Brad and Jimmie, just two fun-loving guys (Photo: Getty Images
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
Finally it's time for some real action. No more jaw-jacking, no more teasing, no more guessing.
Saturday night, Daytona International Speedway, 75 laps, in three segments, with 19 drivers, starting around 8:10 p.m. ET.
The new 2013s, in action for the first time.
A lot of uncertainty. Virtually no practice, with brand new race cars, and some new chassis tweaks, and new aerodynamics. Drivers complaining of 'loose' in the corners.
Without much to really go on, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne could have a bit of an edge, and maybe Tony Stewart too.
Word of warning: Friday's opening round of Sprint Cup practice was barely three laps old before a big crash.
Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth tangled, Martin Truex Jr. got caught up too, when Kenseth, in a 10-car pack, closed a hole on Busch coming off the fourth turn. Busch went nose-first into the outside wall.
"I had no idea Kurt had a run on me," Kenseth said. "I was just watching Kyle (Busch, the leader of the draft). It didn't seem like anyone was getting a big run."
"I guess Matt thought I was going with him, but I was trying to go with Kyle, and Matt came down across our nose," Kurt Busch said.
No one was seriously injured, but drivers were already skittish about the handling of these new cars. Many said they would be doing very little practice because there are few parts and pieces and thus a shortage of cars themselves. Repair work on the new cars has been a major question for crews.
Milka Duno. On the front row for Saturday's ARCA 200 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
But that's only the half of it here.
The other half -- Saturday afternoon's typically wild ARCA 200, the 50th running, for drivers who don't generally run big tracks like this. In fact half the ARCA field (4:30 p.m. ET) has never raced at Daytona before.
The ARCA is always fun to watch, breath-taking at times. Some interesting angles this time -- another run for Venezuelan Milka Duno (no, Danica Patrick isn't the only woman racing here)... a first good look at newcomer Kyle Larson, a 20-year-old that Tony Stewart says is the real deal...and a first Daytona look at Darrell Wallace, the promising 19-year-old Toyota/Joe Gibbs racer.
Following Danica's footsteps? Duno, who starts from the front row, laughs: "No, I have more wins than she has, I've run more races than she has."
Larson, a Japanese-American, on the Chevy roster, has drawn amazing praise from Stewart.
"He reminds me of a lot better than me," Stewart says of Larson, who is also running Nationwide for the first time this season.
"Everything he's got. I mean everything.
"When he got in a stock car the first time, it was just natural to him. Go from a lightweight car to a heavy car is a hard adjustment for a lot of drivers.
"To watch him run his first couple races in a stock car, that's shows you this kid has natural driving ability. He's just good in whatever he gets in.
"He goes up and wins in somebody else's Midget, crashes in somebody else's Sprint car, and he's supposed to start on the pole in my Silver Crown car, but never got the chance to do it because he crashed the Sprint car and got hurt.
"It shows how versatile he is. It amazes you how good he is."
Like the next big thing in racing?
"You can bet the farm on it," Stewart says. "I guarantee it. If not, you can take everything I own, because I'm that confident.
"It's not a matter of if, it's when.
"The great thing is he's still a kid and he still acts like a kid. Nobody's tried to make him grow up too fast, or put pressure on him to do anything. He just gets in and does it.
"I don't see there being any red flags with him. I've seen good drivers in the past that have come up and you see red flags, you see problems, or hurdles they're going to have to cross in their career. He doesn't have any of those signs."
Not much pressure, with such glowing praise....
And Saturday night....
The shootout, now named the Unlimited, is also typically wild. Kyle Busch made some amazing saves last year en route to victory. And Jeff Gordon wound up on his roof.
This time, though, with the new 2013s, and with parts and pieces in such short supply, drivers says they really don't want to be wrecking.
That big crash during January 500 testing was an eye-opener, Jimmie Johnson says.
"When those guys crashed, stuff broke apart and disappeared," Johnson says. "Before, with sheet metal, you were able to bend things, put things back in place."
Johnson and others say they are particularly worried that the new noses will be too fragile and breakable.
"Crash damage, and how to repair the car, will be something that we all need to learn pretty quick," Johnson says.
Golly, gee, has it really been more than two years since Mr. Five-time last won a championship? And didn't he crash out very early in last year's Daytona 500?
No Big Mo no more?
"We haven't thought of it as a loss of momentum," Johnson says, reflecting on the last two Sprint Cup title runs, won by Brad Keselowski and Stewart.
"I think back to the five in a row and really how special that time was.
"It didn't happen for a lot of reasons the last two years. When I look at 2011, I'm disappointed in the way we performed and the way we were involved in the chase. We really weren't past the halfway point...
"But last year was quite different. I'm very proud of the effort we put in...."
Johnson appeared to have Keselowski on the ropes late in the chase twice last fall, at Martinsville and at Phoenix. And when Keselowski made some mistakes at Homestead in the finale, where he needed only to finish 16th to win the title, Johnson was right there to make it a game....until his transmission broke late in the race.
Keselowski will be missing from Saturday's race, and also runner-up Clint Bowyer, because neither man won a pole last season, and the field is generally limited to pole winners.
While some are looking at Johnson and the Rick Hendrick guys as preseason favorites, Johnson insists "They (NASCAR) took so many 'tools' away from us that I don't know what we can really do.
"We have far less tools today than we did at Homestead.
"They have changed the rules for the rear geometry. We are more in a straightjacket.
"We still have opportunities to find things, but the reward is so small. I mean you are finding a half a tenth at best. You have to stack up four or five things to create an advantage.
"The opportunities are still there, it is just much more difficult to recognize them and put them in play."
So maybe Johnson will have to do more to try to rattle the competition....like Keselowski.
"Watching him on TV following the (Homestead) race trying to drink a beer was not the best thing for our sport, and how he handled that," Johnson said with a laugh, reflecting on Keselowski's post-race, uh, celebration.
"But honestly, he and (crew chief) Paul Wolfe did an amazing job. They are awesome. They put up a heck of a fight.
"Sure, I'm bummed we didn't have the final two races we hoped to have.
"But what I was laughing about is Brad -- as mature as he wants to portray himself, he's had some growing to do. Now he is in the spotlight as the champion, and I think we all sit back and chuckle at times at some of the things he says and does.
"He is a great guy. He has the best of intentions for our sport... He just needs to mature a little.
"Of course I'm sure people can look back on my '06 season and have plenty of things to point fingers at."