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Daytona opens for SpeedWeeks, Greg Zipadelli's new job running Danica Patrick's team looks intriguing, but where's Trevor Bayne?

  Greg Zipadelli: the veteran crew chief, now back with old buddy Tony Stewart (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


  Wonder who will be the first man caught going below the yellow line here during SpeedWeeks?
  Then again, did Denny Hamlin get robbed in last season's Shootout?
  Certainly Kurt Busch's win didn't quite set the tone for his season.
  In fact the Hamlin versus Busch duel to the finish really didn't say much about how those two were going to make it through the year.

Both went downhill over the spring, and both men have different crew rosters to work with this season.
   Let that be a lesson to anyone trying to discern too much from what we see these next few days.
   However anticipate a heck of a lot of hoopla marketing and promotion here. And maybe keep an eye on what the NBA is doing just west of here on I-4, in trying to turn the All-Star game into a four-day jam – marketed head-to-head against Daytona SpeedWeeks' four biggest days next week.
   Thursday here is the annual NASCAR Media Day madness. Not sure if Daytona will try to sell fan tickets to this one, as the NFL did with its Super Bowl Media Day two weeks ago…

   Greg Zipadelli's big job this season: helping Danica Patrick make a successful transition to Sprint Cup racing (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Down in the trenches, a lot of guys will be on the hot seat as the new season begins.
   One of them is Greg Zipadelli, who led Tony Stewart to two Cup championships before Stewart moved on to his own team three years ago.
   Stewart too perhaps.
   And certainly Danica Patrick, now part of the team.
   Zipadelli is back with Stewart now, leaving the Joe Gibbs camp after spending his entire NASCAR career there.
   Zipadelli will be Stewart's new competition director…though it's unclear how well the veteran crew chief will fill that typically engineering role.
   And Zipadelli will also have his hands full as crew chief for Patrick during her 10 Sprint Cup runs this year. Patrick is making her Cup debut in the Daytona 500, as Stewart's teammate, along with Ryan Newman.
   Patrick says she will be focusing this year mainly on the Nationwide tour, which she'll be running full-time, a first for her.
   And Zipadelli concedes he's a bit worried about how Patrick will handle the two different race cars here, and the double demands on her during SpeedWeeks.
   There has long been the sense that, as dedicated as Patrick insists she is for this new NASCAR deal, she may be underestimating just what lies ahead for her.
   Zipadelli too may be facing a rough spring, balancing his two new roles – along with the pressure of now working the guy who just won last season's NASCAR championship, and then fired his championship crew chief.

    Steve Addington (L), new crew chief for Tony Stewart, in a deal that reunites him with Greg Zipadelli (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Zipadelli says it's important to get Patrick "comfortable in the car. I'm still learning.
   "I'll learn a lot more during the week at Daytona. And when we get through that, we'll be doing a lot of testing, to see how she reacts.
   "Getting on pit road (tricky for any driver) and all those things, I've been impressed and surprised with how attentive she is to things around her, and how much confidence she has, and how much positive input she has, and how relaxed she is."
   Nine of Patrick's 10 races have been named; the sense is Indianapolis' Brickyard 400 will be the 10th.  But that may depend on how well she adapts.
   "We've picked some of the toughest races for her, to let her think about things and learn…because that's what this year is about," Zipadelli says.
   "I love her confidence, that she's not afraid to think she can win the Daytona 500. The way racing is today, if we give her a good car (for the Daytona 500) and she stays out of trouble and give her good track position, why doesn't she have the same opportunity (to win)?
   "The racing will be different here this time around, with NASCAR's rules changes and things they're encouraging us not to do, the two-car push. So it will be interesting to see how the week unfolds."
   And Zipadelli says the precise shape of Patrick's Cup operation is still unfolding. A deal – of some sort -- has been made with car owner Tommy Baldwin, to keep Patrick's Cup team up in the points, with David Reutimann driving for Baldwin in the events Patrick is not running. Where things go from there is unclear.
   Patrick's Cup schedule is pretty light the first six months, with only Daytona, then Darlington and Charlotte in May. So Zipadelli says it didn't make sense to put together a full Cup team for her, complete with new crew chief. "There will be a lot of people available at the end of the year. We can wait.
   "We want to see what she likes and what she needs. I'm not sure exactly what she needs or wants (in a crew chief)."
   Zipadelli says he would definitely like for Patrick to be running more Cup races this season: "It would be nice to run a few races, then take a week or two off and regroup and test, then run a couple more," he says.
   "But we don't want to take away from her Nationwide effort; that's big for her this year. And she will learn how to run these races by running that whole series."

