This Week in Auto Racing Feb. 22 - 24

The 2013 NASCAR season has arrived, with all three of its national touring series racing at Daytona International Speedway this week. It culminates with Sunday's Daytona 500 -- the most prestigious stock car race of the season.


Sprint Cup Series

Daytona 500 - Daytona International Speedway - Daytona Beach, Fla.

This year's Daytona 500 is generating more hype than any other one in the 55- year history of NASCAR's biggest race for two reasons.

First, rookie-of-the-year contender Danica Patrick made NASCAR history last Sunday when she won the pole position for the Daytona 500. Patrick became the first woman to win a pole for a race in NASCAR's premier series (Sprint Cup).

Second, NASCAR has a new race car for Sprint Cup this year, the Gen-6, but it's unknown how well this car will handle in a full field of 43 cars, particularly in pack racing which occurs at restrictor-plate tracks such as Daytona. Therefore, this Sunday's 500-mile race at Daytona International Speedway is likely to feature multiple big wrecks.

After claiming the pole and being among the fastest in Daytona 500 practice, Patrick has shown that she has a good chance of winning this race. If she were to win the Daytona 500, it would be a milestone not only for NASCAR but the world of sports as well.

Like the other 42 drivers in the field, Patrick's toughest task in the Daytona 500 will be avoiding multi-car crashes that frequently happen at this track. Patrick made her Sprint Cup debut in the 2012 Daytona 500. Starting 29th, she was caught up in a six-car accident that occurred on just the second lap. She managed to return to the track after her team made repairs to the car, but finished 64 laps behind in 38th. Patrick also wrecked in the twin qualifying races -- known then as the Gatorade Duel.

"I'm going to do my best to keep it clean, keep it out of trouble, get a feel for the traffic throughout the day, and hopefully put myself in a position, position-wise and knowledge-wise, to do a good job and bring it home where it started at the end of Sunday," Patrick said.

Patrick earned the pole for this year's Daytona 500 with a qualifying lap at 196.434 mph during last Sunday's time trials. Her lap speed was the fastest for this race since 1990 when Ken Schrader qualified at 196.515 mph. Jeff Gordon secured the second starting position with his lap at 196.292 mph.

Ten times has the Daytona 500 been won by the pole sitter, but the last driver to win this race from the pole was Dale Jarrett in 2000.

It doesn't matter much where you start in the Daytona 500. It's where you are in the closing laps that counts the most.

A win for Patrick in the Daytona 500 would be a surprise, but there have been upset winners in this race in the past. Just ask Trevor Bayne, who won it in only his second Sprint Cup start and became the youngest race winner one day after he turned 20 years old. Derrike Cope also pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR when he won the Daytona 500 in 1990, passing Dale Earnhardt for the lead on the final lap after Earnhardt blew a tire and fell off the pace.

Patrick holds the record for the highest-finishing female in a NASCAR national touring series race. She placed fourth in the 2011 Nationwide event at Las Vegas. Janet Guthrie's sixth-place run in the Aug. 1977 race at Bristol is the best finish for a woman in a Sprint Cup event.

"I have a lot to learn," Patrick said. "I have Jeff Gordon starting next to me. I have a herd of them behind me. I'm a rookie, and I am going to be learning as much as I can for 499 or maybe until the last 10 laps. When you implement your plan, it depends where you are. Hopefully at the end of 500, we're rolling and we have a chance."

Based on what we saw during last Saturday's Sprint Unlimited, the Gen-6 is going to make things interesting in the Daytona 500. The car made its competition debut in the preseason race at Daytona. Just 12 of the 19 drivers in the starting field finished the event. A multi-car wreck took place on lap 15, with Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Deny Hamlin and Gordon among those who had their night end early. Kevin Harvick won the race after holding off Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle on the final lap.

"I thought (the Sprint Unlimited) was a fun race to run," Stewart said. "I'm glad we're not actually pushing each other. The cars still get a little nervous when guys are pushing. It doesn't seem as effective. It actually seemed to be the opposite of what you would think, versus when we used to push. We gained speed. It seems when we physically are pushing each other, the cars slow down."

Stewart has won at Daytona 18 times, including four victories in the 400-mile race here in July, but he has yet to win the Daytona 500 in 14 attempts.

The Daytona 500 is expected to feature a lot of pack racing and very few two- car tandems with the Gen-6.

"The two car tandem thing is gone, and you will still get some bump-drafting," Biffle said. "When you have that bigger pack you will get shoved up to the guy in front of you. It is probably going to be that old school pack like that."

But how the Gen-6 handles in the draft for this race remains a mystery.

"The thing about it is that when you get 43 cars out there it is going to be a ton different," Biffle added.

One driver who is hoping his luck will change in the Daytona 500 this year is Johnson, the five-time Sprint Cup champion. Johnson won this race in 2006 but has finished 27th or worse in it the past six years.

"The 500 has been tough," he said. "Last year's was about as bad as it gets. Leaving the first lap crashing that wasn't a good one. We will hopefully make 2.7 miles this year before anything happens."

Johnson is scheduled to make his 400th career start in Sprint Cup.

