Start your engines! NASCAR season just around the corner
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick’s talking about challenges that lay ahead, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon aren’t saying whether they have patched their differences, and Brad Keselowski is eager to defend his Sprint Cup title.
That’s right, the start of another NASCAR season is just around the corner.
Patrick said Thursday that she does not plan to race in this year’s Indianapolis 500 because she wants to concentrate on her first full-time season on NASCAR’s highest level of competition.
Bowyer brushed aside questions about whether he and Gordon have made up in the months that have passed since a fight between the two drivers’ crews broke out after Gordon intentionally wrecked Bowyer the week before last season’s finale.
"Who cares? Really, who cares?" Bowyer said, addressing the media on the first day of testing of NASCAR’s new "Gen 6" cars at Daytona International Speedway. "Apparently, you guys do way more than we do. I can promise you that."
Keselowski is still riding high after capturing his first Sprint Cup championship in 2012. He was the first driver on the track for the start of three days of testing in preparation for next month’s Daytona 500, even if he wound up running fairly low on the speed charts.
"I am not happy not being fast. I can tell you that, but you try to put it in perspective of how much work is yet to be done over the next month or month-and-a-half," Keselowski said. "Being first on the track ... is our little way of needling the competition to say that even if we aren’t fastest we are going to be the first ones on it."
Patrick, who announced on her Facebook page in November that she and her husband, Paul Hospenthal, are divorcing after seven years of marriage, also skipped the Indy 500 last year.
Instead, she ran in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the same day, which is what she intends to do again.
Patrick is coming off her first full season in NASCAR, a year in which she ran full Nationwide schedule and 10 Sprint Cup Series races after leaving IndyCar.
"The team and I decided to focus on (Sprint) Cup. It’s going to be plenty of work as it is, and it’s going to be important for me running for the championship full-time for the first time to really keep myself focused with the Cup car," Patrick said. ‘"But If I do do the Indy 500 moving forward, it will be with Go Daddy."
She said her 2013 schedule also could include some Nationwide series events, although she has not yet signed a deal with a racing team or sponsor.
"I’m not sure if that’s completely set. There have been some reports that have come out about running for Turner, and we’re definitely talking to them trying to figure it out," Patrick said. "We’re definitely working on that, but there’s been nothing signed yet, and the exact dates and the sponsor has yet to be confirmed for all that."
Essentially, the Daytona testing marks the end of the offseason for drivers.
There’s more testing next week in Charlotte of the cars NASCAR is counting to improve racing and re-kindle fan interest, with Speedweeks at Daytona to follow. The Daytona 500 kicks off the Sprint Cup schedule on Feb. 24.
"Everybody is super excited about this race car and what it brings to our sport and the identity that it brings back to passenger cars you see on the roads. ... They’re certainly cool looking," Bowyer said.
Bowyer declined to say whether reports that he and Gordon spent time together on a yacht on New Year’s Eve.
"I think he was on that same boat. There were a lot of other people on that boat. It was a big time being had," Bowyer said at one point.
When asked if the drivers had spent any time bonding, Bowyer responded: "Yeah, we held hands and walked off the boat, discussed the past year and enjoyed ourselves throughout the whole vacation. That was the one person that I definitely wanted to take vacation with. Yes, I could not wait to get there for that very reason. Is that what you wanted me to say?"
For his part, Gordon confirmed he and Bowyer saw each other on the boat while attending what he described as the "party of the year" thrown by entertainer P Diddy in St. Barts. NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick also was there.
"We were just hanging out and having a good time, and on walks Bowyer and Harvick and a couple of other folks," Gordon said. "I don’t know. It was a great New Year’s. I enjoyed myself very much."
But did they leave as friends?
"I don’t remember seeing him leave the boat," Gordon quipped.
Well, did they at least speak to each other?
"We talked," Gordon replied. "I had a great New Year’s."
Meanwhile, Patrick said she is looking forward to the challenge of running a full Sprint Cup challenge and reiterated it will be important to maintain realistic expectations of what she might be able to accomplish as a rookie.
"I think it’s very difficult at this point in time to put sort of numbers to exactly where I should be finishing," she said. "I think you can look at a little bit of what happened last year as a bit of a baseline as to expectation levels and definitely areas that need work.
"But it’s a new year; it’s a new car and a lot of stuff changes. ... I think we just need to get started on the season, get these first few races out of the way and then start to create some baseline for what we are expecting and what we are shooting for."
Everyone is shooting for what Keselowski has -- the championship.
For him, he said it’s "slowly soaking in" what it’s like to be a Cup champion and the "some of the doors that open up, whether it is people showing you more respect or opportunities to do different events you may never have had before."
"To me that is the most fun and more honoring moments of being a champion. I really look forward to seeing how those open up," Keselowski added. "The great thing that separates winning a championship from winning a race is that you are a champion for a whole year. I feel like I won a race, but you get to celebrate it for a whole year. That is a really good feeling."
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