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Original Issue

Joy of Six?

A new car design and a grid full of proven winners hungry for a title should make for a down-to-the-wire finish, but in a season of flux look for Mr. Five Time to add another

1 Jimmie Johnson

The five-time champ won his last title in 2010, but no team will be more adept at adjusting to the Gen-6 car than the 48 gang. The last time a new design was introduced, in '07, JJ took the Cup.

2 Denny Hamlin

Last season Hamlin was sixth in the standings and had the second-best average race finish (12.8) of his career. He has already said that he likes the "feel" of the new car, and at 32, he's a proven race winner in his prime. He'll be in Johnson's mirror all year.

3 Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The sport's most popular driver had a breakthrough in 2012, snapping a 143-race winless streak and briefly holding the points lead. The Gen-6 car suits him, and fully recovered from an October concussion, Junior should continue his ascent.

4 Matt Kenseth

The move from Roush Fenway to Joe Gibbs Racing should re-rev the 2003 champion's career. In the last three seasons Kenseth has peaked too early, then faded during the Chase. A new team and crew chief (Jason Ratcliff) should break the pattern.

5 Carl Edwards

After just losing the title to Tony Stewart in 2011, Edwards endured an atrocious '12, failing to win a race, missing the Chase and finishing a career-low 15th in the standings. Now with the Cup-miss hangover past, expect a rebound by Cousin Carl.

6 Brad Keselowski

Is BK, the surprise 2012 Cup champ, a one-year wonder? His team, Penske Racing, switched from Dodge to Ford, which will make his bid to repeat even more challenging, as he learns the characteristics of his new ride.

7 Greg Biffle

Now that Kenseth is at Joe Gibbs Racing, Biffle is the senior driver at Roush Fenway. Fifth in the standings last season, with two wins, the Biff's always a threat in the playoffs because he excels at the 1.5-mile tracks, and the Chase features five of them.

8 Tony Stewart

Smoke led only 420 laps last season, the second-lowest total of his 14-year Cup career. But like Johnson, Stewart, who's a three-time champion, typically adjusts to major changes on the car swiftly, so he'll be a factor in the Chase.

9 Clint Bowyer

This will be a telling year for Bowyer, who won three races and quietly finished second in the standings last season. If he can produce the same level of consistency again in 2013, he'll officially move into the elite driver category.

10 Kyle Busch

Though he has historically struggled on the Chase tracks, that appears to be changing. Over the last four playoff races of 2012 the supremely talented Busch had four top fours and scored more points than any other driver.

11 Kasey Kahne

At times last season Kahne flashed elite speed (he won twice and had 19 top 10 finishes, tying a career best), but he also failed to finish on the lead lap 12 times. He needs to improve his consistency to challenge for his first Cup title.

12 Jeff Gordon

A four-time Cup champ, Gordon remains one of the elite drivers in the series. But after enduring the most hard crashes of any driver in the sport over the last five years, the big question about the 41-year-old Gordon is this: Are his best days behind him?

Leader of the Pack

In the 45.817 seconds it took her to guide her garish green Go Daddy Chevy around the 2.5-mile Daytona tri-oval on Sunday, Danica Patrick made history—and made a lot of NASCAR sponsors, brass and fans positively giddy. With her 196.434-mph lap, Patrick became the first woman to win a pole in NASCAR. This Sunday she'll lead the field to the green flag on the sport's biggest stage. The question now, as always with racing's one true crossover star, is whether Danica can outrace the hype. A win at Daytona would seal the deal—and while a 500-mile, 43-car race is a far cry from a solo qualifying sprint, Patrick should contend. She has led at least one lap in each of her last four Nationwide races at Daytona, and she'll have team owner and restrictor-plate master Tony Stewart to draft with.

Whatever her finish in the Great American Race, Danica remains America's Great Racing Hope. A successful rookie Cup season—say, consistent lead-lap finishes, top 20 in points, vying for wins; all within her power—would supercharge the sport.

Car Numbers


Average finish of the Daytona 500 pole sitter in the last five years.


Times in the last six years that the Daytona 500 winner has taken the lead in the last two laps.


Daytona 500 winners in the past 30 years who have gone on to take the Cup championship in the same season.


Years since a driver not named Jimmie Johnson has won a second consecutive Cup title.

Call It a ROYmance

Danica Patrick spilled the news in late January, only weeks after she had filed for divorce from her husband of seven years, Paul Hospenthal: Racing's glamour girl was now dating Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who also happens to be her chief rival for rookie of the year honors. Patrick, 30, and Stenhouse, 25, met during their debut seasons in the Nationwide Series in 2010, and both will be competing full time on the Cup circuit this year. Patrick, who qualified on the pole for the 500, and Stenhouse say that their romance won't affect how they race each other—consider it a vow to honor and respect once the engines have fired—but their bump draft will surely be one of the most closely monitored story lines in 2013. Talk about a relationship going around in circles.

