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NASCAR

Stenhouse Jr. ready to get Nationwide title defense underway

Series: NASCAR Nationwide. Date: Saturday, mile tri-oval. Start time: 1:15 p.m. (et). Laps: 120. Miles: 300. 2011 Winner: Tony Stewart. Television: ESPN. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Satellite.

The 2012 Nationwide Series season gets underway on Saturday with the 300-miler at Daytona International Speedway.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also begins his campaign for a second straight championship. If Stenhouse can defend his title this year, he would join Sam Ard (1983-84), Larry Pearson (1986-87), Randy LaJoie (1996-97), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1998-99) and Martin Truex Jr. (2004-05) with back-to-back Nationwide titles.

In a NASCAR media poll released last week, Stenhouse was selected as the preseason favorite to win the Nationwide title.

"We're ready for another championship," he said. "Our Nationwide Series season starts this week, and I think we have worked on a few things that we needed to work on during the offseason and want to start out strong this year."

Stenhouse has made four Nationwide starts at Daytona, posting two top-10 finishes.

While Stenhouse remains in the No. 6 car, his Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Trevor Bayne, moves over to the No. 60 this season. Carl Edwards had been the driver of the 60, but Edwards has no plans to compete in Nationwide this year, as he focuses more on his Sprint Cup Series efforts.

Coming off his championship season in the Camping World Truck Series, Austin Dillon has graduated to Nationwide, driving the No. 3 car for Richard Childress Racing. Danny Stockman will serve as Dillon's crew chief after guiding him to the truck title last year.

"Everybody is looking forward to getting to Daytona and to get the first race behind us," Dillon said. "Once we get the first race behind us, we have three races in a row, so that's something new for me. In the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, you get a month off, but in the Nationwide Series, we are going racing. It will be fun. We're prepared and ready to go."

Dillon has already made 11 Nationwide starts, with his best finish of third coming last July at Nashville.

Danica Patrick is set to compete in the full 33-race Nationwide schedule this year. Patrick, driving the No. 7 car for JR Motorsports, has three Nationwide starts at Daytona. Her finishes there are 10th, 14th and 35th.

"I've raced (at Daytona) more than any other track, and I did that on purpose, because I want to do well in the big races, and Daytona is a big race," she said. "The more experience I have at a place like this, the better off I am."

Patrick's boss in Sprint Cup, Tony Stewart, will attempt to win the Nationwide season opener at Daytona for the fifth consecutive year. Stewart also won the February race at this track in 2005 and '06. If he takes the checkered flag for this event, he will tie Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s record for most Nationwide wins at Daytona with seven.

"That's a pretty cool feeling to know we've closed in on something (Earnhardt's) done at Daytona," Stewart said. "To me, that was his playground. You just watched him play with the guys here. He was the best at that place. To even be remotely close to him in the record books, in anything at Daytona, is very humbling."

Stewart is one of nine Sprint Cup regulars competing in this race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. also is entered. Earnhardt Jr. has six wins at Daytona as well, most recently in July 2010.

Fifty teams are on the preliminary entry list for the DRIVE4COPD 300.