Examining the current state of Boywer's and Gordon's feud, more mail
The engine on the 2013 SI.com NASCAR mailbag has officially fired and now, race fans, we'll be under the green flag here for the next 10 months. Keep sending your questions this way via Twitter (@si_racing or @LarsAndersonSI) or email using the link above, and we'll try to get them answered every week in this space.
Remarkably enough, Gordon and Bowyer were both aboard P. Diddy's $72 million yacht off of St. Bart's for a New Year's Eve party and they did briefly talk. But trust me, this feud is far from over. Bowyer was still so angry for being intentionally wrecked by Gordon in the penultimate race of the 2012 season -- an act that wiped out any chance Bowyer had at the title -- that he didn't even make eye contact with Gordon during the postseason awards festivities in Las Vegas. So is Bowyer willing to move on from what transpired at Phoenix last November? In a word: no.
Bowyer, like most drivers, has a long memory, so I believe payback is coming -- and I do happen to think it will happen at Daytona. The earlier in the season these two can get this resolved, the better for both of them, because a poor finish at Daytona (and who knows, if Bowyer tries to wreck Gordon he may very well take himself out in the process) isn't that big of a blow to your chances of making the Chase. After all, there will still be 25 regular season races left before the playoffs begin. So I expect some fireworks between these two in the Great American Race.
The number one rule in NASCAR is that a driver is only as good as his equipment and his team. Furniture Row, with Regan Smith, did win a race in 2011 -- the Southern 500 at Darlington -- but in three years of being a fulltime team in the Cup series the team has only three top-five finishes. Granted, at the end of last season with Furniture Row, Busch reeled off three straight top-10s, but it's extremely difficult for a single-car team to compete with the deep-pocketed, multi-car teams of Hendrick, Gibbs, Roush and Penske.
Can Busch make the Chase? He obviously has the talent (he did win the 2004 Cup title), but given his lack of resources, it would be an upset -- and also a great story -- if he does.
Patrick, rightly, has modest goals for 2013, her first fulltime season in the Cup series. If you examine other IndyCar drivers who have tried to move to NASCAR -- Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish, two past IndyCar champions, flopped at NASCAR's highest level -- most have struggled to adapt to driving the heavier, bulkier stock cars. But Patrick showed modest improvement last season, finishing 14th or better in seven or her last eight Nationwide races. A successful 2013 campaign for her would be to compile a handful of top 10 runs and consistently stay on the lead lap. If she can do that, her respect level in the garage will continue to rise. So to answer your question: I think Patrick is feeling pretty good about her career as she heads into Daytona.
But then there's the matter of her personal life. She filed for divorce on Jan. 3 from Paul Hospenthal, whom she had been married to for seven years. And as Richard Petty told me last year, "Trust me, when your personal life is crap, your racing life is crap."
If the list had been 11 drivers to watch, Kahne would have made the cut. He had a nice first season at Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, winning two races and finishing fourth in the final standings. He'll again be teamed with crew chief Kenny Francis this year and, at age 32, Kahne is in the prime of his racing career. So there's no question that the No. 5 team possesses great promise heading into 2013.
But Kahne needs to become a more consistent driver. He started last year extremely slow (he was 26th in the standings after eight races), came on strong over the summer (he finished second or better over one five-race stretch), then ended the Chase with a 25th place run at Texas, a fourth at Phoenix, and a 21st at Homestead. Maybe in Year Two at Hendrick Motorsports Kahne will learn how to take a page out of Jimmie Johnson's playbook and be able to turn a seemingly bad day into a 10th place run. And if he can do that, he'll be a legitimate title contender.
No driver needed a change of scenery more this season than Logano. In four full seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, Logano had a few memorable moments -- he became the youngest Cup driver, at 19, to ever win a race, in 2009, and he won rookie of the year honors that year -- but he never made the Chase, never finished higher than 16th in the standings, and took only two checkered flags in 147 starts for the team. When you're driving one of the elite cars in the sport (the Home Depot Toyota), this simply isn't good enough.
Logano was overshadowed at Gibbs by Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Now he'll be paired with another young driver, 28-year-old and reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski, and by all accounts the two have gotten along well during offseason test sessions. Keselowski has raved about the feedback Logano has given the Penske team and it appears that this should be a formidable duo in 2013.
