Commentary

NASCAR promising one heckuva ride

Updated: January 29, 2013, 2:43 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Here are the top stories coming off NASCAR media tour week:

Kasey Kahne has one wacky haircut -- a high fade that looks like someone left a possum pelt on top of his head.

[+] EnlargePatrick-Stenhouse
AP Photo/Andy WatsonDanica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. attended a Professional Bull Riders event in Winston-Salem, N.C., a week before the big reveal.

Travis Pastrana is not going to dress according to the Roush Fenway Racing company memo, and his car has more wild colors mixed together than a neon paint store after a hurricane.

Joe Gibbs Racing went Gangnam Style with a dance video.

Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Cup rookie rivals, are dating.

Welcome to the new normal. Pop culture has taken control in NASCAR, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

NASCAR officials desperately want to change the sports demographic from the balding old dude sitting at home in his lounge chair to the hip kid rocking his iPad and texting more than he talks -- the one who has an attention measured in nanoseconds.

So here you go, news stories (a term used loosely at the moment) that bring in the too-cool-for-school crowd.

One of these little tidbits listed above dwarfs the others. It doesn't get any hipper or trendier than a racing love story that includes the most celebrated female race car driver in history.

NASCAR's new reality show: "Daytona Datehouse: Competition on the Track, Cuddles off the Track" for the power couple of racing.

OK, maybe that's a step too far, but rest assured NASCAR officials love this little romance. It will bring viewers to the Daytona 500, and beyond, who wouldn't have watched otherwise.

If you doubt it, consider this: The news story Friday on Patrick publicly announcing her relationship with Stenhouse was the most-viewed story for much of the day on ESPN.com.

And this isn't a one-day phenomenon. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West wouldn't cause a bigger stir than media day at Daytona with Danica and Ricky. By the way, 2013 media day falls on Valentine's Day. Feel free to fill in your own headline.

The dating news came only 10 days before Patrick will be seen by TV's biggest audience with new Super Bowl ads. Timing is everything.

So get ready for it. Love, NASCAR Style: truer than the red, white and blue. Sorry, Gen Y fans. That reference is way before your time, a show that aired 40 years ago. Anyway, unless Dale Earnhardt Jr. announces he eloped or Brad Keselowski says Jennifer Love Hewitt lovingly replied to his tweets, Danicky will be the biggest story of the day.

Maybe the biggest losers in this deal are the auto manufacturers. The new car, the Gen-6, just took a backseat to DanSten-1, along with everything else at Daytona.

[+] EnlargeKahne
Mark Ashenfelter/ESPNKasey Kahne's new do polarized NASCAR Nation.

Kahne could show up with a spiked mohawk and Pastrana could say he's racing at Daytona on his X Games motorcycle, but neither revelation would top the new lovebirds.

All joking aside, there are some serious questions coming about their relationship. Patrick and Stenhouse are direct competitors, both vying for rookie of the year honors in Cup. One drives a Chevy, the other a Ford. One races for Tony Stewart, the other for Jack Roush.

What happens if they wreck each other? What if one driver passes the other and fans speculate if it was a freebie?

Some people will wonder how much team information is being exchanged off the track. Legitimate questions, but I doubt the keys to the kingdom are being revealed by either driver.

Look, Mary Matalin was deputy campaign manager for George H.W. Bush in 1992 while her boyfriend at the time, James Carville, was the chief strategist for Bill Clinton.

If we can decide the leader of the free world with lovers on opposite sides of the campaign, I think we can run a few NASCAR races with a competing couple.

For the record, Matalin and Carville have been happily married for 20 years, but remain political rivals.

In this case, the on-track rookie contest should be a cakewalk for Stenhouse. He won his second consecutive Nationwide Series title last year (six wins, 26 top-10s and an average finish of 7.3), while Patrick finished 10th in the standings (no wins, four top-10s and an average finish of 18.8) in her first full season in NASCAR.

[+] EnlargeTravis Pastrana
Mark Ashenfelter/ESPNTravis Pastrana's stamp is all over his new Nationwide Series car.

Stenhouse better win this battle to avoid some raised eyebrows. What if Patrick passes Stenhouse on the last lap to win the Daytona 500? Not likely, but not impossible considering almost anyone can win a restrictor-plate race.

It's going to be a show, folks, on and off the track. Stewart and Roush also will field questions at Daytona about the couple, which could lead to an infamous Smoke meltdown and media thrashing.

Roush, a man who tends to explain things with a 500-word technical synopsis that only an MIT grad could love, might sound like Albert Einstein discussing the birds and the bees.

And you thought the 2012 Daytona 500 was wild? Juan Pablo Montoya's jet-dryer explosion and Keselowski's on-track tweets are so last year, as outdated now as the Car of Tomorrow and, well, jet dryers.

Sorry to disappoint the gearheads, but love is in the air (plus dance videos, crazy hair and crazier-looking cars), not burning rubber and gas fumes. If it means more people are watching, and it does, everyone wins.

Welcome to the new normal for NASCAR.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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