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Saturday, February 23, 2013
Spotlight shifts to the racetrack

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- One week in Florida, one day before the Daytona 500, and what have we learned?

People have said and written the word "Danica" more than they have "Daytona"; Keelan Harvick is the magic-touch baby; and the Gen-6 is no quick fix.

Those things, and a few others, dominate the conversations about what we've seen and what we could see for NASCAR's season-opening race Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox).

Here's a rundown:

• Danica is a big deal -- Danica Patrick winning the pole ranked somewhere between Christopher Columbus discovering the new world and Apollo 11 landing on the moon.

That's how it seemed when media outlets across the globe pounced all over the news that Patrick was the first woman to win the pole for the Daytona 500. From CNN to NPR to the BBC, Patrick was everywhere as the first woman to win a pole for any race in NASCAR's top series.

And she wasn't exactly in the shadow before that historic moment. It came on the heels of the Daytona media day frenzy (on Valentine's Day) when Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. fielded dozens of questions about their relationship.

Some of the hard-core gearheads are sick of hearing it, but whatever she does and wherever she goes, Patrick is a magnet for attention. And people care.

Now comes the hard part: actually racing competitively in the 500. Patrick went backward in a hurry early in the first Duel qualifying race Thursday, finishing 17th out of 23 cars.

She played it safe and kept the car in one piece to secure her pole spot. Had she wrecked it and gone to a backup car, she would have started the 500 in the back of the field.

So she sandbagged it in the Duel, making it difficult to know how she will run Sunday. Anything in the top 20 would be a solid effort.

"It's going to be a big challenge, no doubt," Patrick said Friday. "A lot of really good drivers know what they're doing. I just need to go out there and hold my own."

Crew chief Tony Gibson boldly predicted Patrick can more than hold her own.

"I have 100 percent confidence that she can win the Daytona 500," Gibson said Friday. "She's got the talent."

Kevin Harvick
Kevin and DeLana Harvick's son, Keelan, has been a good-luck charm for the No. 29 Chevrolet.

• Happy Harvick is lameless -- Not blameless, lameless, as in no lame duck. Not this week at Daytona. Harvick and the No. 29 Chevy team have been darn near perfect, winning the Sprint Unlimited before winning again in the Duels.

His lame-duck status at Richard Childress Racing (Harvick moves to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014) hasn't been a factor at Daytona. He has had the best car all week. Harvick and the 29 crew have done everything right.

Whether that will continue all season remains to be seen, but it's all rosy for the moment. If Harvick manages to win the 500, he'll become the first driver in history to earn Daytona's version of the hat trick -- winning the all-star race, a qualifying race and the 500 all in the same year.

"If it's meant to be, it's meant to be," Harvick said of the possible record-setting triple. "I think we definitely have the car and team to be in contention to do it."

Maybe his little good-luck charm will continue to help. Keelan Harvick, Kevin and DeLana's cute-as-a-button, 7-month-old boy, has stood in the driver's seat of dad's car before each event at Daytona.

Dad hasn't lost yet after Keelan's prerace inspection.

• The Gen-6 is a work in progress -- The racing this week in the new Gen-6 hasn't been too racy. It's a lot of follow-the-leader and very little passing.

Take a deep breath. Don't panic. It will get better.

Anytime a new car is introduced in a racing series, it takes a while for teams to figure it out and work through all the bugs. The 500 will be the first time 43 cars have taken the track at the same time in race conditions. That alone will improve the racing.

"Defending your position is going to be important," Jimmie Johnson said. "You are going to need to be in the first couple of rows [near the end of the race] to have a shot at winning."

Drivers were overly cautious in the Duels, not wanting to wreck their primary car by taking chances with a machine that has so many unknowns.

And what happens at Daytona means nothing about how the car will race anywhere else except Talladega, the other restrictor-plate track.

But the cars look great, with distinctive body changes that make each brand resemble the ones at the dealership.

Carl Edwards
Carl Edwards ended the first qualifying Duel on Thursday with a destroyed race car.

• Wrecks will happen -- No surprise there. Wrecks always come at Daytona, but this car has some aerodynamic differences drivers haven't seen in the past.

Air in the side draft is a mini tornado, buffeting the window area with enormous force. It can cause the car to suddenly jump loose and surprise the driver, which has led to a couple of big wrecks this week.

When the cars have two long lines on restarts, things could get dicey.

"You never know what to expect at Daytona," driver Aric Almirola said. "I think you will see some calm and some chaos. People will get antsy and try to make moves, then the handling issues will come into play."

• Edwards still under a black cloud -- Last season was the most disappointing of Carl Edwards' career. He went winless and failed to make the Chase after falling one point short of the championship in 2011. He was hoping to start fresh in 2013 and put it all behind him.

Not quite yet.

After wrecking four cars at Daytona in the past month, Edwards might want carry a rabbit's foot, or maybe get Keelan Harvick to sit in his car before the 500.

Edwards will start in the back Sunday after his No. 99 Ford became scrap metal in Duel 1 on Thursday. Denny Hamlin got loose (the side-draft thing) and slammed into Edwards, causing Edwards' car to turn head-on into the wall.

Through it all, Edwards has managed to stay positive and make light of the situation.

"Maybe we're using up all our bad luck,'' Edwards said. "My guys said, 'Are you done crashing these things?' They were threatening me with some of their tools. I'm calling this my pre-crashed race car. Now it's ready to race."

• The 2012 top three are hard to see -- Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson and 2012 champ Brad Keselowski. Remember them?

A ghost is easier to see this week at Daytona than those guys. Granted, it's all Danica all the time, except when Harvick and Kyle Busch won races.

So the big three guys from a year ago are under the radar this week. Well, not entirely. How could you miss the ad nauseam commercials of those three admiring their race cars on the showroom floor.

Expect all three to make some noise Sunday. Johnson and Bowyer start side by side on Row 5. Keselowski starts 15th.

It's also been a fairly quiet week for Dale Earnhardt Jr., aside from blowing an engine in practice Wednesday. He starts 19th in the 500. Earnhardt, the 2004 Daytona 500 winner, has finished second two of the past three years.

We've learned a lot this week, but not who will win Sunday.

"Anybody can win," Earnhardt said. "But we've got a good piece. If we get the balance right and get the thing to turning good, we'll have a great shot."

About 30 other drivers are saying the same thing. We'll learn soon that one of them was right.