   Remember? November 16, 2008 -- Tony Stewart's final run with crew chief Greg Zipadelli (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   However Zipadelli worries that jumping between the Cup car and Nationwide car, two different machines and two different types of driving, could be a significant problem for Patrick. "I saw it with Joey Logano that first year, and it was hard," Zipadelli says. "But I have some ideas of how to deal with that and keep her focused.
   "It will be a learning experience for her…and it will make her tougher quicker, and that's what we need."

    Hey, is Danica Patrick really tough enough for this stuff? 
    Is she really ready for Kevin Harvick or Greg Biffle or Kyle Busch when they're having a bad day?
   "It is a tough league…but everybody has the same opportunity to come in and try it," Zipadelli says with a laugh. "But look at the five-time champ (Jimmie Johnson) – how many races did he win in Nationwide…and then he comes over here and makes all of us look dumb.
   "So I think you have to be careful how you judge her.
   "She's got a great following, she's got good sponsorship, she brings a lot to the sport.
   "How do you judge who's ready and who's not?
   "She's got a lot of racing experience. She got solid top-10 finishes every week in Indy-car racing; she didn't wreck every week."
  Maybe so. But is she tough enough for this?
   "We'll just have to wait and see," Zipadelli says. "If she's not, she's going to have to get it.
   "But from what I've seen, she's got as much confidence and as much guts as anybody I've met. And I like that.
   "She's confident in her ability, but she's not ignorant or cocky. There is that fine line.
   "She knows she'll be learning, she understands these guys are going to pick on her and she'll have to take some of it. But I do believe she won't take all of it."


   The Daytona Shootout finish, 2011: Denny Hamlin hugging the yellow out-of-bounds line in passing Kurt Busch. But NASCAR didn't like the move, and Busch got the win (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Of course much better Indy-car drivers, like three-time champion Sam Hornish, have tried NASCAR and been found wanting.
   Zipadelli concedes that. And he points to Tony Stewart's own early years in NASCAR, when he was making the transition from Indy-cars to stockers. Zipadelli, of course, was right there with him for those first 10 years here.
   "When Tony came into NASCAR, he didn't have a lot of experience here, but no one thought he wouldn't be successful….though perhaps not to the level that he has been successful," Zipadelli says.
   "It was fun for those 10 years….to start that team from scratch and build it.
   "To have the same opportunity now here, that's energizing to me.
   "And it helps me make the transition into my new job, because I still love racing and still want to be on that pit box. I'll get a taste of both this year.
   "I watched Joe Gibbs' operation grow to this huge empire it is today….but sometimes you just get caught up in a routine.
   "Now I'm getting to work earlier, and I'm staying at work later, and I'm enjoying every bit of it."
     The difference between Gibbs' and Stewart's is considerable, Zipadelli says. "This place is smaller, and it's filled with racers because it's smaller, and it's easier to get things done.
   "At Joe Gibbs, things had gotten so big that the systems were bigger, and it took more to get things through. But then they could do more in a shorter period of time when needed."

   What is Zipadelli's new job really? "We're defining that as we go," Zipadelli says. "It's about how the mechanics of these three teams goes….and to drive progress and performance. I'm not a very good micromanager; I want to give a guy all the tools he needs, then 'Hey, go do it.'"
   The man Zipadelli is replacing is Bobby Hutchens, the veteran NASCAR engineer, dropped by Stewart last June, abruptly and without much comment.
   Zipadelli, who concedes he could probably have stayed with Gibbs for as long as he wanted, and worked with comfort and security, says life on the NASCAR road these days is quite different than it once was, with much more pressure to perform, and with sponsors neither patient nor willing let things unfold gradually.
   Indeed, there is the sense, fairly or not, that Patrick's Sprint Cup schedule could have included more events, but that sponsors are waiting to see just how well she does.
    That in turn means pressure on Zipadelli, not only to get her up and running this season, but to lay the groundwork for a solid, full tour schedule in 2013.
    For many years sponsors were less demanding, and sponsorships were not so much focused on winning but more on being part of the sport, on marketing synergies.
   Now it's perform and perform now and perform quickly, or you're fired.
   "This sport has changed a lot. You don't even have a chance (to slowly develop or jell)," Zipadelli says.
   "With the format of the racing, and the chase, you have to perform or they'll put somebody else in there. There is a lot of pressure from sponsors to perform.
    "And you see what happens when you don't perform – six, or eight, or 15 races into the (36-race) season, 'Let's make a change.'
   "As a guy who's been a crew chief, do I think that's right? No. But I understand it is all about performance.
   "However sometimes it just takes time for people to jell, for things to develop."



