Kyle Busch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne look like a good quinella for Sunday's Food City 500. But don't count out Denny Hamlin, who would like to put that NASCAR brouhaha behind him.
That's putting it mildly.
What's wrong with NASCAR? What's going on inside the heads of the men in Daytona who run this sport?
NASCAR executives -- apparently in a decision ordered by CEO Brian France -- dissed this sport's hard-core fan-base, and many casual fans too, with the $25,000 penalty on Hamlin last week.
Now, here, drivers aren't saying much about anything, and what they do say is so Pollyanna-puffed up they could be auditioning for cartoon roles at DisneyWorld.
Crews, on the other hand, are angry and grumpy, to say the least, about whatever NASCAR may be doing behind the curtains this month.
NASCAR officials have been warning teams for months not to criticize anything, and Hamlin's penalty showed teams the sanctioning body is serious. Now nobody here really wants to talk to anybody about anything, except maybe the weather (cold rain is in the forecast).
And the mood in the NASCAR garage is sullen. That's being generous.
While drivers, with multi-million-dollar salaries, may freely kiss away huge fines, crewmen -- typically very underpaid these days, because of a huge surplus of the unemployed -- are almost frozen in fear at getting tagged by NASCAR.
And NASCAR executives -- as USAToday's Nate Ryan pointed out so eloquently Here -- appear increasingly, and disturbingly, unable to relate to this sport's many fans. (Expect Ryan to get a call to meet with officials over that.....)
The frightening disconnect between NASCAR-Daytona and stock car racing's fans was brought vividly to the public eye on social media Twitter and Facebook the past 10 days.
So, instead of a bright, exciting kickoff to the 2013 season, NASCAR finds itself trying to reverse a huge PR disaster.
Maybe one of those classic 'Hot-damn!' Bristol races can turn it all around.
Danica Patrick: Crashed at Phoenix. Six laps down at Las Vegas. Woefully 41st in Bristol qualifying (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Certainly nobody is counting on Daytona darling Danica Patrick to make anything much happen. Since Daytona Patrick has fared poorly, and here she qualified a dismal 41st in the 43-car field. Patrick's big news -- she's not interested in going Formula 1.
Other than dealing with huge packs of disgruntled crews and too many seemingly tranquilized drivers, little happened here Friday.
Busch, though, had an eventful moment in practice: "I was just trying to clear him, but he kept racing me, and we made contact and spun," Busch said about a practice run-in with David Gilliland. Door to door. But it apparently didn't mess up Busch's car too much; he set a track record, 129.535 mph.
"As rough as the bottom is getting, and the top being smoother now, that may make the top faster than we'd expected," Busch said of the variable banking, which was three grooves wide until track owner Bruton Smith started grinding the concrete last summer after a disappointing spring 500.
The last three weeks the Sprint Cup tour has been dogged by complaints that the new 2013 stockers aren't yet up to snuff. Daytona and Phoenix were noticeable weak shows, but in last week's Las Vegas 400 the new car did show promise.
Still, there hasn't been a great race yet this season.
With Bristol's reputation, this could be the first good one. However since the track was redesigned a few years ago, the classic bump-and-run to pass hasn't been part of the game here.
How the layout will workout this time seems unclear to the teams.
Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis outfoxed the competition last summer, until a big melee took them out.
This time, well Kahne and Francis have been tough at all three tracks so far.
How much pressure is there on this sport to have a good race here, a spicy event?
Some figure there's increasing pressure as the weeks go on, considering the hype NASCAR has created around these 2013s.
One plus is that this high-banked half-mile shouldn't test aerodynamics nearly as much as Daytona and Las Vegas.
Another plus is the new car is lighter, by 150 pounds, and has better balance on the four tires.
One question, though, is that the tires here are the same tires used last August, while the car itself has changed considerably, particularly in the chassis.
Pressure to perform? Busch says nah: "We put on a good show in Vegas. Good racing throughout the field. It was a good show. So I don't think this race needs to be a savior at all."
Careful now, Kasey: That cell phone cost Brad Keselowski a $25,000 NASCAR fine, remember. Uh, isn't this series sponsored by Sprint? What in the world is going on inside NASCAR these days? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)