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Daytona 500 opens a Sprint Cup season full of story lines, including Patrick’s debut

By David J. Neal, McClatchy Newspapers –

Attention lavished on Danica Patrick even though she has never won a race in a series that doesn’t have Jimmie Johnson as the defending champion with some new rules — did somebody sprinkle some IndyCar in NASCAR?

To predict the story lines that will come out of next Sunday’s big bang on another Sprint Cup season, the Daytona 500, bathes in folly. Any NASCAR follower with a molecule of historic knowledge recognized the Wood Brothers iconic No. 21 car and none figured on Trevor Bayne, who turned 21 Sunday, making it relevant again.

But going into this week, Bayne (last year’s Daytona 500 champion), Tony Stewart (last year’s Sprint Cup champion), Johnson (not last year’s champion for the first time since 2006) and Patrick (popular for hot looks, fiery personality and driving style) draw focus.

Johnson’s try for a staggering sixth consecutive series championship got him sixth, all right … sixth in the final standings. His Daytona Speedweeks got off to a black flag start when a Friday pre practice inspection turned up illegal parts on his car. Johnson’s longtime crew chief, Chad Knauss, could be facing his second Speedweeks punishment in the past seven years. Also, at Talledega (Ala.) last season, Knauss told Johnson to intentionally damage the rear of the car should he win.

Johnson practiced Saturday without incident. Speaking of rules, Johnson thought Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout, where Kyle Busch defeated Stewart for the title, gained extra import with the new aerodynamics rules adopted by NASCAR.

“It isn’t a points race, so that pressure isn’t there,” Johnson said. “What’s going to be different is we have so many changes to the rules. There’s going to be a lot of learning going on in trying to understand, from a driver’s standpoint, how to work the draft.”

Patrick knows how to work superspeedway drafts in 220 mph open-wheel Indy cars. There’s a slightly different skill to doing it in Cup series or Nationwide Series cars, both of which she will be driving at Daytona. She will be a full-time Nationwide Series driver for JR Motorsports, the Nationwide team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., and race up to 10 Sprint Cup events for Stewart-Haas, Stewart’s Sprint Cup team.

She said with so little practice time for each series, “It’s no wonder so many Cup guys tend to do the Nationwide race because of the way they can assist each other.”

NASCAR hopes Patrick brings her vast popularity over from IndyCar, where only one win in seven seasons didn’t prevent her from being a fan favorite. Actually, her willingness to occasionally confront other drivers after on-track dustups puts her right in line with the settle-it-behind-the-barn attitude old-school NASCAR fans often say they miss from modern drivers.

“I’m just moving forward, doing the best I can and one thing leads to another,” Patrick said, “then I think of it from my parents’ position, how proud they must be that their kid, their daughter, has competed in the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500. And the pride of driving for such great people as Dale Jr. and Tony Stewart at Stewart/Haas.”

Patrick, of course, believes she can win next Sunday in her first Daytona start. Bayne did as a part-time Sprint Cup driver. That schedule expanded after his win thrilled both young fans and those aforementioned old-school fans who remember when the No. 21 meant David Pearson, Cale Yarborough or A.J. Foyt running near the front at Daytona.

“Last year, it was ‘How does it feel to be running your first Daytona 500?’ ” Bayne said. “This year, they’re asking how I’m going to defend it. It’s weird to wonder, how am I going to defend it? Guess you go back to the same mind-set I had last year and try to do it all over again.”

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