Uh, with finishes like this -- the Daytona Shootout, 2011 -- why would officials be messing with the rules? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



   A Daytona short track? For years that's been New Smyrna Speedway, just down the road, where Daytona fans can watch good short track action at night during SpeedWeeks after a day at the big track.
   Now Daytona officials have decided to share in the short track fun, by building a four-tenths-mile flat track on the backstretch, near Lake Lloyd.
   And the new short track looks to open in 2013, hosting NASCAR's own short trackers, on the Monday and Tuesday between Daytona 500 qualifying and the final round of practice Wednesday for Thursday's twin 150s.
   A short track within the big track is similar to what Charlotte Motor Speedway did several years ago, though the Charlotte short track is on the front stretch.

   After last season's epidemic of surprises on the stock car tour, it's hard to see how these guys can top it. But beginning here this week, they'll try.
  The Bud Shootout, a made-for-TV race that never fails to produce, is one of those odd races which typically features several 'how did they make it in' drivers and several 'why didn't they make it' drivers.
   And this week's SpeedWeeks kickoff – Saturday night, 8 p.m. ET -- is no exception.
   Trevor Bayne, who won last season's Daytona 500, will be on the sidelines Saturday night.
   He is eligible, but has no car for the event. He'll be in the Woods' car for the 500.
   Kurt Busch won last February's sprint in that controversial 'yellow line' victory, though Hamlin actually beat him to the finish line. NASCAR ruled Hamlin's pass below the yellow line was illegal, though a case might be made that Hamlin was 'forced' below the line.
   Keep in mind this time that NASCAR is typically quick to penalize a driver for going below the line here and at Talladega, unless he gives that spot right back….and that NASCAR has never penalized a driver for 'forcing' a rival below the line. The upshot of that philosophy was most clearly seen in the Carl Edwards – Brad Keselowski duel, following the Tony Stewart – Regan Smith duel, both for wins at Talladega.
   So coming off the fourth turn the last lap, if one driver gets squeezed low by another, will he just stand his ground, and risk putting a car on its roof, or worse?

   Each year the Shootout entry rules get a tweak. This year drivers are eligible if they ran the Sprint Cup tour last season and if they finished top-25 in driver points or if they've won the Daytona 500, summer 400, or a Shootout.
   The men on Saturday's grid: Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle, Paul Menard, Martin Truex Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton, Juan Pablo Montoya, David Ragan, Joey Logano, Michael Waltrip and Jamie McMurray.
   Of those, several men were winless in 2011, Earnhardt, Allmendinger, Biffle, Truex, Burton, Montoya, Logano, Waltrip and McMurray.
  Bowyer will be making his debut driving for Waltrip; Kahne, for Rick Hendrick; Kurt Busch, for James Finch; Ragan, for Bob Jenkins; and Allmendinger, for Roger Penske.
  The 75-lap Shootout again will be in two legs, with a 10-minute pit stop after the first 25 laps.

    The rest of the SpeedWeeks' schedule: the ARCA 200 Saturday at 4:30 p.m., Daytona 500 pole qualifying (front row only) Sunday at 1 p.m., a pair of 150-mile qualifying heats Thursday Feb. 23 at 2 p.m., the Truck 250 Friday Feb. 24 at 7:30 p.m., the Nationwide 300 Saturday Feb. 25 at 1:15 p.m., and the Daytona 500 Sunday Feb. 26 at 1 p.m.
   The top-35 in owners' points from 2011 are guaranteed spots in the 500. That 'lock in' has led to the usual round of car 'owner' swaps, sometimes curious ruses that NASCAR continues to allow. For example, Dave Blaney 'earned' a spot in the 500 by his work for owner Tommy Baldwin last season, but that 500 guarantee has somehow wound up in Danica Patrick's hands. Likewise, Mark Martin gets a 'lock' into the 500 after a deal between Michael Waltrip and Frank Stoddard.
   While some might argue such deals – indeed the entire 'top-35' rules package – make a travesty of the sport, at least the owners involved can earn a little equity for their teams' years work.


   As popular as newcomer Trevor Bayne is, why is the Daytona 500 winner having such a hard time landing a major full sponsor? And why isn't he in Saturday night's Bud Shootout? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)




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