Intrigue aplenty at Daytona test

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There are worse venues to kick-start a season than picturesque Daytona International Speedway.

Paradise. "Fifty Shades of Grey" in one hand. Cold adult beverage in the other. Sandy white beach. Suntan. Sunburn. Fifty shades of red. Snorkeling. Snoozing. Another beautiful day. Another cold adult beverage. Flamingos and iguanas. A man in a Dale Earnhardt Jr. cap and a Speedo. Eighty-eight shades of red. Another beautiful day. Another cold adult beverage.

An island power outage. Three hours in an airport security line. Four-hour flight. Nose peeling. And peeling. Nearby passenger mentions "Fifty Shades of Grey." Glances in my direction. Fifty more shades of red.

Debark. Cold blast of air.


Paradise lost.

Testing at Daytona International Speedway.

Preseason Thunder.

My tropical vacation and the shortest offseason in major sports are over. The madness of another Sprint Cup season is upon us as about 50 drivers prepare for a test/fanfest Thursday through Saturday at the sport's most famous venue in preparation for the Feb. 24 Daytona 500.

This will be the first time every team has gathered at the same time to test the new "Gen 6" car. Somewhat like my recent literary selection, it's sure to generate a lot of intrigue. It's sure to generate a lot of questions.

We'll call it Fifty Shades of Daytona.

It won't be erotic, but it could be intense as teams and manufacturers try to get the early upper hand.

Here are five shades sure to be discussed:

Todd Warshaw/Getty Images/NASCAR

Pack racing or pairs racing? How will the new cars perform best on the restrictor-plate tracks?

Packs or dancing?

NASCAR spent countless hours at last year's Daytona test looking for ways to break up the two-car tandems and get back to pack racing at restrictor-plate tracks. You can bet drivers will explore if tandems work with the new car for a competitive advantage, but the mere design of it should limit or eliminate that.

Unlike on the old car, the bumpers on the Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota are different. They don't match up evenly and they aren't close to being as square.

As Kasey Kahne said during a 2012 "Gen 6" test at Talladega, the surface area to push has shrunk from 2 feet to 6 inches. The new cars also move around a lot more in a two-car draft, making it dicey to dance.

"It's going to be way easier to wreck with this car, not in a bad way," Kahne said at the Dega test. "If one car darts in front of you, if you're pushing in the wrong corner of the car, there is going to be a wreck."

How fast is too fast?

Denny Hamlin predicted the new car would create six or seven track records during a December test at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where speeds of 200 mph were reached on the straightaway in race trim. Kahne had a lap of 204 mph during the Talladega test last year.

The sleek new design that has created much-wanted brand identity apparently has created more speed.

In recent years, NASCAR has been reluctant to let cars top 200 mph at Daytona and Talladega for fear it increases the opportunity for going airborne in wrecks. How much, if at all, that number will be adjusted with the new car remains to be seen and is sure to be pushed.

Said Scott Miller, Michael Waltrip Racing's vice president of competition, "We just need to understand how the 2013 car works. We hardly have any miles on them. This car is a whole new beast for us. Daytona is going to be an exploratory test."

Who will cry wolf first?

Because the cars aren't stamped out of the same mold anymore -- only the rear deck lids are identical -- we're likely to see a return of manufacturers complaining about another having a competitive advantage.

You can almost hear team owner Jack Roush complaining that the "dark side" -- his term for Toyota -- has an edge on his Fords.

"Any time there's opportunity to politick, we're going to politick," Earnhardt crew chief Steve Letarte said during the Charlotte test. "I mean, we're racers, right? And the goal is to win."

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Former IndyCar star Danica Patrick and two-time Nationwide Series champ Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will battle for rookie of the year in Sprint Cup.

Who's the best rookie?

For the first time since 2006, when Denny Hamlin beat out Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. and a host of others, there's a legitimate rookie of the year battle.

It's not a deep class, but the intrigue of two-time Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. going against former IndyCar star Danica Patrick will draw a lot of attention.

Not since '06 have there been two high-profile drivers from high-profile teams -- Stenhouse at Roush Fenway Racing and Patrick at Stewart-Haas Racing -- going head to head.

It all begins at this test.

And bonus points if you can tell me without an Internet search who won the past two ROY awards.

'I Get That A Lot'

Jeff Gordon was scheduled to appear Wednesday on the new CBS reality show "I Get That A Lot," in which celebrities work ordinary jobs and try to confuse people who can't decide if they are the real deal or a look-alike.

Four-Time is shown working at an auto parts store trying to sell Quaker State motor oil to three customers. It has been more than 10 years since he last won a championship, so the experience as a salesman could come in handy as he gets closer to retirement.

In keeping with that theme, here are five additional things I get a lot heading into 2013:

• What is the relationship between Stenhouse and Patrick? There has been widespread speculation in blogs and on Twitter since Patrick announced her divorce in November. As far as I know, neither has addressed it with the media.

• Who will replace Diet Dew on Earnhardt's No. 88? Earnhardt said several months ago he had plenty of options, but none I thought about while in paradise. I'm sure it is something big that he and his team are waiting to unveil for the biggest possible splash -- maybe at the media tour later this month.

• Will Jeremy Mayfield ever drive in Cup again? He wants to know the same thing and asked NASCAR chairman Brian France on a Motor Racing Network radio show Tuesday night if that was possible. France said what you'd expect, that the 43-year-old driver has to complete the Road to Recovery program. Seriously doubt Mayfield will. He's working on a plea bargain to avoid jail time at the moment.

• What did you think of Kyle Busch's Christmas elf photo with his wife and dog? Jimmie Johnson summed it up best on Twitter when he said, "Dude ... Ya gotta stand up and say no every now and then."

• Who will win the 2013 title? I'm sticking with Matt Kenseth with his new Joe Gibbs Racing team, even though Johnson is the overwhelming favorite in Las Vegas. It's not a sexy pick, but Kenseth won't do anything to make you turn 50 shades of anything.

Paradise: You're missed.

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