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The Inside Line: NASCAR's next generation is here

8:41 AM, Feb 14, 2013   |    comments
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Daytona Beach, FL (Sports Network) - The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season has arrived and so has the new Generation-6 car.

After extensive testing during the offseason, the much-anticipated Gen-6 makes its competition debut this weekend at Daytona International Speedway. However, the new car is only one of several storylines to follow this season.

A lot of attention will be focused on Sprint Cup rookie of the year candidates Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick ... not just on the track but off the track as well.

Brad Keselowski will attempt to defend his series championship in a Ford this season after giving Dodge a huge going-away present in 2012, while Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano are among those who have new rides this year.

So start your engines and let's get rolling into the next season.

GEN-6

Say goodbye to the Car of Tomorrow and hello to Gen-6.

NASCAR's new car for its premier series has probably been more publicized than any one of its previous five generations of cars.

Unlike the COT, which was used from 2007-12, NASCAR and the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) incorporated brand identity to the Gen-6, allowing them to resemble the models of the Chevrolet SS, Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry passenger cars.

Here are a few features of the Gen-6:

-The total weight of the Gen-6 is 150 pounds less than the COT. Furthermore, the length of the new car is 2.3 inches shorter but has 3 inches more width than the previous one.

-Paint scheme changes include: driver's last name on windshield, sponsor on roof and step and repeat designs behind the number of the car.

-Each manufacturer -- Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota -- will now run unique panels that better represent their production counterparts.

-NASCAR added roof structure for increased driver safety, and the hood and decklid have been constructed from carbon fiber. The hood tether squares are no longer visible as they were on the previous car.

Sprint Cup teams tested the Gen-6 at Charlotte Motor Speedway twice and Daytona once during the offseason. Drivers and teams have been pleased with the car, and NASCAR has high hopes it will increase the competition.

"I really believe we're going to see some of the most competitive, intense and exciting racing that we've seen in quite some time," NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said.

The Gen-6 has everybody in the series pumped up heading into this season.

"With this car, we have a chance to do something great and really make a big impact," said Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was voted NASCAR's most popular driver for the 10th consecutive season last year. "I think the racing is as exciting as it has been in a long time. You look at some of these old races and look back at some of the events that we had in the '80s and the '90s ... it always is changing and it always will, but I think we have improved it."

But there are some unknowns about this car, particularly in race conditions.

"That's the one thing leaving the test is they drive good, they darn sure look good, but I just don't have that sense of what they're going to race like," said Michael Waltrip Racing driver Clint Bowyer, who finished second in the 2012 Sprint Cup point standings. "Only time will tell. I don't think anybody can tell you right now it's going to race like this, and it's going to put this show on for our fans."

Speeds are expected to reach up to or over 200 mph at Daytona, but pack racing during competition there will be a bit of a mystery with this car. During last month's testing at Daytona, a multi-car wreck occurred when Marcos Ambrose spun around in a pack of 18 cars after Earnhardt Jr. was attempting to bump draft Ambrose on the backstretch. Twelve of the 18 cars riding in a pack at the time were involved in the accident.

It's likely NASCAR will make some tweaks to the car during next week's SpeedWeeks activities at Daytona.

DANICA & RICKY

Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will be battling for the rookie of the year title in Sprint Cup this season. But Patrick and Stenhouse graduating from the Nationwide Series to full-time rides in Cup this year is just a small storyline compared to what we learned about the two last month. They're dating.

Just weeks after she filed for divorce from husband Paul Hospenthal, Patrick revealed that she and Stenhouse were an item. The 30-year-old Patrick also posted on her Twitter account, "Thanks everyone for all of your nice messages, and the bump drafting jokes are cracking me up! Let the fun begin."

Patrick and Stenhouse, 25, waited until last month's NASCAR media tour in Charlotte had wrapped up to confirm their relationship. The two will certainly be a hot topic during SpeedWeeks.

