Sprint Cup year in preview
January 05, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
The highly anticipated debut of NASCAR’s Generation-6 cars, fan-friendly competition changes, new team alignments, a bona fide Rookie of the Year battle and the million-dollar question of whether newly crowned 2012 champion Brad Keselowski can win again give the 2013 Sprint Cup Series season all the trappings of a drama-fueled year.
Few seasons have been as keenly awaited as 2013, which promises exciting changes to NASCAR competition.
Undoubtedly, the single most important development for NASCAR in 2013 is the debut of the first new car models since 2007.
With all the flashy manufacturer’s “unveils” complete and the Gen-6 cars in the midst of the last crucial on-track tests, it appears the drivers are as excited about the new-look cars as the fans, NASCAR and the manufacturers.
"I think next year holds a lot in store as far as the new car and fans being excited about it."
-- Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
After a six-year run with the COT (Car of Tomorrow), NASCAR will return to the production-based cars on which the sport was founded. The 2013 Ford Fusions, Chevrolet SSs and Toyota Camrys competing this season more closely resemble their showroom counterparts.
The new models will still use all the safety innovations that characterized and defined the COT -- but come with updated technology, plenty of speed and the real look of street cars. The aim is a stronger connection with fans, who have fervently embraced the “race on Sunday, buy on Monday” ideal in the past.
The drivers have been genuinely impressed with the aesthetics of the Gen-6 car, and NASCAR has spent more than a year getting it race ready. From chassis design to wind-tunnel testing to the current on-track runs, the sanctioning body has followed a systematic process to figure out a rules package, refine race trim and make the cars race as good as they look.
Preseason testing has produced track record-worthy speeds and drivers say it’s a good indicator of what to expect in the upcoming season.
“What’s paramount is taking this car and making sure we have great racing, not in a way that’s dangerous, not in a way that’s ridiculous with crazy race rules; but in a way that’s natural,” veteran Jeff Burton said. “Make it so that drivers can drive the car in such a way it’s fun to watch them do it. That’s the opportunity we have in front of us.”
Beyond the new cars, fans will immediately notice several competition changes -- most notably the way the 43-car Sprint Cup fields will be set -- a “big win for our fans” according to NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton.
In a move to add “intrigue, excitement and drama” to qualifying, NASCAR announced a new 36-6-1 procedure to set the Sprint Cup Series starting fields.
The fastest 36 cars will earn a starting spot based on speed, the next six highest-ranking cars in owners points will also get a spot on the grid, and the final position will go to the most recent eligible past champion.
Since 2008, the top-35 positions were locked in based on owner’s points and now only a maximum of seven positions will be based on points -- returning a greater emphasis to speed and time trials. And the preceding year’s owners points will apply only to the first three races, as opposed to the first five races applied in previous years.
Additionally, the series is going back to a “random draw” for qualifying order. Should qualifying be canceled because of rain, the starting lineup will still be set by practice speeds.
The other major change this year -- especially significant with the introduction of new cars -- opens up NASCAR’s testing policy. Each organization will be allowed four tests at tracks where the series competes. In an effort to discourage testing and curb costs during the past four seasons, teams were allowed to test only at tracks that did not host Cup races.
In addition to the Gen-6 cars and new qualifying format, the 2013 season will feature some key changes with marquee names and nameplates.
In mid-December, Matt Kenseth showed up at the Roush Fenway Racing shop and delivered bottles of champagne to team members to thank them for a 15-year relationship that produced a Cup Rookie of the Year (2000) title, Sprint Cup championship (2003) and a pair of Daytona 500 victories (2009 and 2012).
Even as Kenseth officially began his tenure with Joe Gibbs Racing this offseason, here he was providing the kind of goodwill send-off that marks several high-profile team and manufacturer realignments for the upcoming season.
Dodge enjoyed a similar celebratory farewell, saying good-bye to Sprint Cup Series competition after a stunning 2012 championship run by Penske Racing’s Brad Keselowski.
Starting this year, the legendary Penske organization will field Ford Fusions and it welcomes a new teammate for Keselowski, fourth-year driver Joey Logano, who moves out of the cockpit of the No. 20 Toyota now belonging to Kenseth -- and into the No. 22 Penske Ford.
Two-time Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is filling the vacancy Kenseth left at Roush Fenway Racing and will try to add Rookie of the Year to his list of NASCAR achievements.
And former Cup champion Kurt Busch moves to the Furniture Row Racing No. 78 -- his third team in the past two seasons.
“It’s all unknowns,” said Kenseth, who finished seventh in the 2012 Chase. .“ ... It’s completely different crew, crew chief, organization, car manufacturer, car body style and teammates. ...
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about it, but I’m also excited and really looking forward to it.”
It’s a similar theme for Sprint Cup’s two high-profile rookies: Stenhouse and former IndyCar star Danica Patrick, who have prepared years for their big move into NASCAR’s marquee series.
After several seasons of small rookie classes and relatively anticlimactic rookie titles runs, 2013 should provide one of the most-watched rookie competitions in recent memory.
Stenhouse, a two-time Nationwide champ, moves into Kenseth’s seat at Roush Fenway Racing. Patrick, who just finished her first full-time Nationwide schedule, will drive a Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing under the guidance of teammate Ryan Newman’s former crew chief, veteran Tony Gibson.
What makes this competition between Patrick and Stenhouse so interesting is that the two have developed a strong friendship and good rapport. Patrick, who was voted the Nationwide Series’ 2012 Most Popular Driver, frequently relied on Stenhouse -- a former sprint car driver -- for help adjusting to the bulkier stock cars.
“It’ll be fun,” Stenhouse said. “I can’t help her too much in the Cup car, though, she’s got more races than I’ve got. And we probably both lean on the same people on the Cup side, as far as Tony (Stewart).
“It should be good. I’m anxious to get it going. I think next year holds a lot in store as far as the new car and fans being excited about it.”
For her part, Patrick has insisted on a methodical and tempered approach to her transition from the open-wheel ranks.
After partial seasons split between IndyCar and NASCAR, she ran a full Nationwide schedule in 2012 with 10 Cup starts as well. Her best Cup finish of 17th came in her last start in November in hometown Phoenix.
“I feel much more prepared,” Patrick said. “I am more comfortable with the cars, the race weekends, the schedules.”
Of course the big question, the true intrigue, the most suspense of the 2013 season surrounds the Sprint Cup championship.
Can the 28-year-old Keselowski become the first repeat champion since Jimmie Johnson made his historic five-year title run from 2006-2010?
He has never been more confident. But his competition has never been more motivated.
With so many unknowns for the upcoming season regarding the new cars and high-profile team realignments, some feel this season -- more than recent others -- is anybody’s game.
“As competitive as every company is right now, I don’t think anyone has an advantage going into the new season,” said Hendrick driver Kasey Kahne, who is coming off a career best fourth-place finish in points.
“Some drivers are going to adapt and like the new car quicker. It’s definitely going to do things differently. ... I’m hoping it plays into my court.
“Of course, everyone is thinking the same thing.”