NASCAR Sprint Cup has new cars, new faces and love in the aero package

Posted Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

Storylines to watch in 2013

1 Danicky: Don't know what that means? Then you haven't been paying attention. Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are Sprint Cup's hot new power couple, although neither has raced a full year in Cup yet. But that's about to change. They're both in full-time rides this year, and they're dating. Which is going to have everyone watching their activities on the track and how hard they race -- or help -- each other.

2 The car: It's NASCAR's sixth-generation car, so naturally, it has a nickname -- the Gen-6, which sounds as though it might have come from The Dukes of Hazzard. In a way, it has. The car is NASCAR's attempt to go back in time a little bit, to the days when the car makes were recognizable. The hope is that the cars will move the races away from the cookie-cutter feel that had weekend after weekend looking like one long parade.

3 The new power team: It's Joe Gibbs Racing, which has added two-time and defending Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth to its lineup. He goes along with Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, who -- although neither has won a Sprint Cup championship -- have 46 Cup victories between them. With Kenseth's 24, it's enough firepower to rival Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway for top garage.

4 Keselowski's karma: Last year's champion, Brad Keselowski, bounced along in an off-season of fun. He partied. He played. He tweeted. More than anything, he smiled and lapped up the spoils of victory. Now he is back, but his manufacturer is gone. Dodge folded its Sprint Cup tent, and Keselowski went over to Ford with Penske Racing. It's back to serious business for the young Michigan driver. Well, as serious as it gets for him.

5 Jimmie: We can't forget about Jimmie Johnson, even though it's been two years since he was the five-time defending champion, an accomplishment which becomes more mind-boggling as more time passes. And it's not as if Johnson has fallen off the face of the earth. He was third in the point standings last year and led going into the final two races. It took a bang into the wall at Phoenix (caused by a flat tire), the next to last race, to ruin his hope for a sixth championship in seven seasons. He is not slowing down.

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It was a year ago that the Sprint Cup season started on fire. And Brad Keselowski stayed that way.

Juan Pablo Montoya crashed into a jet dryer, fuel erupted in flame, Keselowski tweeted a picture from his car, and perhaps history's most memorable Daytona 500 -- delayed by rain, stopped by fire -- sent the 2012 season to a roaring start.

"When that moment happened at Daytona, I just did it," Keselowski said. "I didn't think much about it. I thought it was something different and wanted to take a picture of it and send it out."

Keselowski's timing stayed true all season, as he went on to win his first Sprint Cup title.

Now he is back with a new team in a new car -- Dodge has left the series -- at the same time as NASCAR has unveiled a new competition vehicle.

They're calling it the Gen 6 (because it's the sixth generation of the car NASCAR has used for its top series), and it promises to inject a new level of unpredictability into the Sprint Cup Series, which has had two different champions in two years following Jimmie Johnson's five-year reign.

The drivers like the look of the car. They began practicing in it last week for next weekend's Daytona 500. Keselowski admits the reputation of the series -- which started looking like a parade in the field-equalizing former "Car of Tomorrow" -- depends on the new car's performance and appeal.

"I did not like the way the COT car looked, and I think most of the garage would say that," Keselowski said. "It does matter. It matters because that is the image we portray. I wear a fire suit with a helmet and a full seat around me. You can't see me. What you are seeing is this car going around the racetrack and the sponsors and the car construction, styling, et cetera. So that is what you see as a fan or as an ambassador of the sport.

"Yeah, absolutely it matters."

It certainly starts to matter now.

Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407

Twitter: @calexmendez

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