Start Your Engines: NASCAR is back

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As the sports calendar turns over once again, fans of a sport that is as American as apple pie are celebrating. The 2013 edition of Speedweeks are here, and with them, another NASCAR season. There are many storylines going into the new season, from yet another new car design to a changing of the guard at the top of the pack to an on-track rookie of the year romance.

The New Sixth Generation Car

This season, NASCAR has made drastic changes to the body of the racecars. The new-look cars are made to more closely resemble the street versions of the cars they are named after. The fifth generation (Car of Tomorrow) cars, which debuted in 2007, featured a front splitter on the nose and were designed to make racing safer. What resulted was significantly safer racing, but with a catch: dull racing. I used to be a die-hard NASCAR fan and rarely missed a race. In recent years, NASCAR has become something I watch when I have time or whenever there’s nothing else on TV. NASCAR is hoping that introducing this new car will make races more exciting, and in turn, attract in some of the fans who that have left the sport in recent years. It will be interesting to see if the distinctly different cars have some sort of impact on the racing. Will we see one of the three manufacturers (Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota) have a distinct advantage at Daytona?

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Change at the Top

From 2006-2010, Jimmie Johnson won five consecutive Sprint Cup championships. His dominance was bookended by Tony Stewart, who won in 2005 and 2011. Stewart is already 41 (imagine that!) and Johnson is 37, so fans and drivers alike were anxiously anticipating who would step forth as the new face of NASCAR. The answer: Brad Keselowski. The 29-year-old Michigan-native won his first race in 2009 but burst onto the scene in 2012, taking five victories and the Sprint Cup championship. Keselowski is a polarizing driver - he is outgoing, tweets often (sometimes from his car!) and is a staunch supporter of honoring America’s troops, yet he drives aggressively and picks fights. Keselowski is changing manufacturer to Ford this season, as Dodge left the sport. The new car will throw everyone for a loop this season so a Brad Keselowski repeat is not certain. Either way, watching Brad is always interesting.

Rookie Romance

Danica Patrick, America’s favorite female racer, divorced her husband Paul Hospenthal in November. This season is Patrick’s first full year in Sprint Cup, and she will not go into it single. That’s because she’s dating her lone serious competitor for the Rookie of the Year, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The two made it public in the end of January, and the speculation has gone viral. They compete for rival teams (Patrick for Stewart-Haas Racing and Stenhouse for Roush Fenway Racing), drive different types of cars (Patrick drives a Chevrolet and Stenhouse a Ford) and have distinctly different driving histories (Patrick has one career auto racing win - in the Izod IndyCar Series in 2008, while Stenhouse has won two consecutive Nationwide Series championships). Will they treat each other like competitors or teammates? And what happens when they’re running 1-2 near the end of a race? This storyline has never been seen before in sports, much less in NASCAR. It promises to keep fans hooked all season…unless there’s a breakup. THEN we really will see some action.

So, Who Wins the Daytona 500? The 2013 Sprint Cup?

For Daytona, I have to go with Greg Biffle. Fords are ALWAYS fast in February and Biffle has come close many, many times at the Great American Race. As for the Sprint Cup, I think that Matt Kenseth, in his first year at Joe Gibbs Racing, will bring home the title with Keselowski a close second.

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