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By Jenna Fryer | Associated Press
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There's a buzz about NASCAR and the season-opening Daytona 500 that has nothing to do with an exploding jet dryer or a well-timed tweet from a driver.
The new Gen-6 race car makes its long-awaited debut at Daytona International Speedway, and the success of the 2013 season could depend heavily on its performance. Already, things look good. After all, NASCAR's most popular driver has given the Gen-6 a ringing endorsement.
"This sport is going to be revolutionized again with this car," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said after one of his first full test sessions in the car.
That's the shot in the arm NASCAR is looking for after a 2012 season that saw the quality of the racing criticized at times. Long green-flag runs and a lack of cautions frustrated fans, and that irritated drivers who openly wondered if fans were more interested in wrecking than they were in racing.
Behind the scenes, NASCAR was working hard on a new car that would replace the "Car of Tomorrow" after six years, and hopefully improve the on-track product. It was welcome news to Earnhardt, who won 17 races in the "old" car but only two after the CoT was introduced during the 2007 season.
"I struggled with the old car," he said. "I think the rest of the car is definitely a step back toward the old, original car we used to have. I think that's going to benefit me in certain areas. The car is really exciting. I'm looking forward to it."
So is NASCAR, which has worked with manufacturers and teams on both the look of the car and how it drives. The result is a car that resembles what the automakers sell in the showroom and a design that allows fans to tell if the car is a Chevrolet, Ford or Toyota. And just in case a fan wasn't that car savvy, the drivers' names and the manufacturer logo will all be on the windshield this year as NASCAR attempts to make the car as big a star as the driver.
The car's debut comes Saturday night at Daytona in the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race, where fans can vote on various elements of the race format.
It has created interest in Speedweeks, which last year were remembered most for Juan Pablo crashing into a jet dryer loaded with fuel and Brad Keselowski tweeting about it during the lengthy delay to put out the fire and repair the charred track.
The fireball put the Daytona 500 in the mainstream spotlight, but the racing that followed failed to entertain a wider audience.
Keselowski was thrust onto the national stage with his well-timed tweets and he rode the wave all the way to his first Sprint Cup title. The win over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson was a breakthrough for Keselowski, who grabbed team owner Roger Penske his first title and proved the odd pairing of driver and owner had blossomed into an elite tandem.
Now everyone gets to see what Keselowski will do for an encore. NASCAR has forbidden him from using his phone in his car, and he'll be hard pressed to outdo his beer-chugging live television interview minutes after clinching the championship.
Even harder will be defending his title as the Penske Racing organization left Dodge at the end of the year and goes into this season as a Ford team. Penske is no longer building its own engines, and will now get them from Roush Yates as a customer of Ford's flagship team.
"The move has gone very well so far," said Penske President Tim Cindric. "It's been a lot of work, but the relationship with Roush, I believe they'd say the same thing, is working well on both sides and we've got a lot of reason to believe we'll have a very good year."
Keselowski will have a new teammate in Joey Logano, who was replaced at Joe Gibbs Racing by Matt Kenseth in the biggest driver move of the year. Kenseth left Roush Fenway Racing, where he'd spent his entire career, to join Gibbs and its volatile driver lineup of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin was a title contender through the halfway point of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup title, but he stumbled at Martinsville with a mechanical failure and never recovered. Busch missed the Chase and declared 2012 "the absolute worst year of my career" after winning just one race across NASCAR's three national series.
Kenseth was replaced at Roush by two-time Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
If Stenhouse wasn't under enough pressure as the replacement for the 2003 Cup champion, he'll be under tremendous scrutiny this season as the other half of NASCAR's current "it" couple. Danica Patrick, who is moving to a full Cup schedule this year, told The Associated Press last month that she's dating Stenhouse after she and her husband got a divorce.
The two will be racing each other for rookie of the year, but insist their relationship won't affect how they race each other on the track.
"Obviously, we've been racing together for a couple years now, him and I have always gotten along, we've always had a lot of respect for each other on the track, there's never been an issue out there," she said. "I always say I'll race people how they race me until they do something to make me change my mind. I don't anticipate that changing at all, or us having any issues on the track."
The Roush organization will also receive attention as fans watch and to see if Carl Edwards can rebound from last year's slump. After losing the championship to Tony Stewart on a tie-breaker, Edwards went through a winless 2012 season and failed to make the Chase.
And, four-time champion Jeff Gordon will be starting fresh after his controversial close to 2012. He intentionally wrecked Clint Bowyer in Phoenix, triggering a garage-area melee between their crews. While many thought Gordon should have been suspended, he was fined $100,000 and raced in the season finale, which he won.
The tension lingered between Bowyer and Gordon into the offseason.
"Listen, I'm not here to make friends," Gordon said. "I like his friendship. It can stay this way. But we have to race each other. I know what this all came about from and he might not agree and I'm sure we're going to disagree about a lot of things and we'll go race ... and see what happens."