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January 21. 2013 9:51PM

NASCAR season picks up speed


NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Danica Patrick responds to a question during the Sprint NASCAR media tour on Monday in Concord, N.C. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT)
While NASCAR's feature event of the season, the Daytona 500, is little more than a month away, the unofficial kickoff to the auto racing season commenced Monday with the 31st annual NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte, N.C.

For four days, beginning Monday, NASCAR as well as most Sprint Cup drivers and teams are making themselves available to the more than 200 members of the national auto racing media and many track officials who have gathered in Charlotte this week.

Kristen Costa, New Hampshire Motor Speedway's director of communications, was on hand and reported that Monday's activities were highlighted by the morning announcement that NASCAR is inviting fans to design The Sprint Unlimited, the 75-lap non-points race that opens the Sprint Cup season Saturday, Feb. 16, at Daytona.

"Fans have the opportunity to interact with NASCAR and vote via text message their thoughts about three aspects of the race," said Costa. "Fans can vote on the number of laps in each segment, the type of pit stop a team makes after the first segment and how many cars will be eliminated after the second segment."

Among today's tour highlights, New Hampshire Motor Speedway is expected to make a major announcement.

Also Monday, Stewart-Haas Racing entertained the media with a question-and-answer period. Former Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, who is entering his 15th season as a driver, and fifth as a Sprint Cup team owner, voiced support for the newest addition to his racing team, Danica Patrick.

"Stewart-Haas really had no announcements to make," said Costa. "There was general talk about the upcoming season and Tony said he has lots of faith in Danica making it into the Daytona 500."

Patrick will compete in her first full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season this year. She raced in 10 Sprint Cup events for Stewart-Haas last year while also competing in a full NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule for JR Motorsports.

"The real satisfaction comes from helping someone else have a good finish or to win, to achieve something together as a team," Stewart told ESPN.com. "It's about having a great day, like in the past where Ryan (teammate Newman) might win a race and I would finish fourth.

"That's a great day as a team, and as an owner that's what you strive for. Now with Danica in the mix, it will be nice if the three of us all do well at the same time. It's not as much fun if I'm winning and the other drivers finish way back. I'll be a lot happier if we're all at the same level, doing well."

Costa also noted there was talk on the advent of the new Generation 6 car that will race Sprint Cup tracks this season.

"The Gen 6, as it is called, has a bit of a new shape and looks more like a passenger car," she said. "Everyone is excited about it. It has already tested at Daytona and Charlotte."

Costa also added news about last September's NHMS Sylvania 300 winner, Denny Hamlin.

"Denny and his girlfriend (Jordan Fish) had a little baby girl," she said. Taylor James Hamlin checked in at 6 pounds, 5 ounces.
mlabore@unionleader.com

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