Have at It, Boys

Clint Bowyer hasn't forgotten. Back in November, at Phoenix, he was in the thick of the title hunt when Jeff Gordon—frustrated for months with Bowyer's on-track aggression—administered payback in the desert, sending Bowyer into the wall with two laps left in the penultimate race of the season. Bowyer ended up 28th that day, his Cup hopes as wrecked as his race car. The incident ignited a brawl in the garage area between the drivers' pit crews. At the postseason events in Las Vegas, Bowyer avoided making eye contact with Gordon and has repeatedly declined to talk about the Phoenix incident. Will Bowyer exact revenge at Daytona? Per racing etiquette, he would be within his rights to do so. Make no mistake: The best NASCAR feud in years is far from over.

That New-Car Smell

For this season, NASCAR has unveiled its sixth generation of car (known as the Gen-6). Here are a few of the new design features:

Sleeker appearance, with a smaller "greenhouse" (the enclosed area of the car) and a more curved nose.

Larger rear spoiler, providing more aerodynamic downforce and thus more grip.

Weight reduced by 80 pounds on the right side, 70 on the left. Goal is to promote better handling and reduce stress on the right-side tires.

Body panels unique to each manufacturer and more closely resembling models in showrooms will increase the brand identity of Chevys, Fords and Toyotas on the track and, NASCAR hopes, "put the stock back into stock car racing."

Rear sway bars eliminated on oval tracks, making the car loose in corners (meaning the back slips up the track) and putting a premium on the drivers' ability to control cars.

Moving Up

In its first five years as a full-time Cup team, Michael Waltrip Racing ran at the back of the pack: The organization had just two wins in 396 starts. But then, in one of the biggest surprises of 2012, MWR advanced two drivers to the Chase—Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr.—and Bowyer reached Victory Lane three times. "We were building a notebook and learning from each other," Bowyer said.

MWR will be a three-car team in '13: Bowyer piloting the number 15 Toyota; Truex in the number 56; and Mark Martin, Brian Vickers and the boss himself, Waltrip (above), splitting time in the number 55. If MWR continues to gain speed—and there's little reason to believe it won't, given that the 255-person operation now boasts nearly as many resources as the other elite teams—the longtime also-ran could join the sport's ruling class, alongside Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing.

All Over the Map

NASCAR may have its roots in the South, but that region is no longer the prime breeding ground of stock car racers. Of the drivers SI projects to finish in the top 20 in points, only two juniors—Dale Earnhardt and Ricky Stenhouse—are sons of the Deep South or North Carolina. This map pinpoints where the 2013 front-runners grew up.

1 Jimmie Johnson

El Cajon, Calif.

2 Denny Hamlin

Chesterfield, Va.

3 Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Kannapolis, N.C.

4 Matt Kenseth

Cambridge, Wis.

5 Carl Edwards

Columbia, Mo.

6 Brad Keselowski

Rochester Hills, Mich.

7 Greg Biffle

Vancouver, Wash.

8 Tony Stewart

Columbus, Ind.

9 Clint Bowyer

Emporia, Kans.

10 Kyle Busch

Las Vegas

11 Kasey Kahne

Enumclaw, Wash.

12 Jeff Gordon

Vallejo, Calif.

13 Kevin Harvick

Bakersfield, Calif.

14 Martin Truex Jr.

Mayetta, N.J.

15 Joey Logano

Middletown, Conn.

16 Juan Pablo Montoya

Bogotà, Colombia

17 Ryan Newman

South Bend

18 Paul Menard

Eau Claire, Wis.

19 Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Olive Branch, Miss.

20 Danica Patrick

Roscoe, Ill.

A Primer for the Great American Race

What to look for in Sunday's 55th running of the Daytona 500:

Draft resistance

The front and rear bumpers on the new cars don't align as well as those on the previous model, meaning the two-car drafting (that's Dale Earnhardt Jr., 88, giving Greg Biffle a shove in last year's 500, above) won't be as prevalent as it was in the last two years. Still, two cars together go faster than one alone, so look for drivers to attempt this risky maneuver in the closing laps. This is likely to be when the Big One—the multicar wreck Daytona is famous for—will erupt.

No Tony Award

The 500 remains the major gap in Tony Stewart's NASCAR résumé. In his 14 starts he has lost almost every way imaginable—from early mechanical failure to late wrecks and passes on restarts. Stewart has won 18 other races at the Speedway, but the 500 is starting to look like his great white whale.

Junior achievement

Though he triggered a massive wreck during a winter test session at Daytona, Earnhardt remains one of the sport's top restrictor-plate racers. The new car should make him even more formidable: In the Gen-4 car, which was similar to the Gen-6 in terms of driving style, Earnhardt won seven of 16 races at Daytona and Talladega (the other plate track on the schedule) between 2001 and '04. Look for another W on Sunday.

Start Your ... Feet?

On Sunday morning, hours before qualifying for the Daytona 500, four drivers traded their Goodyears for running shoes and took part in the Daytona Beach Half Marathon, which started and finished at the Speedway. There was no trading paint and clearly nobody hit the wall, as Kasey Kahne (below) led the wheelmen over the 13.1-mile course in one hour, 28 minutes and 44 seconds. Jimmie Johnson (1:29:49), Aric Almirola (1:46:35) and Michael Waltrip (2:07:00) followed.