More at stake for Daytona 500; Piquet plans ahead
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Don't think for a minute that NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers haven't thought through the ramifications of the new 2013 qualifying rules -- particularly as they apply to the Daytona 500.
NASCAR's biggest mulligan, the rule that guaranteed starting spots in each race to the top 35 cars in the owner standings, is gone this year.
That alone will force drivers such as Joey Logano, who inherits a No. 22 Penske Racing Ford that's 21st in owner points, to focus more on Sunday's qualifying session than he has in the past.
"Quite a bit; quite a bit, for sure," Logano told the NASCAR Wire Service on Thursday during NASCAR Media Day Fueled by Sunoco at Daytona International Speedway. "We've got to go out there and qualify pretty good, to help ourselves in case something dumb happens in the Duel and make sure we're in."
After time trials on Sunday determine the two front-row starting positions, two Budweiser Duel 150-mile qualifying races on Thursday will cement the first 32 drivers in the Daytona 500 field. The second-through-sixth fastest cars from time trials that don't transfer from the Duels occupy positions 33-36.
The final seven spots are provisionals based on owner points, with position 43 going to the most recent past champion not otherwise qualified, if needed.
So Logano knows that, if he doesn't post a strong qualifying time, and a handful of cars ahead of his in the owner standings fall victim to major wrecks in either of the Duels and gobble up the provisionals, he could miss the Daytona 500.
Compounding the issue was a relative lack of speed in both Penske entries during Preseason Thunder testing at Daytona in January. Accordingly, Penske has invested in wind tunnel time and refinements to the building process for its new Gen-6 Ford, all in a quest for added speed.
"We've had the car in the tunnel working on that, trying make sure we can qualify up towards the front," Logano said. "We've made a lot of adjustments on our cars since the test down here. We need quite a bit of speed.
"Obviously, we've got a different car, because that one got destroyed (in a pack-drafting wreck in January), but we planned on having a different car anyway. We feel like there are some pretty big gains there, but I'm sure everyone else is going to have some pretty big gains, too. I just hope our gains are better than theirs, and we go out there and run good."
With the top-35 rule in effect, qualifying at restrictor-plate race tracks used to be a formality. Under the current format, a fast qualifying speed is an insurance policy against missing the race.
"Before, we didn't really worry about qualifying," Logano acknowledged. "When we came to superspeedways and didn't really qualify that well, we were like, 'It doesn't matter -- we'll just go out there and race.'
"It does matter a little bit now, especially in my situation where the 22 car is in points. If the perfect storm was to brew, we could be in trouble, so we've just got to be aware of the situation and what's going on. So we're just dotting all our 'I's' and crossing all our 'T's' and making sure nothing dumb happens."
Impatience is a hallmark of most NASCAR drivers, whether it involves competing on the track or advancing their careers.
Nelson Piquet Jr. is the exception. The 27-year-old Brazilian driver, the son of three-time Formula One champion Nelson Piquet, is quick on the asphalt, but his career moves are remarkably deliberate and well thought-out.
Piquet doesn't believe he's ready for a Cup ride. In fact, he had reservations about making the jump with Turner Scott Motorsports from the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series to the NASCAR Nationwide Series this year.
"A lot of people don't think so, but I think I'm a down-to-earth guy," Piquet told the NASCAR Wire Service. "I know where I should be, where my place is, and I don't think my place is Cup right now. I'm sure I want to do a few races here and there -- a road course, and start maybe doing an oval here and there in the Cup series -- but I know there's still a lot to learn."
Piquet's plan was to run a third full season in the Truck Series, but a change in his management and the addition of sponsorship accelerated his progress.
Piquet won four races in NASCAR divisions in 2012 (at Michigan International Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Trucks, at Road America in Nationwide and at Bristol Motor Speedway in K&N Pro East). Nevertheless, he had second thoughts about making the move to Nationwide.
"We had worked the whole year," Piquet said, "and when we decided, 'OK, we're doing Trucks again next year,' around September or October, we started planning everything for this year, building trucks and getting ready -- even schedules and a testing plan, all kinds of things -- because I really wanted to put my name out there and win the championship and multiple races.
"But the opportunity came up… It was hard for me, because, in a certain way, I still felt like I had to maybe show something else. OK, I won some races. One was a mileage race, one was a K&N and a Nationwide, too, but I think I would have wanted to win four or five races in a single year to say, 'Hey, OK, now I want to move up.'"
Reporters gave Danica Patrick enough respite from questions about her romance with fellow Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to let her talk about her one-race Nationwide Series deal with Turner Scott Motorsports. Patrick will drive the No. 34 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet Camaro in the Feb. 23 DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona. As of now, that's her only firm NNS commitment of the season. ...
Stenhouse had several of the day's best one-liners. Responding to Cup champion Brad Keselowski's contention that a Patrick-Stenhouse breakup would be more interesting than a Patrick-Stenhouse relationship, Stenhouse retorted, "Coming from a guy who never had a girlfriend? I don't think so."
In one respect, Stenhouse said, it doesn't matter whether he or Patrick wins the Cup rookie-of-the-year title this year. "At least we both get to go to the banquet," he said.