Jeff Gordon: on the front row for the Daytona 500, and hoping for a better start to 2013 than he had in 2012 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
Well, yes, she's a big story here.
But on the eve of the Daytona 500, NASCAR execs managed to trump that by taking Sprint Cup champ Brad Keselowski to task for his offering views about this sport that they apparently didn't care for.
here is the story NASCAR didn't like.
Indeed, sizing up things in this sport at the moment seems more difficult than usual, because drivers and teams are supposed to be on their best, politically correct, behavior. Criticism seems all but forbidden, particularly when it comes to this new 2013 stocker.
Okay, Danica Patrick, time to crank 'er up and show us something spectacular.
Forget 2012, and all those crashes and mediocre finishes.
This is a new season, and you're on the pole for the biggest stock car race of them all.
Whatcha going to show us?
Patrick, who up till now has been mostly hype with not much for result for her time in NASCAR, has brought this sport to its feet, and garnered a heck of a lot of attention, for winning the top starting spot for Sunday afternoon's Daytona 500.
But, no, she is not one of the favorites to win here. There are at least 22 other drivers and teams that have much better shots at this thing.
Yes, she could pull a Trevor Bayne and surprise. And yes, she's run at Daytona several times how. But she has so little experience really at this Sprint Cup stuff that it's a bit scary, to be honest. In last year's Daytona 500 she only made one lap before getting caught up in one of the big ones.
Still, in those parts of the country where NASCAR is still a peripheral world, the idea of a woman taking on stock car racing's roughest and toughest is intriguing.
The pre-race build-up for Danica Patrick has been intense (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Patrick didn't show much in Thursday's 150. She started from the pole there and went straight to the back, to protect her starting spot in the 500. She concedes she didn't learn much in that race. Of course about the only thing her single-file-racing rivals learned was that side-by-side racing with these new 2013s can be iffy. Carl Edwards is on his fifth Daytona car, and Mark Martin and Kurt Busch haven't fared much better.
The 150s were not very exciting, except for watching Kevin Harvick show some smooth moves. Jeff Gordon was running away with the second 150 when he got caught for speeding on pit road.
The line for this 500:
Tony Stewart, Harvick and Kasey Kahne appear to have an edge.
Gordon has speed -- he's on the front row next to Patrick for the 1 p.m.-ish ET start. But Gordon is something of a question. He and crew chief Alan Gustafson showed solid cars most of 2012 but had terrible luck.
"As competitive as this sport is, it's hard to climb your way back up into the top-10 when you get that far behind," Gordon says. "That is definitely something that, when we looked at our season of 2012 and approaching 2013, what is important to us is to get more consistency early on in the season and get off to a good start.
"Of course we want to win. But we also want to make sure we are crossing our T's dotting our I's.... and when we have a bad day, that it's a 10th, not a 35th."
Friday night's Truck race here was filled with exciting racing, from start to finish. Why can't the Sprint Cup drivers do that?
The 500, he says, "is not going to be like the Truck race. Some people might say 'I wish it was.' Me, I don't.
"I love this type of racing: You have to think, you have to be smart, you have to be aggressive at times, and you have to have a good handling car. It brings the whole team aspect into it.
"I hope fans can appreciate this type of racing, because when it comes down to the end of this race, the excitement is going to be there. But in-between it's going to be strategy, it's going to be thought-provoking. And there are going to be moments of some side-by-side great racing.
"There is also going to be moments where people are trying to plan out and strategize.
"To me that is the best of all worlds, and why I love this package we have here.
"When you put 43 cars out there, you have a purpose, and it's a challenge to make passes to get to the front.
"You need to be at the front because your car is going to drive much better at the front.
"You don't want to hang around the back because your car is not going to drive well and you've got a chance of losing the draft.
"There are cars that are going to be handling good at the beginning of a run and not so good at the end of a run. So you are going to start to see passes happen in those last 10 laps before a pit stop.
"Then you are going to have cautions, where they are going to stack up (for double-file restarts) and everybody is going to be jockeying for position, being aggressive, sparks flying, and action.
"I can't predict exactly what we are going to see, but I think you are going to see guys being more aggressive than they were in the 150s."
Game face time for Kevin Harvick. Can he make it three-for-three at Daytona? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)