time champion, Jimmie Johnson, and winning the championship in just his third full-time year of competition in the series. He ran a strong campaign all year and was part of some of the most exciting races.

His championship season was one of the most memorable in NASCAR history, leaving the question of how the 2013 season will be able to stack up. But those questions were quickly put to rest with two of NASCAR’s biggest announcements: the introduction of a newly designed car and Danica Patrick running the full-time in the series.

From 2007 until last year, drivers were driving a car they called the COT or “Car of Tomorrow,” due to its complete redesign from the 2006 car. It had a newly designed chassis to help keep the drivers safer and a new body to go along with it. The chassis were a success, keeping drivers completely unharmed in even the most dangerous crashes, but the body was a failure. It was ugly. The car received much criticism from drivers, with the biggest complaint being the car looked nothing like the production car it was representing. Each body was practically the same. Until they put the manufacturer logo on the car, it was impossible to tell what the manufacturer was.

Teams weren’t happy, fans weren’t happy and even the manufacturers weren’t happy. According to Rick Hendrick, the owner of Hendrick Motorsports, one of his conversations with Chevrolet implied that if the cars didn’t look more like the production cars, the team might pull out of the sport. NASCAR took the criticism to heart and over the past couple of years worked on developing the perfect racecar; they accomplished just that. The Chevrolet, Ford and Toyotas look just like their production counterpart. Every line, curve and physical attribute that makes the production cars unique is now implemented in the racecars. Now when a Chevrolet SS, Ford Fusion or Toyota Camry racecar is parked next to the production car, there is just about no difference, allowing fans to feel like they are driving a NASCAR racecar and bringing back the old phrase, “Win on Sunday. Sell on Monday.”

These next Generation Six racecars were not the only addition to help make NASCAR look better either. Former IndyCar driver, Patrick, is making her first full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series attempt. For the past three years Patrick ran in the NASCAR Nationwide Series for Dale Earnhardt Jr., along with select Cup Series races for Stewart-Haas Racing, owned by veteran Tony Stewart. She entered the 2013 season with a lot of pressure on her shoulders, due to little success in her NASCAR career so far, driving for Stewart’s powerhouse team and currently being the only female driver in the Cup Series.

Whether people expect her to fail or succeed, she turned many heads at the Daytona 500 by claiming the pole for the race and becoming the first female to ever lead a lap at that event. She even impressed her fellow competitors by staying in the top five for the majority of the race and eventually finishing eighth. But even with that success there should not be a lot of high expectations for her. She is still a rookie and there are many tracks she has never raced at in a Cup Series car before. For the majority of the Cup series races she participated in last year she ran mostly around the top thirty, which is also where she ran during Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway before she crashed, due to a blown tire.

She will also be running against her fellow competitor and current boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for Rookie of the Year, another competition she will have an uphill battle in, since Stenhouse has more experience. He competed in the NASCAR Nationwide Series for the past two years and won the championship both times. Many eyes will be watching Patrick’s progression; being aligned with Stewart will certainly help that, but nobody should expect any sudden success.

No matter what happens, Patrick is sure to constantly capture headlines, but the 2013 season has started and there has already been big news. After winning five championships in a row, Johnson has finished sixth and third respectively the past two years, but is eyeing his sixth championship in 2013. He started off by winning the Daytona 500 for the second time and then backing it up with a second place finish at Phoenix. And Johnson leading the points early is not a good sign for the rest of the competition. The last time Johnson won the Daytona 500 was in 2006, the year of his first championship. The win was also in his 400th start, adding him to a legendary list of drivers that have won in their 400th start: Lee Petty, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dave Maric and Dale Earnhardt.

Although the win was exciting for Johnson, the race itself was one of the worst in the track’s history. Due to the aerodynamics and handling of the new cars, it was hard for cars to pass each other. Causing the cars to stay single file just about the whole race, sadly bringing the stereotype of only watching cars turn left for three hours to life. Due to its large size and banked corners, Daytona is what is called a restrictor plate track since every car has a restrictor plate on it to slow it down, preventing the cars from going faster than what NASCAR feels is safe. Luckily there are only three more restrictor plate races on the schedule, giving NASCAR time to come up with a solution to make the racing at these types of tracks better. But the best part about going to those tracks, as well as others, is the new gyro cameras placed in select cars each week. The camera staying horizontal allows the viewer to experience just how banked each track really is.

This is something drivers have already experienced at both extremes. Daytona has 31 degree banking, while Phoenix’s banking is just 11 degrees. And with Johnson’s competitiveness at both tracks, he is proving already that he is a strong contender for the championship.

A select few are also showing that they have what it takes to run with Johnson to the finish, including the man he ran against last year for the championship, Keselowski. Even with the successful year Keselowski had last year, there was still speculation on how he would do with his team switching from Dodge to Ford this year. But currently sitting third in points, any doubts have been put aside and is continuing to drive with the confidence of a champion.

Others include Johnson’s teammates Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Earnhardt Jr. Each has had strong performances so far with Earnhardt Jr. currently leading the trio with his second place standing in points. Gordon has had the car to beat in each race, but needs to stay consistent and have minimal mistakes if he wants to win his fifth championship. Kahne is currently in the worst position of the group, at thirty-first in points, but was in a similar position last year and rebounded to finish fourth in points. All four Hendrick Motorsports cars made the Chase for the Sprint Cup last year and there is no doubt they will do the same in 2013.

Another powerhouse team that is on the right track to having a strong season is Joe Gibbs Racing. They have always been a competitive team with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, but this year they have acquired a secret weapon in veteran driver Matt Kenseth. Kenseth, who won the Daytona 500 in 2012, left Roush-Fenway Racing, the only team he has ever driven for in NASCAR, to drive Joe Gibb’s No. 20 car. He has shown a lot of speed so far and will most likely win a lot of races once he becomes more acquainted with his new team. Kenseth is already proving to be possibly Johnson’s biggest contender for the championship. His teammate, Hamlin, will also win many races and make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but much like their other teammate, Busch, he still lacks the maturity to put together a championship season.

There will be many other drivers that have a strong season, like Sunday’s winner Carl Edwards and last year’s runner-up in points Clint Bowyer. There are others that have the potential to surprise everyone with a breakout season, like Martin Truex Jr. and Aric Almirola. One thing that is for sure is that the 2013 NASCAR season will be exciting because its many storylines. We’ll get to see how Kevin Harvick does in his final season with Richard Childress Racing before moving to Stewart’s team, the Patrick and Stenhouse rookie battle, if Bowyer still has a feud with Gordon and how the Generation Six car will perform at the rest of the tracks. It is still early in the season, so there is plenty of time to watch these storylines develop, along with many others.