No one in the series has ever doubted Logano's talent, but there have been questions about his confidence, and a driver who lacks confidence is always prone to make mistakes. Enter owner Roger Penske, who in the world of motor sports owner is the ultimate grandfather figure. Penske's first task will be to make Logano feel comfortable and appreciated. I think this is a near ideal situation for Logano to rebuild his career. Far from being a burden to the team, Logano should make Penske even stronger in 2013.
Remember this: a lame duck crew chief (Darian Grubb) propelled Tony Stewart to the championship in 2011. And last season a lame duck car manufacturer (Dodge) helped Brad Keselowski win the title.
Harvick knows it's not in his best interest to start focusing on distant horizons this season. If he does, he'll miss the Chase because his crew will start sniffing for new jobs around July. But like him or not, Harvick always has taken his driving responsibilities seriously, so I don't think you'll see him "slack off." But you also won't see him contend for the title, either. Ask Matt Kenseth, who as a lame duck driver finished seventh in the Chase last year, how difficult that is.
The issue of concussions in NASCAR became a hot topic after Dale Earnhardt Jr. admitted last fall that he had raced for nearly two months earlier in the season at less than 100 percent after he had suffered a concussion during a crash on Aug. 29 at a test session at Kansas Speedway. When Earnhardt wrecked again at Talladega in October and experienced another concussion, he took himself out of the car for two weeks. But the episode revealed a major problem for NASCAR: Earnhardt's injuries (at Kansas or at 'Dega) weren't caught by the medical team at the track; rather they was only exposed because Earnhardt stepped forward and acknowledged something was wrong.
NASCAR hasn't installed (at least not yet) any new protocols in the wake of Earnhardt's admission. Every time a driver is involved in an accident, he is taken to the infield care center for an examination. In the past drivers have excelled at hiding head injuries -- Jeff Gordon admitted he might not have made the same decision as Earnhardt in coming clean last fall -- and so the onus will continue to be on the NASCAR medical staffs at the tracks to detect head injuries.
Unlike IndyCar and several other major sports, NASCAR doesn't require baseline testing for drivers before the season. If it did, once a driver suffered a head injury during the season a follow-up test could determine the magnitude of the injury. Implementing this protocol, I believe, would be a big step in the right direction. As it stands, here's hoping that the on-track medical staffs are more vigilant than ever in 2013.
Yes, the Jeremy Mayfield saga just won't go away. Suspended indefinitely in 2009 for a failed drug test, Mayfield is currently facing multiple felony charges in North Carolina, including possession of stolen goods and methamphetamine. On Jan. 8 he put a call into the Motor Racing Network's NASCAR Live to speak to NASCAR chairman Brian France, who was the guest. Mayfield then pleaded for another chance to race and France essentially said that Mayfield knows the steps he has to take -- namely, he'll have to enroll in NASCAR's Road to Recovery program -- and that NASCAR would welcome him back if he chose the appropriate path.
But let's be honest: Jeremy Mayfield will never race in NASCAR again, at any level. He's toxic to sponsors and he's burned virtually every bridge possible in the sport. It's a sad story, and that call into Eli Gold's show was just a reminder of how far Mayfield -- once a promising talent -- has fallen.
This is a question that has been debated for years: Why is the race that is considered the Super Bowl of NASCAR held at the start of the season? While it may not make sense to stick-and-ball fans, there are plenty of reasons NASCAR does this. For starters, the Daytona date falls the Sunday after the NFL's Super Bowl, which is one of the slowest sports weekends of the year. So this gives NASCAR a chance to kick off its season with pomp and circumstance in front of a lot of eyeballs.
Also, NASCAR teams spend the offseason testing at Daytona and then another two weeks before the race at the track fine-tuning their cars. The buildup is similar to the Indianapolis 500, when every May IndyCar spends three weeks at the Brickyard preparing for their biggest race of the season (which also isn't the series' season finale).
Finally, the style of racing at Daytona is different than at every track except Talladega. At these two big, sweeping ovals, restrictor-plates are put in the carburetors that reduce top speeds to about 200 mph and force the cars to travel in big packs. Championships in NASCAR are won on intermediate-length and short tracks, not the plate tracks. So I think it makes sense to keep the 500 at the start of the season. Because if it were the final race on the schedule, the element of luck -- which is always a critical factor when it comes to avoiding the big wrecks at Daytona -- would play too much of a role in determining the championship.