Driving the No. 10 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing, Patrick made her Sprint Cup debut in last year's Daytona 500 and then went on to compete in nine more races in the series. Her best finish of 17th came in the season-ending race in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"I think all the experience I had last year, of course, is going to make me a little more comfortable moving into this year," Patrick said. "I think just the little things like fitting in the car and just the stuff you're constantly messing with when you first get in with a team, that's all gone and you can really hit the ground running as far as how does the car feel, how do I improve it.

"Obviously, I'm familiar with the people who work at Stewart-Haas, and that just makes it all easier when you get going for the next year. We still have a lot to do, though, and there's a lot of stuff I haven't experienced yet. I'm still in Cup for the first time, full-time, so that's going to be difficult in and of itself."

Stenhouse, who won his second straight Nationwide championship last year, moves into the seat of the No. 17 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing after Kenseth drove that car for the past 13 years.

"The Gen-6 car is a perfect time for me to come in," Stenhouse said. "It doesn't give me an advantage, but it does help me out a little bit as far as everybody learning the new car."

TITLE DEFENSE

Since all teams are starting from scratch this season due to the Gen-6, it's difficult to pick a preseason favorite for the Sprint Cup champion as well as making predictions on the 12-driver field for the championship Chase.

After an intense battle with Jimmie Johnson during last year's Chase, Keselowski won his first Sprint Cup title. But Keselowski will be faced with some challenges this season. Penske Racing has switched from Dodge to Ford and now receives engine support from Roush-Yates Engines.

So, what is Keselowski's game plan now?

"I think you stick to what got you where you're at, and that was a lot of hard work and dedication," he said. "I'm not happy being a guy that wins one championship and then goes away quietly. I want to win multiple championships, and I'm gonna work as hard as I can to make that happen."

Just a few weeks after winning the championship, Keselowski had his first time in a Ford during a test session at Charlotte. His testing time at Daytona was cut short, as he headed home earlier than expected after being one of the 12 drivers involved in the crash. His team was one of many that didn't have a backup car since the Gen-6 car was in short supply at the time.

"It was really interesting for us at Daytona and the Charlotte test that we've had to date to be able to know where we stack up," Keselowski said. "That's something we missed before, and I think it's an incredible opportunity for us to have that little bit more depth, and that's where we're going. Depth has been part of our success, whether it's in people or parts, manufacturers, whatever it might be, and we continue to add that here at Penske Racing. I know that if we keep checking off those items on the list, we're bound to be successful."

NEW RIDES IN '13

Kenseth's move to Joe Gibbs Racing highlights the driver changes in Sprint Cup this year. Kenseth is the 2003 series champion and two-time winner of the Daytona 500, including a victory in last year's race, which was delayed one day due to rain. He is taking over Logano's seat in the No. 20 Toyota, while Logano has joined Penske to drive the No. 22 Ford and team with Keselowski.

"I'm really looking forward to it," Kenseth said. "This was a big move for me. I feel like it's really a new beginning. I feel like it's a great opportunity to work with (Sprint Cup teammates) Denny (Hamlin) and Kyle (Busch) and all these people at Joe Gibbs Racing. I hope to go out there and compete for some wins and hopefully put us in a spot to try to race for a championship again."

Furniture Row Racing might be a team to watch this season, as Kurt Busch is the driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet. The big question will be: Can Busch keep himself out of trouble with NASCAR?

Last year, Busch had a one-year verbal agreement with Phoenix Racing to drive the No. 51 car, but the 2004 series champion was suspended by NASCAR for the June race at Pocono after officials determined he violated his probation when he verbally abused a news reporter following the completion of the Nationwide event at Dover. Busch departed James Finch's team in October and joined Furniture Row to replace Regan Smith in the No. 78 for the final six races.

Smith is running a full-time schedule for JR Motorsports in Nationwide this season. He is also sharing driving duties with A.J. Allmendinger in the No. 51 car in Sprint Cup.

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