NASCAR: Live from Daytona

Updated: February 13, 2014, 5:31 PM ET
ESPN.com

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And that's the media day that was

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Tony Stewart is mostly completely healthy and extremely eager for the 2014 racing calendar to begin. Denny Hamlin is even more healed and just as ready to commence his own follow-up to a woeful, injury-plagued 2013.

Danica Patrick isn't offended by Richard Petty's critique that she won't ever win a Sprint Cup race. Boyfriend and fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is letting her defend herself, and Patrick team-owner/teammate Stewart isn't touching the topic.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is content with Austin Dillon racing a No. 3 Chevrolet in Sprint Cup, as he approved of how the process was handled by Richard Childress Racing and knew it was inevitable the digit so associated with his late father would return to NASCAR's highest level.

Meanwhile, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Truex and Bobby Labonte missed all the fun Thursday, as they were unable to take off from the Charlotte, N.C., area to attend Daytona 500 media day because of heavy snow. Newman, who offered the Truexes a ride, seemed to be having fun, though, tweeting a picture of buffalo on his snow-blanketed farm.

And so began Speedweeks 2014.

The actual engine-firing portion of the proceedings begins Friday with practice for the Sprint Unlimited, and Stewart, who said his broken right leg is 65 percent healed, is raring to begin after missing the final 15 races of 2013.

So is Hamlin, who missed four races after breaking his back in a wreck at Fontana, Calif., last spring and failed to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time as a full-time driver but comes into this season after winning the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.

"Usually, you're kind of thinking about 'the grind's about to start' and you're about to spend a lot of time away from home," Hamlin said. "For me, I'm one of the few drivers who couldn't get this offseason over quick enough because as soon we hit the racetrack, 2013 is over and 2014 has started and we can stop talking about last year.

"What I've seen from testing, I believe we are going to be one of the guys that come out pretty strong pretty early."

Oh, and one final note: If Kevin Harvick's mother is in his way of winning a second Daytona 500, she's in trouble.

"I'd wreck my mom if I had to. One hundred percent!" he said. "If we're going to win the Daytona 500, it's going around."

-- Brant James

Stewart ready despite leg still needing to heal

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- After the most agonizing mental and physical offseason of his career, Tony Stewart is ready to get on with Speedweeks. He will not be stopped, he said. And he will not require a backup driver.

Although Stewart says his right leg is just 65 percent healed after being repaired with three surgeries and buttressed by a titanium rod following a sprint car accident last Aug. 5, the three-time Sprint Cup champion will reclaim his seat in the No. 14 Chevrolet beginning with Sprint Unlimited practice on Friday at Daytona International Speedway.

"Normally, I'm thinking days and weeks, and now I'm thinking hours," Stewart said of his wait to resume racing activities, "so I'm excited about it. It's been a long time since Aug. 5."

Stewart, 42, still experiences discomfort when lying prone, but his race car has been reconfigured -- including the installation of "knee-knocker" devices to prevent his legs from impacting the steering column -- to maximize comfort and utility. He has made "huge gains" in physical therapy the past few weeks, he said, adding, "I don't know how we could be more prepared, honestly."

But he also will have to be prepared for 35 points races after the Daytona 500 at less than full physical capacity. Stewart has been told to expect another year of recovery before his right leg is fully healed.

"[I am at] about 65 [percent] right now," he said. "With so many gaps in the bones -- where a hairline fracture wouldn't have far to grow to heal the rest of the way -- pieces are missing out of your bones, it's got to regenerate that bone. With the titanium rod in there we've got the strength that we need, but the actual physical healing it's going to take a little longer."

-- Brant James

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New rules mean better Chase hopes for many

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The new formula used to determine the Chase for the Sprint Cup field has brightened the outlook of numerous drivers hopeful that one victory could launch them into NASCAR's playoffs.

Perhaps no driver's hopes are as realistic as those of Marcos Ambrose.

