Danica: back to business (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
The weather here is fantastic, the new 2013s look pretty spiffy, and heartthrob sexy Danica Patrick is on the pole for the Daytona 500, with the whole world watching.
What a SpeedWeeks for this sport.
And NBC's Brian Williams is going to add his two cents to the media frenzy over Patrick-on-the-pole with a Wednesday evening interview on the NBC Nightly News.
The Washington Post ( http://wapo.st/XpMZvS ), the New York Times ( http://nyti.ms/Xlxt7r ), the Wall Street Journal, are all catching this wave.
Of course, like many waves in racing, this one could be a wipeout at any moment.
Just ask Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards. All had trouble in Wednesday afternoon's final round of practice for Thursday's twin 150s, when truth really speaks.
When the engine man is standing in the engine compartment, it's not a good sign for Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Earnhardt blew an engine Wednesday. That will force him to start the first 150 from the rear of the field.
Keselowski had a fuel system problem.
"That's not what you want when you're in front of the pack, because when your car slows down, they've got nowhere to go, and it could cause a wreck," Keselowski says.
"Something broke in the fuel system; I don't know what. We'll change everything, take that stuff home and tear through it piece by piece until we figure out what went wrong."
Edwards, who has already gone to one backup, tagged Newman, in a minor incident.
"I was up close to Ryan, and all of a sudden his car got a little loose, and there was no space," Edwards said.
"I could have given him more space, but I don't think either one of us really understands why his car got so loose. He was turned sideways."
Newman said he too wasn't sure what happened: "My car came around. I don't know if it was the air off Carl's car or what.
"I think it's an aero situation. That was my first experience; I guess my car got light in the back going into the corner. All of a sudden my car was going across his nose.
"He did say he tried to put the 'air brakes' on me. I think in doing it made my car loose.
"Something new, and a different characteristic of this car I guess.
"I think some of it has to do with the huge 'shark fin' that we have on that (left) side. When you pack air up on that side, it's not going to the spoiler."
Ryan Newman, clearly not happy, as his crew repairs the damage (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
When two veterans at Daytona drafting have problems like that, imagine what rookies -- like Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse -- may encounter.
Jimmie Johnson was once a rookie, and he won the Daytona 500 his rookie season. (He never led a lap that afternoon, and finished 15th.)
Any advice for Patrick? Any advice for her in the 150?
Johnson says "it just isn't worth it" to drive too hard before the 500. "We all know everybody is low on car count," he says.
"If you are fortunate enough to be on that front row, do you really want to push it? There is no need to."
And then Johnson himself crashed early in last year's 500.....
Johnson pointed out he had a lot more pressure on him in 2002: "If I didn't win the pole, I wouldn't have been in the 500.
"I had an incident on the backstraight -- forced below the yellow line, and had to serve a penalty.
"So if we qualified third, I wouldn't have been in the show."
Johnson's record at Daytona has been up and down. He won the 500 in 2006 after good runs in 2003, 2004 and 2005. But since then, well, he's been ragged: finishing 39th, 27th, 31st, 35th, 27th and 42nd. Not quite championship caliber performances.
"The 500 has been tough," Johnson concedes. "I have won duels, I've won the Shootout, and we have been here in July and very competitive.
"But the 500...a lot of DNFs. Last year's was about as bad as it gets -- first-lap crashing, that wasn't a good one."
Last year's Daytona 500 didn't go well for either Danica Patrick or Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have done a lot of pondering about how to attack the rest of SpeedWeeks.
"Track position is going to be important," Johnson says.
"I was surprised to see the middle lane work so well in the unlimited (Saturday night).
"Defending your position is going to be important. Before, you could fight your way up and sit in the first couple of rows and let the race evolve.
"The outside lane does carry a bit more momentum; they can stop the inside lane. So if you work your way to the front, you can't just be content sitting in the bottom lane, or really even the middle lane. You might have to move around.
"Even if you are a row or two back, and there is an opening, stay open-minded. Keep your eyes open, and move around to stay up front."
Johnson admits he's coming into this 500 more wary than usual, particularly after last year's Talladega race, and the crashes.
He doesn't want to criticize plate racing like this, but he points out it's such a roll of the dice: "When it hits, it's a lot like hitting in the casino.
"It's the coolest rush, because you are gambling the whole race. The rush is amazing.
"But it's a different kind of racing. And our team has had a lot of torn up race cars lately. It's starting to get a little old..."
Danica meets Mom and Dad, in the Daytona garage. What, no smiles? Game faces all around. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So will Johnson be drafting with Patrick? She's fast, but she's a rookie....
"When I was a rookie, Jeff told me quickly: 'There may be some of that going on -- where guys won't work with rookies. But the biggest reason he said he wouldn't work with a rookie was that they make the wrong moves.
"He said to me 'Make the right moves. Give people a reason to follow you.'
"You can't do it on your own out there. It gets real selfish and greedy. And if somebody is making the right decisions and the right moves, you are going to go with them. It doesn't matter how much experience they have."
Johnson says Patrick has shown aggressiveness on these big tracks. "She can get in there and mix it up.
"If she is making good offensive moves, to move forward, you stay with her."
And that maybe what Patrick has to show Thursday.
What's Tony Gibson's game plan for Danica Patrick in Thursday's 150s? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)