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Newcomers have most to prove at Daytona

Posted: February 19, 2013 3:46 p.m.
Updated: February 20, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Although Danica Patrick’s pole position will give her the brightest spotlight at next week’s Daytona 500, other up-and-coming drivers will have the most to prove as the green flag drops on NASCAR’s season.

The racer with the biggest target on his back will be defending series champion Brad Keselowski. The driver of the No. 2 car won’t make or break his season at the year’s first race, but a top 10 finish will quiet any of his detractors, at least in the short term. After all, he finished 32nd in the Daytona 500 last season and actually has only one finish inside the top 15 at the track. Keselowski and team owner Roger Penske will be facing a few noticeable challenges heading into the 2013 season. Perhaps the most significant obstacle will be the team’s switch from Dodge to Ford, especially with the introduction of the new Generation-6 car.

The Michigan native will also be transitioning into the season with a new teammate, Joey Logano. Only 22 years old, Logano will also be trying to kick off the season in notable fashion. After finishing in the top 10 in the Daytona 500 last year and qualifying ninth in this year’s race, the Connecticut native is poised to have another strong showing. Logano has been a dominant force on the racing circuit’s Nationwide Series, actually winning nine titles last year in the second tier series. Having Keselowski as a teammate will either hurt or help him tremendously. The defending champ, a brash, charismatic driver, may completely overshadow the blossoming talents of Logano or help to boost his potential even more. If the driver of the No. 22 car can match his teammate’s championship winning drive, Penske will have quite the dynamic duo in his corner.

After transitioning into perhaps the circuit’s top organization last year, 32-year-old Kasey Kahne should improve quickly in his second full year under owner Rick Hendrick. After qualifying in the top 10 at Daytona this year, an impressive finish by Kahne will help establish momentum as the season progresses. Learning from the experiences of his teammates, particularly Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, the driver of the No. 5 car can add to the successes of his 2012 campaign where he came home with trophies at Charlotte and New Hampshire.

Already seemingly right on the verge of a breakout season, NASCAR’s former Rookie of the Year Denny Hamlin would certainly love to finish in the top five at Daytona like he did last season. After being so close to a championship in 2010, the driver of the No. 11 car slipped in 2011, but came roaring back with five wins last year. He was a formidable pick to win the Chase in 2012, but misfortunes at Martinsville dropped him out of the running. Setting off in 2013 with a solid race to start the year would certainly give Hamlin a major boost and lessen the chances he’ll crack under the pressures of a title run.

Another “oh-so-close” former championship contender, Carl Edwards is perhaps the most accomplished of the non-title winning drivers on the circuit, but still has a lot to prove heading into 2013. After nearly winning the 2011 championship, only losing to eventual champ Tony Stewart on a tie-breaker, Edwards finished outside of the Chase last year for the first time since the 2006 season.

The driver of the No. 99 car finished eighth during last season’s Daytona 500, but actually failed to qualify inside the top 15 at this year’s race. Starting in the 17th spot will put a bit of a damper on the beginning of Edwards’ season. A high caliber race to start the season, however, would certainly help launch the Missouri native’s mission to nab his first career title. 

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