A two-time Cup winner at Watkins Glen -- both since 2011 -- the 37-year-old Australian has never finished higher than 18th in points in five full seasons at NASCAR's highest level. But with a win at Watkins Glen or Sonoma, he is virtually assured under the new system to put Richard Petty Motorsports in the Chase for just the second time.

"It's certainly going to change the pressure on those two [road course] races," Ambrose told ESPN.com. "It's always been pressure to win the road course races, but now you've got a chance to make the Chase by just winning a race. So naturally, if I haven't won by then, those races become even more important and more pressure on them."

The rules change likely will spur a complete reconsideration of how to plan a season, with teams specializing on exploitable opportunities.

"We'll focus on [road courses], and we'll try our very best to win not only one but both road races," Ambrose said. "We've got a good chance to do it.

"No doubt that the change in the rule help teams like us, teams that have opportunities to win races but have not been able to string together a run to make the old Chase format. We can really focus on a few races that will be our very best chance to win, and if we can do that, we're going to the Chase."

Second-year Cup driver Danica Patrick said her team discussed what would have otherwise been a far-fetched path to the Chase. Her aptitude on restrictor-plate tracks and Stewart-Haas Racing's ability to build speedy cars for Daytona and Talladega have made a postseason opportunity more plausible.

"That's something that obviously we all thought about right off the bat, how strong we are on the speedways, how comfortable I feel on the speedways, the fact that a win gets you in the Chase," she said.

-- Brant James

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Danica isn't bothered by Petty's comments

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick said she respects Richard Petty's right to an opinion, isn't bothered at all by his comments about her abilities earlier this week, and couldn't possibly try any harder.

Brad Keselowski, who has incurred Twitter ire in the past for criticizing Patrick, a second-year Sprint Cup driver, said he didn't agree with Petty's assertion that Patrick could win a race only "if everyone else stayed home." But Keselowski said he hasn't seen "any indication" that she is ready to win away from Daytona International Speedway -- where she won the pole, led laps and finished eighth in the Daytona 500 last year -- and Talladega Superspeedway.

And Keselowski agreed that Petty, NASCAR's leader with 200 wins and co-leader with seven titles, is going to say what he's going to say. And you have to respect that.

"He has a right to his opinion like everyone else, and he makes some pretty strong points when you read his whole transcript, but it's a long ways to go out there and say someone will never win a race," Keselowski said. "I wouldn't want to have my name behind that comment, so I think I would probably give that a little more time and see how that one plays out because there are races where I think she could win."

And that is as close to a consensus that race drivers are going to get before metal and mentalities begin to jumble beginning with Sprint Unlimited practice tomorrow.

So commences another interesting media day on Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, where the run-up begins for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 23.

This Speedweeks begins with a peculiar blend of neo-nostalgia and radical changes to the points structure that buck the tradition of the sport. Memories of the sport's past will be rekindled as rookie Austin Dillon will drive a No. 3 Chevrolet not used since Dale Earnhardt's death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. There will be familiar surnames like Chase Elliott (son of former Sprint Cup champion Bill) in the Nationwide Series, along with Jeb Burton (son of the 2002 Daytona 500 winner, Ward) and Ben Kennedy (great grandson of the late series founder, Bill France) in the truck series.

But there will also be changes aplenty, with a new points system sending 16 drivers to the Chase for the Sprint Cup and three knockout rounds setting up a one-race conclusion at Homestead-Miami Speedway. A win during the regular season virtually assures a playoff berth, which figures to stoke late-race anxiety and aggression.

-- Brant James

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Group qualifying tweaked

NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton announced tweaks to the series' new group qualifying format after consultation with teams, most notably crewmen being allowed to adjust cars during the proceedings. According to Pemberton, one helmeted crew member will be allowed over the wall to make tape, tire and wedge adjustments when the track is active for qualifying, and three will be permitted during sessions breaks.

Pemberton added that the short track version of the new format, in which two rounds of 30 and 10 minutes winnow cars into a qualifying order, will be used at road courses.

-- Brant James

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