What makes NASCAR different than other sports is its signature event—the Daytona 500—occurs at the beginning of the season and not at the end. The Great American Race—or NASCAR's Super Bowl—is the race every NASCAR driver wants to win.
Tony Stewart still has not won the race. The legendary, iconic, and late Dale Earnhardt won the race only once—in 1998—and had many heartbreaking near-misses in his No. 3 car. This year, the new Gen 6 car will bring uncertainty and excitement, as drivers will be freer to actually race and maneuver their cars more than in the past. And after Saturday's horrific crash during the running of the Nationwide race at Daytona International Speedway in which at least 28 fans were hurt, fan safety will also be a huge issue this season. Here is a preview of what to look for in 2013.
1. Fan safety
After Saturday's horrific crash during the Nationwide race, the focus will be on the safety of fans who attend the race, especially at tracks such as Daytona and Talladega that have historically been known to produce big wrecks. NASCAR, to begin with, may consider moving fans in the front back some rows and fortifying the barriers and fences that are supposed to protect them.
2. All eyes on Danica Patrick
When Patrick became the first woman to win a NASCAR pole last week, she brought more casual fans into the sport. This is Patrick's first full season in the Sprint Cup Series, and all eyes will be on her and the No. 10 car. She is also dating fellow rookie driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., of Roush Fenway Racing, and that story line will generate a fair number of headlines as well. While Patrick brings new people into the sport, she will have to prove she can win—or at least regularly contend—to prove her naysayers and haters who want to compare her to Anna Kournikova wrong. Last season, Patrick exceeded expectations in the Nationwide series, and got better during the season and won the respect of many in the NASCAR community.
3. New "Gen 6" Cars
NASCAR debuts the new "Gen 6" cars at Daytona. The Chevrolets, Dodges, Fords, and Toyotas will actually resemble how the cars look on the showroom floor. The car, unlike the previous "car of tomorrow" that many drivers felt hindered them from racing, will allow for better racing and handling. It will make the races less boring, and hopefully infuse the sport with more of NASCAR's soul that many thought the old car took away. How drivers and teams adapt and adjust to the new car, especially in the beginning of the season, will be worth watching. Teams, in the beginning, may be unfamiliar with parts, how aerodynamic the cars are, and the advantage may go to teams and pit crews who have been together for a long time.
4. Television and new media
NASCAR still has had trouble adapting to the television age, and it will be interesting to see how the sport adapts. NASCAR has been head of the curve in embracing new media like Twitter, but its critics feel the sport needs to figure out a way to make it more TV-friendly to draw—and retain—more casual fans.
5. Stewart-Haas Racing
This will be the fifth year Tony Stewart is an owner-driver in the sport. Stewart, who, along with Dale Earnhardt Jr., represents the heart and soul of the sport, has three cars that could be able to compete all season. In addition to Patrick, Ryan Newman also drives for Stewart-Haas, and this could be the year the team takes a step to becoming more like Team Hendrick.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It seems like yesterday that his father passed away in the No. 3 car on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt Jr. is 39 years of age now, and this may finally be the year—with the new Gen 6 car—that he contends for the Sprint Cup title. He is the sport's most popular driver, though Patrick may give him a run for his money, and NASCAR needs its biggest draw to legitimately contend and start winning again. He faired the best during the Daytona practice sessions, and Earnhardt and the Stewart seemed primed for good runs with the new cars.
NASCAR would not be NASCAR without feuds. Last season, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon wrecked each other on purpose and police had to separate them after the second-to-last race of the season. Will this feud carry over to 2013? Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart have never gotten along. Like a baseball pitcher who beans a player in Spring Training to even things out form a season ago, many drivers could try to even some unsettled scores from last year in the early part of this season.
8. Bad boy champion Brad Keselowski
Keselowski is the reigning Sprint Cup champion. Already, NASCAR officials had a meeting with him before the season got underway after he made comments to USA Today criticizing how the sport has not adapted to the TV-era. Last year, Keselowski criticized NASCAR officials for playing favorites, live-tweeted at the Daytona 500 in his after the inferno that delayed the race and became a social media star, was warned by NASCAR to not live-tweet anymore, and got promptly fined 25,000 for ignoring them. After he won the Sprint Cup Series last year, Keselowski lugged around a 128-ounce glass of beer, and started chugging it, doing interviews on ESPN while intoxicated. He has pissed off other drivers and has walked a fine line between being reckless and irresponsible and a "free spirit." As the reigning NASCAR champion, he is one of the faces of the sport, so his every move will be even more under a microscope this season.
9. New qualifying format
This year, the Sprint Cup Series will have a 36-6-1 format for qualifying. The 36 fastest cars during qualifying will be guaranteed a spot in the race. The next six cars who have the highest number of points who did not qualify will be awarded spots. The final spot will be awarded to "the most recent eligible past champion driver" or based on points if there is no eligible past champion driver that has not qualified yet.
10. New beginnings
Matt Kenseth, who won last year's Daytona 500, left Roush Fenway Racing for Joe Gibbs Racing. He will drive the No. 20 car that Joey Logano used to drive. Gibbs Racing let Logano go after they could not find a sponsor for a fourth car, and Logano ended up with Penske Racing. He'll drive the No. 22 car and will be Keselowski's teammate. Kurt Busch went from Phoenix racing to drive the No. 78 Furniture Row car.