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NASCAR

Things to watch as Sprint Cup season gets under way

  • Brad Keselowski holds up his trophy after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship following an auto race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012, in Homestead, Fla. Keselowski clinched the title after fellow contender Jimmie Johnson pulled out of the season finale because of a parts failure. Jeff Gordon won the race. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

    Brad Keselowski holds up his trophy after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship following an auto race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012, in Homestead, Fla. Keselowski clinched the title after fellow contender Jimmie Johnson pulled out of the season finale because of a parts failure. Jeff Gordon won the race. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

  • Brad Keselowski holds up his trophy after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship following an auto race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012, in Homestead, Fla. Keselowski clinched the title after fellow contender Jimmie Johnson pulled out of the season finale because of a parts failure. Jeff Gordon won the race. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

When NASCAR was last on the national stage, Brad Keselowski was standing in victory lane at Homestead-Miami Speedway, giving interviews with a giant beer glass in hand and all the carefree exuberance that comes with being named the Sprint Cup’s newest champion.

Some things will remain the same (don’t expect the brash Keselowski to change his style anytime soon). But there’s no question; change is the dominant topic as another Sprint Cup season gets under way today at Daytona.

The cars are different. Powerful teams underwent significant shake-ups as big-name drivers took their talents elsewhere. The sport is poised for a major infusion of young talent, and with Jimmie Johnson’s five-year run as champion now two years in the past, the Sprint Cup race is more wide open than it’s been in years.

There are several variables going in, and they’re about to sort themselves out as the season officially gets under way with today’s Daytona 500. Here are some of the top themes to the year and topics to keep an eye on through the summer and fall.

New car

The fans and drivers had spoken, and NASCAR finally listened. The Car of Tomorrow, ushered in in 2007 in an attempt to promote driver safety, never worked out. Drivers hated how the car handled, and fans didn’t like how that led to boring, uneventful races.

The answer was an overhaul in car design, leading to the sixth type of stock car that NASCAR’s introduced. Dubbed the Gen-6 (for sixth generation), the new car will

aim to make races tighter and more exciting, and NASCAR CEO Brian France said it’ll be easy to tell how successful it is.

“We’ll measure (the Gen-6’s success) by lead changes and we’ll measure it by how it races and we’ll measure it by how drivers feel about it,” he said. “Everything is designed to have closer competition.”

So far, the reviews are excellent. The new, sleeker designs bring back differences in how each car and make looks and therefore promote manufacturer rivalries, and drivers have praised how well the car handles on the track.

Whether that leads to more competitive races (and if it has an impact on team performance) remains to be seen, but so far, it’s a clear step in the right direction.

“It’s cool that we have some brand identity,” veteran driver Jamie McMurray said. “Before, the cars just had different decals on them. They are actually different now, which is cool.”

The new king

He’s only in his fourth year as a full-time Sprint Cup driver, but Keselowski has already secured both a Cup championship and membership among the circuit’s top drivers.

The question going forward with the Penske star: Is 2012 an isolated success story, or the sign of things to come?

Keselowski’s talent is undeniable. He’s finished in the top five the past two seasons, and nobody had more than his five wins last year.

He also forms one of the Cup’s top driver-crew chief combinations with Paul Wolfe, and few tandems are set up better for the sort of run that Johnson enjoyed from 2006-10.

Keselowski, however, will be going up against a field with the capability of making it a one-and-done stint at the top. Two drivers, Johnson and Denny Hamlin, matched Keselowski’s five wins, while Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth made it to victory lane three times apiece.

Keselowski showed he has what it takes to make it through the 36-race grind, but doing it again will be a different matter entirely.

Rivals together

It’d be hard to draw up a dramatic bombshell more perfect than the one that went off when Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. confirmed the rumors that they had been dating.

Not only are Patrick and Stenhouse Jr. competing against each other on the racetrack, but they’re going against each other for one of the Sprint Cup’s top honors as well, the series’s Rookie of the Year award.

Stenhouse Jr. and Patrick are among the most-hyped additions to the Cup series in recent memory, and there’s already reason to think they’ll turn heads this season. Stenhouse is the two-time defending Nationwide Series champion, while Patrick, who’s had just one top-five finish in 69 NASCAR races, took a step toward answering critics by grabbing the pole for today’s Daytona 500.

Their relationship will continue to make headlines, but plenty of attention will be given to which one proves to be the better driver. Let the games begin.

Faces in new places

In one of the Sprint Cup’s busiest offseasons, most of the circuit’s top teams underwent changes concerning some of their best or most promising drivers.

Joe Gibbs Racing, already a power, made the biggest move when it landed 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth, who split with Roush Fenway. JGR now boasts one of the best trios in the sport, as Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Hamlin give owner Joe Gibbs three drivers with legitimate Chase hopes.

Roush Fenway filled Kenseth’s void by promoting Stenhouse Jr., while Joey Logano, the driver let go to make room for Kenseth, landed with Penske Racing.

Stewart-Haas Racing made a move as well, adding Patrick to the full-time Sprint rotation. More changes are on the way for co-owner Tony Stewart and Co., as Kevin Harvick will join the team after this season, his final with Richard Childress Racing.

Call it a comeback?

Some of the Sprint Cup’s biggest names are hoping to bounce back from disappointing 2012 campaigns. No one endured a more puzzling slump last year than Carl Edwards, who went from finishing second in a tiebreaker in 2011 to missing the Chase entirely last year.

Edwards, normally one of the sport’s most consistent performers, didn’t win a race all season, and he admitted the drought made his job hard to enjoy.

“I realized this last season, I don’t think I like racing quite as much as I thought I did,” he said. “I like winning a lot more. I didn’t realize the difference.”

Another driver eager for a turnaround is Busch, who made the Chase four of the five seasons before just missing last year with a 13th-place finish. His brother, Kurt, has his sights set on a comeback as well, as the 2004 champion will hope joining Furniture Row will get him back into the Chase after a disastrous 25th-place finish.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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