DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Yes, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is in full gear at Daytona International Speedway but what have we learned leading up to the Daytona 500? Lee Spencer teaches us a few things.
This one's for the fans
The fans asked and NASCAR responded, first with the elimination of tandem drafting and now with more realistic qualifications for the 2013 Budweiser Shootout. There's not another major league sport that takes the interest of their fan base into consideration during the decision making process.
Getty Images for NASCARTom Pennington
The new deals
Yes, it's early in the season but Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger (Pictured) appear to be content with their new surroundings. Certainly, time will tell but there's a lot to build on for each driver in both camps. And on the crew chief front, both Steve Addington (No. 14) and Darian Grubb (No. 11) were beaming on Sunday. Chronicling two of NASCAR's top crew chiefs as they acclimate to their new surroundings this season should provide compelling storylines.
It's hard to believe that defending Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne turned 21 on Sunday but he's ready to defend his title. If you thought the Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.) vs. Trevor competition was over when the Nationwide Series ended last year, it's only just beginning. While Bayne posted the ninth fastest qualifying lap, Stenhouse bested his Roush teammate again ending up eighth with a time that was just 0.012-seconds faster. Throughout the year, expect these drivers to compete for additional Cup seat time.
The Danica 500
Danica Patrick will make her Sprint Cup debut this week but off the track she's won over her fellow competitors and fans alike. If her performance behind the wheel can match her current demeanor, NASCAR will have difficulties keeping Patrick's souvenir trailers stocked.
New year, same Chad
When will Chad Knaus learn? Hopefully, never. Knaus continues to push the envelope through the gray areas in the NASCAR rulebook and beyond. But his peers are envious of his efforts. The general consensus is "That's what he gets paid to do." His latest innovation resulted in NASCAR confiscating both C-Posts from the No. 48 Chevrolet. However, since inspectors pulled the car while it was still in line for inspection and not even to the room of doom, no harm no foul, right? Guess we'll just have to wait another week to find out.
Just when you thought Kyle Busch couldn't be even more talented than he already is, he puts on a show in the Bud Shootout that will stand up as one of the best performances of all time. His fellow competitors were still buzzing about Busch's moves on Sunday, particularly his tremendous saves from sideways on the asphalt to back in the field and on to victory lane.
Ford steps up
It's clear that Roush Fenway Racing and Roush Yates Engines worked overtime in the offseason to improve its race package. And the blue oval derived immediate results with Jack Roush's first sweep of the Daytona 500 front row. But early in practices, the Fords have been stout topping three of four sessions and placing four Fusions in the top five in qualifying for the 500.
The Carl picks up where he left off
It's clear that Carl Edwards' championship caliber performance last season was no fluke. He just fell a little bit short -- precisely one point short. If you don't believe that Edwards lost sleep in the offseason wondering where he could have made up the difference, then you don't know the uber-competitive Roush Fenway racer. Not surprisingly, Edwards is starting the season with a statement -- the pole for the Daytona 500. While it really doesn't matter where a driver starts at Daytona, Edwards will leave nothing to chance in 2012.
Happy Dale is here again
Prior to Speedweeks, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was asked to describe the complexion of racing for the Daytona 500. He couldn't. Until there were enough cars on the track under competition any prediction would have been futile. However, if the smile on his face following the Budweiser Shootout or 500 qualifying is any indication, Junior is thrilled with the results of the new restrictor plate package which he described puts "more of my destiny in my hands in this type of racing". And considering that Earnhardt is one of the best drivers to ever compete at Daytona and Talladega, where his cheering sections are second to none, expect NASCAR's Most Popular Driver to put on a show.
The pack is back
NASCAR's effort and determination paid off in creating a restrictor plate package that eliminates the ability to tandem draft throughout an entire race. While drivers can still push each other for a lap at a time, they cannot sustain the practice nor can line up unevenly without the risk of ending up on a wrecker. Consequently, pack drafting requires a substantial amount of car control – as well as patience -- and that plays into the hands of the best drivers. Dancing partners will still be a necessity to shove one pair beyond the pack but drivers will be more selective with who they chose to pair up with.