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February 23. 2013 10:17PM

Allen Lessels on Motor Sports: NASCAR opener all about Danica


NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Danica Patrick walks into her garage at the Daytona International Speedway on Saturday. (REUTERS/Brian Blanco)

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to Opening Day.

The 55th running of the Daytona 500 - perhaps better known this year as the Danica Patrick Show - commences at 1 p.m. this afternoon on the Fox Network.

Frank Stoddard, the pride of the North Country and North Haverhill who cut his racing teeth on the tracks of New England, will send his No. 32 FAS Lane Racing Ford to the starting line to begin his third season as a Sprint Cup car owner.

For the third season, former Cup champion Terry Labonte will behind the wheel for Stoddard in the season opener.

If Labonte and Stoddard's team can match what they've done the last two seasons - they were 15th in his debut as an owner two years ago and 18th last year after leading the race briefly - he will be one happy owner.

"He's done a good job for us the last two years," Stoddard said Friday evening from Daytona. "Hopefully he can pull it off one more time."

Patrick qualified fastest and starts in the front row as the first female to win a Cup pole as she begins her first fulltime season of Cup racing with Tony Stewart's team.

Labonte starts 39th.

Defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski holds down the No. 15 spot on the starting grid.

"My expectations are to try to get to the finish line," Stoddard said. "We need to get to the finish line to get the year off to a good start. The top 20 would be great and anything better than that would be icing on the cake. We need to stay out of trouble all day and that's easier said than done."

The new "Gen-6" cars which are making their Cup debuts today and are designed to highlight brand identity and ideally build brand loyalty with their Chevrolet SS, Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry bodies, have ramped up the pressure on teams as they have switched over from the previous "Car of Tomorrow" designs.

"Everyone's car count is down," Stoddard said. "We've got six cars with bodies on them, but we can't go tearing up four cars in the first four races. It's been a tough offseason. I'm optimistic that we have better cars than we've had, but we've put a lot more time and money and effort into building them. We kind of went back and started from scratch."

Labonte ran four races for Stoddard last season and another Cup veteran, Ken Schrader, ran some, too, and several other rivers had turns in the car.

Labonte will drive for a few more races this year and Schrader will be back, too, including for the July race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

But the idea going into the season is to try something different for about half the races on the schedule.

Timmy Hill, an up-and-comer who turns 20 on Monday, is expected to be in the car for 18-20 races and plans to run for Rookie of the Year honors against Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Hill ran three races for Stoddard last year at Charlotte, Kansas and Phoenix.

"He did a real nice job," Stoddard said. "I gauge it on how fast he ran against the teams we are usually competing against. And he did a good job of giving us feedback and he didn't tear the car up and brought it home in one piece. He's got a good attitude and he's from a good family. We'll give it a whirl."

Hill's first turn in the No. 32 is in the Auto Club 400 in Fontana, Calif., on March 24, a race that wraps up a busy opening stretch to the season and after which Stoddard figures he'll have a good idea of where things are headed.

Prior to Fontana, the Cup series is in Phoenix next Sunday, Las Vegas on March 10 and Bristol, Tenn., on March 17 before crossing the country again to Fontana.

At some point in the middle of that run, Stoddard plans to make an announcement regarding sponsorships for this season.

That's for the weeks ahead. Today, it's all about Daytona and, at the start of the race at least, chasing Danica.



- - - - - - -




New Hampshire Motor Speedway is gearing up for its 2013 season.

Ten days ago the track announced the "Toyota Wheel & Deal Pre-Race Show" that will be a giant giveaway the day of the July 14 New Hampshire 300 Sprint Cup race and it is billing as the "world's largest game show."

Ten Toyotas and a total of $250,000 in prizes will be given away before the race.

NHMS opens the gates for a behind-the-scenes look at the track in the fourth Fantasy Drive Open House on Saturday, March 30 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Drivers who have purchased a ticket to an NHMS event for this season are eligible to take three laps around the track in their own car.

The track will again be conducting a star search, looking for singers to perform before a couple of NHMS races in July and September. Prospective crooners need to submit samples of their work (more information is available at www.nhms.com) by March 13. Fifteen contestants will be chosen to perform in front of judges on March 30.

The Loudon Classic motorcycle race on June 14 kicks off the schedule of major on-track events.

The New Hampshire 300 is the first Sprint Cup race of the season on July 14.

The Sylvania 300, which is again the second race in the Chase to the Sprint Cup, will be held on Sept. 22.


alessels@unionleader.com.


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