The envelope please: NASCAR is about to unveil its "Gen 6" car.
We've been down the road before with new models and styles, but this is a critical makeover for a sport trying to woo back fans who have become disengaged for a number of reasons. The new cars are very similar to the ones anyone can buy at the showroom, which is a fabulous start.
But another significant step — the practical application on a track — will be established this week when testing begins Thursday morning at Daytona International Speedway.
"This new car will be the biggest challenge teams have faced in probably six or seven years because of the way the car will be set up," said Darrel Waltrip, a former three-time Cup champion and now an analyst on FOX and SPEED. "It's a totally different body style. All those things are big changes for the race teams. We will not have seen this car in competition, although it's been tested, until we get to Daytona, so all this testing is critical right now to come up with a package that will produce the racing everyone is so anxious to get."
As usual, NASCAR's competition crew will tinker with those setups before the points season starts Feb. 24 with the Great American Race. There could be minor modifications. Or significant ones. It's all part of the vetting process for the new lineup of cars, which will not include any Dodges. The manufacturer chose to depart the sport, leaving Fords, Chevys and Toyotas to battle it out for NASCAR supremacy in 2013.
The new cars already have been out for a spin in Charlotte in December, and the reviews were encouraging. And with excellent grip and increased down force — at least along Charlotte's 1.5-mile track — the cars are expected to run faster than last season.
But as usual, Daytona and its restrictor plates are a completely different beast. The super-speedway tango has been boring at times last year, particularly at Talladega, where there was very little separation and the predictable outcome happened — a big-bang pileup on the last lap that took out 25 cars in October.
But it's encouraging to note that Dale Earnhardt Jr. — one of the biggest critics of last year's style of restrictor-plate racing — is on-board with the changes for 2013.
And it starts with brand recognition.
"Everything is recognizable, instantly recognizable," he said after testing in Charlotte. "You don't have to think about the driver and the team itself to associate with a manufacturer. You look at the car and you can see it instantly. That is a great feeling for me. I can appreciate the cars for that fact.
"I know all you guys probably understand it, but I'm not sure a lot of people realize how important that is having that instant recognition on a manufacturer for our sport — how much healthier our sport can be with that happening."
Onto Daytona it is. Fingers crossed, everyone.
AJ looking for a ride
AJ Allmendinger is on the clock, hoping the new year is far better than the previous one.
After a suspension by NASCAR just before the Coke Zero 400 in July for failing a drug test, Allmendinger is still trying to catch a full-time ride for the 2013 season.
He has returned to Daytona already in a different mode — prepping for the Rolex 24 Hours At Daytona, scheduled for Jan. 26-27 on the track's road course. Allmendinger is driving for Michael Shank Racing, the winning team in last year's race in which AJ drove the final leg.
But he still has pangs for NASCAR after he was fired by Penske Racing.
"As of right now, this is the only race I've got planned," Allmendinger told sportingnews.com. "We know how this world works. It's crazy. I definitely want to be back in the Cup Series because I have got a lot of unfinished business. It's not the way I want to go out like that. I'm open to all options — sports car racing, IndyCar racing, Cup, Nationwide, trucks, whatever."
His best bet for Cup may be with Phoenix Racing after driving for that team in two races last season following his reinstatement. But Allmendinger remains a free agent heading into Speedweeks next month.
New name for Shootout
Say goodbye to the Bud Shootout.
The warm-up act to the Daytona 500 will have a new sponsor and name on Feb. 16 at Daytona International Speedway. Sprint announced on Monday it is partnering with the speedway to sponsor The Sprint Unlimited at Daytona.
The non-points race will also be missing a few marquee stars: Cup champion Brad Keselowski and runner-up Clint Bowyer did not qualify under the format that includes 22 drivers who are pole winners from 2012 and past winners of the event.
It will mark the first time since 2004 that the defending champion (Matt Kenseth at the time) did not qualify for the race.
But the race will be more user-friendly for fans, if you will, with several new elements that include the opportunity to receive special upgraded race experiences such as grand marshal, honorary starter and trophy presenter.
Johnson the favorite
Who do oddsmakers like in the Chase for the 2013 Sprint Cup Championship? Not Brad Keselowski, the defending champ.
But they do love Jimmie Johnson to win his sixth Cup title. He has the best odds at 7/2.