Matt Kenseth won last year's Daytona 500, which was delayed one day for the first time in its history due to rain. This will be Kenseth's maiden year as driver of the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing after spending the past 13 seasons behind the wheel of the No. 17 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing.

"It's cool to come in as the defending champion, but once we get rolling here, it doesn't really mean anything," he said. "It's always great to come in winning the previous race, but it's really about looking forward and trying to win this one."

According to the National Weather Service, the forecast for the Daytona Beach area on Sunday afternoon calls for a 40 percent chance of rain.

Nationwide Series

DRIVE4COPD 300 - Daytona International Speedway - Daytona Beach, Fla.

The 2013 Nationwide Series season gets underway on Saturday with the 300-mile race at Daytona International Speedway.

After winning the Nationwide championship in 2011 and '12, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has graduated to the Sprint Cup Series this season. Elliott Sadler, who finished second to Stenhouse in points the past two years, is the favorite to win this year's title in NASCAR's second-tier series. Following the conclusion of last season, Sadler moved from the No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet to the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Toyota.

The battle for the Nationwide championship this year will be wide open though. Austin Dillon finished third in points during his rookie season last year. Former Sprint Cup regulars Brian Vickers and Regan Smith will be full-time competitors in Nationwide this season. Vickers will drive the No. 20 JGR Toyota, while Smith will be behind the wheel of the No. 7 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports. Sam Hornish Jr. and Trevor Bayne are figured to be in the title hunt as well.

"The Nationwide Series is stacked this year, and there is going to be a fierce battle to the end for this championship," Sadler said. "I really do believe that we have all the parts and pieces in place to win this championship. I feel great working with (crew chief) Chris Gayle, and Daytona is always such a big stage that it gets everyone that much more excited for the season. I think I'm a pretty good restrictor plate racer, and I think we have a really good plan going into this weekend."

Sadler finished third in last year's Nationwide season-opener at Daytona. He placed sixth in the July event here.

After making his first nine starts in Nationwide this past season, Travis Pastrana is competing in the full 33-race schedule in the series this year. Pastrana, a four-time rally champion and motocross titleholder as well as a multiple X Games gold medal winner, is driving the No. 60 Roush Fenway Ford.

"I want to do well, and I feel like I'm good enough to race with these guys," he said. "Winning is a lot more fun than losing, and we've got to figure out a way to get there."

Parker Kligerman and Nelson Piquet Jr. are those drivers who have elevated from the Camping World Truck Series to Nationwide. Kligerman secured a ride in the No. 77 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports, and Piquet landed in the seat of the No. 30 Chevrolet for Turner Scott Motorsports.

Forty-six teams are on the preliminary entry list for the DRIVE4COPD 300. Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Michael McDowell, Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart are those Sprint Cup regulars entered in this race. Patrick is driving the No. 30 Chevrolet for Turner Scott.

Camping World Truck Series

NextEra Energy Resources 250 - Daytona Int'l Speedway - Daytona Beach, Fla.

The Camping World Truck Series will kick off its new season on Friday night at Daytona International Speedway.

James Buescher also will begin his campaign for a second straight truck championship. No driver has ever won back-to-back titles in trucks. Buescher won a series-high four races last year. The driver of the No. 31 Turner Scott Motorsports Chevrolet also posted 10 top-five finishes and 14 top-10s.

"I'm happy that the season is finally here," Buescher said. "We had a great offseason, and the guys at the shop have worked extremely hard all winter to put some great trucks in our fleet. We have a new sponsor with Rheem on board, and I'm looking forward to an exciting 2013 and bringing the championship back to Turner Scott Motorsports. In the past, we've had some great trucks at Daytona, just not the finishes to show for it."

Buescher will face many of last year's rivals in the Truck Series championship battle. Timothy Peters finished second while Joey Coulter and Ty Dillon placed third and fourth, respectively, in the 2012 point standings. Coulter has moved from the No. 22 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet to the No. 18 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports.

"We feel like we have a great shot at it," Coulter said. "All the things that we've learned working together the past few years, we can plug into the winning formula that KBM has already established. If we can mesh everything together and get off to a really good start, I think that we'll be the team to beat at the end of the year."

Earlier this month, KBM introduced Darrell Wallace Jr. as the full-time driver of the No. 54 Toyota in trucks. Wallace, 19, will become just the fourth African-American driver to compete full-time in one of NASCAR's top-three racing series. He is a graduate of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity Program and has been a development driver for Joe Gibbs Racing.

"This is my foot in the door right now," Wallace said. "The door is not open yet. I'm just holding it open right now with my foot, and I have to keep pushing through to get it all the way open and land something full time, and that's the biggest thing."

Coulter and Wallace will be competing against their boss, Kyle Busch, who is the only Sprint Cup Series competitor entered in the truck race at Daytona. Busch is scheduled to run in 10 events this year, driving the No. 51 Toyota.

"I don't know if (Busch) will give me too much advice," Wallace noted. "I'm going to give him a run for his money each and every race that we're together."

John King is the defending race winner. King recently grabbed a ride for this event. He will drive the No. 33 Chevrolet for Eddie Sharp Racing.

Thirty-nine teams are on the preliminary entry list for the NextEra Energy Resources 250.