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Daytona SpeedWeeks! And Greg Biffle says 'We just want to go racing....'

   Action? JPM, Juan Pablo Montoya, can deliver...if he doesn't worry so much about stroking through the regular season to make the playoffs (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Wild and crazy?
   Well, that's what NASCAR's Brian France wants this season from his drivers, and in Saturday night's Shootout he may get a good dose of it...after we all get to see just what Indy hotshot Danica Patrick can do in Saturday afternoon's ARCA 200.
    It certainly promises to be an interesting spring, out on the track.
    Down in the media trench, though, well that's another story.
   Thursday is NASCAR's annual Media Day Frenzy, and most drivers are expected to be here for a day-long series of interviews, before heading out to the track for some late-afternoon practice.
   TV of course will be on hand, but what other media is still left out here trying to play this game is unclear. Daytona naturally should be busy, but who shows up at California and Las Vegas in the coming weeks is up for debate.
    And NASCAR and track execs appear still trying to figure out just how to deal with all this. Or maybe it's just a matter of whatever TV wants, TV gets, because it's paying good money for this show...and the rest, well, they can fend for themselves.
   How that impacts you, the NASCAR consumer, ah, there's the rub.
   A year later, and what to expect this time around during SpeedWeeks?
   It's been a year since Matt Kenseth parlayed that late 3:30 P.M. start and a rain-soaked gambling finish, and some unexpected miscues by Dale Earnhardt Jr. on pit road and in that tussle with Brian Vickers, into a Daytona 500 win.
   That, a week after Kevin Harvick beat Jamie McMurray – then Kenseth's teammate at Jack Roush's – in the Shootout. And Harvick finished second in the 500.
   However for Kenseth and Harvick the rest of the season was pretty much a drag.
   The twists here this season: "Goodyear has a new tire, the cars will have a bigger restrictor plate, and there are two new end-plates on the (rear) wing that are completely different than we had in the past," Jeff Burton says. "So there is a lot to learn. The sooner we get in the cars, the better."
   "That additional track time (in the Shootout) will be even more important this year with the bigger restrictor plate," Kenseth says. "We'll be going a lot faster, so handling will be even more important."
   The men to beat at Daytona the last two SpeedWeeks have been driving for Joe Gibbs: Tony Stewart in 2008 (he got outfoxed by now teammate Ryan Newman the last lap), and Kyle Busch last season (he got taken out in the Earnhardt-Vickers incident).

  Yessir, Mr. France: You want action....we'll deliver! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   One big story, again this spring, will be TV, and ratings. 
   FOX – in its 10th season covering NASCAR – will cover Saturday's 500 pole runs (1 p.m. ET) and the Shootout (8 p.m. ET), and the 52nd running of 500 Sunday February 14 (12 noon ET).
    And these are the numbers Fox execs are putting out to consider: Last year's average audience was 16.0 million viewers, compared to 13.5 million for the NCAA Final Four, the 2008 Summer Olympics' 15.2 million, the 2009 NBA Finals' 14.3 million, the Kentucky Derby's 11.8 million, the final round of The Masters' 14.3 million, and the final round of the U.S. Open 7.1 million.
    Of course Saturday's lead attraction is expected to be Patrick's stock car debut, in a car owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and backed by Hendrick engineering, in the ARCA 200 (4:30 p.m. ET). She'll wait to see how she does in that race before deciding whether to run in the following weekend's Nationwide 300.
   Fox' 13 Cup shows this season will feature earlier starting times. Races on the East Coast and in the central part of the country are to begin at 1 p.m. ET; West Coast events at 3 p.m. ET. Night races (like Phoenix, Richmond and Darlington) are to begin at 7:30 p.m. ET. The Charlotte 600 in late May will begin at 5:45 p.m. ET.
   Another story: the rest of the media. With the collapse of the newspaper industry, it's not clear just who will in fact be covering NASCAR (or other stories too, for that matter). And the internet web industry has become so convoluted, NASCAR execs don't seem to know just how to handle that part of the media. Of course NASCAR itself is a major internet player, so competition beware.
   If all that leaves any independent sports analysts around, well, that remains to be seen.
   And NASCAR execs, remember, were quick to criticize TV men last year for criticizing aspects of the sport, leaving that part of the mix to uncertain journalism.
   But then NASCAR officials are going with a 'let 'em play' approach this season, and that may well overshadow all that, if these drivers take it to heart.
   Out on the track there has been yet another change in qualifying rules for the Shootout, which for years was based on invites to pole winners.
   Now the rules put all 12 playoff drivers in the field, along with past champions and Daytona winners, and rookie of the year Joey Logano.
   In one interesting twist, Michael Waltrip, who is cutting back to a limited schedule this season, will be in the Shootout, with new crew chief Pat Tryson on the pit box.
   Toyota, it appears, could use a shot or two of good news, and Logano could help make the case, in Saturday night's Shootout.  The second year driver didn't have great luck here last season, after starting out with a second-place run in the ARCA 200 – this time that 200 will be Danica Patrick's Daytona debut Saturday afternoon. Logano, though he nearly won his 150-mile duel, wound up 28th in the shootout and 43rd in the 500 itself.
    The roster for Saturday's Daytona Shootout: John Andretti, Greg Biffle, Geoff Bodine, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Derrike Cope, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte, Joey Logano, Sterling Marlin, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Newman, Ken Schrader, Tony Stewart, Brian Vickers and Michael Waltrip.


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   Daytona Upset Special? Consider Joey Logano. Joe Gibbs' teams have dominated the last two Daytona 500s, and Logano just won the California shootout (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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