The haulers should be rolling into Daytona anytime now. NASCAR’s short respite is over, and it’s time to welcome in the 2013 season.
Sure everyone is “excited” about their prospects going into the new season, but we are here to separate fact from fiction. That said, we know that drivers such as Aric Almirola, Juan Pablo Montoya and Jeff Burton are long-shots - as in 300-to-1 - to win a Sprint Cup championship. The smart money will ride on guys such as Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin.
But the more compelling storylines this season involve something more challenging than handicapping odds. Here’s a look at our Top Five Sprint Cup topics of interest in 2013:
1. The new car. NASCAR is all in when it comes to the Gen 6 model. It’s universally touted as a car that will engage the paying customers with the longtime NASCAR adage - “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday.” The Chevys, Toyotas and Fords look very cool, but there is still the practical application. Will racing these new machines bring more excitement to the season, or are we in for some of the same long monotonous grinds? We shall see what transpires in the Great American Race on Feb. 24.
2. Danica and Ricky. It’s impossible to ignore the gossipy pillow talk involving Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse, aka “Danicky.” They are dating. They are also competing full-time in the Sprint Cup series this season on opposing teams. Will Ricky come to Danica’s aid if there is a dustup with another driver? What if they break up? What if they get married? It’s a soap opera of unprecedented proportions in the NASCAR garage.
3. Clint and Jeff. Here is yet another relationship that merits our attention. But it’s hardly lovey-dovey. Clint Bowyer made a frantic bee-line at Jeff Gordon in the pits after Gordon purposely wrecked Bowyer in Phoenix last November. I am fairly certain that the grudge match isn’t over, even though they did spend a few minutes on P Diddy’s yacht on New Year’s Eve. They may have chatted briefly but they won’t be making any beautiful music together anytime soon. Stay tuned.
4. Is Joe Gibbs ready to challenge Hendrick Motorsports as NASCAR’s top dog? Hendrick has four drivers who made the Chase last season, but Gibbs has three guys who should contend for a title - Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Hamlin. Busch just missed qualifying for the Chase after he was edged out by Gordon (a Hendrick guy) in Richmond. Kenseth is the new/old guy who crosses over from Roush Fenway Racing. Both teams are stacked. Should be fun to watch.
5. Brad Keselowski. He’s the perfect guy for the next generation of NASCAR drivers - talented, brash and big on Twitter. It will be great for the NASCAR business model if he makes a solid run at defending his 2012 Cup title, even though he has switched over from Dodge to Ford this season. You’ll probably get daily updates at keselowski.
Rusty Wallace in Hall of Fame
Rusty Wallace was the marquee name in NASCAR’s fourth Hall of Fame class, and that deserves a toast of course.
So who better to raise a glass in Rusty’s honor than the current driver of the famed “Blue Deuce,” 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski?
Keselowski introduced Wallace at the awards ceremony last weekend in Charlotte, and did so properly.
“Tonight I salute Rusty Wallace and the original Blue Deuce and Miller Lite in his honor,” he said. “Congratulations, Rusty, and I encourage everyone here, cheers to Rusty. This one’s for you, Rusty.”
He then pulled a Miller Lite out of his coat.
Classic. And classy.
Wallace, who along with mechanic and crew chief Leonard Wood are the only living members of this year’s class, won 55 races and the 1989 Cup championship.
“The thing I learned, and I said it at the driver meeting in 2005 the day I retired and walked out, I said: ‘This is a privilege. This is a privilege to race in NASCAR. You don’t have to do it. We’re not making you do it. It’s a privilege to race in NASCAR, and it’s a blessing for me to be in this sport and do what I’ve done,’ “ Wallace said at the ceremony Friday night. “I just hope all the young drivers respect NASCAR as much as I respect it and go out there and say nice things about NASCAR and help build this sport.”
The class also included former series champions Herb Thomas and Buck Baker and former car owner Cotton Owens.
Joe Gibbs is going to have some company in the NASCAR garage when it comes to NFL street cred.
Former NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski has joined Swan Racing as a minority owner. Romanowski will be a partner with founder Brandon Davis, who has enlisted two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip to make another run at a victory on Feb. 24.
David Stremme will then take over for Waltrip, driving the No. 30 Toyota the following week at Phoenix.
Romanowski has a resume as a true-grit kind of player, competing for 16 seasons for San Francisco, Philadelphia, Denver and Oakland. He played in five Super Bowls and was selected to two Pro Bowls.
“I am thrilled to jump into the NASCAR world as a part owner and as a sponsor,” Romanowski said in a statement. . “Brandon has a vision for how to build a championship contender and I’m eager to be part of it.”
Dinger is back
Looks like AJ Allmendinger may have found a ride for 2013. Only it’s not in a Cup car.
Allmendinger, who was suspended from NASCAR for using a banned drug last season, is set to test an IndyCar for Penske Racing at Sebring, on Feb. 19, and has the possibility of running the Indianapolis 500 for the famed Penske group.
“Roger (Penske) is one of the most loyal owners you will ever know, and I think his loyalty has come into play in this case,” Penske president Tim Cindric told the Associated Press. “AJ is obviously talented and when you look at the circumstances and how he handled the circumstances, well, he made a mistake. But he’s a talented guy and someone who has shown what he can do in an IndyCar.
“We are in the racing business, and AJ has gone through the process required for him and as far as we are concerned the slate is wiped clean.”