An exclusive club
Before this season, NASCAR had seen only six female drivers at the top level. Danica Patrick, right, has a 10-race deal this season in Sprint Cup. At the end of it, she will have the third-most starts by a woman at NASCAR's top level. The women Patrick will join by racing in Sunday's Daytona 500:
Driver Years Starts Top 5 Top 10 Laps led Best finish
Janet Guthrie 1976-80 33 0 5 5 Sixth
Louise Smith1949-52 11 0 0 0 16th
Shawna Robinson2001-02 8 0 0 0 24th
Sara Christian 1949-50 7 1 2 0 Fifth
Patty Moise1987-89 5 0 0 0 26th
Ethel Mobley1949 2 0 0 0 11th
Silly season comings and goings
Driver 2011 car/team 2012 car/team
A.J. Allmendinger No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports No. 22 Penske Racing
Aric Almirola Nationwide series No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports
Clint Bowyer No. 33 Richard Childress No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing
Kurt Busch No. 22 Penske Racing No. 51 Phoenix Racing
Landon Cassill No. 51 Phoenix Racing No. 83 BK Racing
Kasey Kahne No. 4 Red Bull Racing No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports
Mark Martin No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing
Danica Patrick IndyCar No. 10 Tommy Baldwin Racing *
David Ragan No. 6 Roush Fenway No. 34 Front Row Motorsports
David Reutimann No. 00 Michael Waltrip Racing No. 10 Tommy Baldwin Racing *
* Split ride
Kevin Harvick is the only Sprint Cup driver to finish in the top three in points each of the past two seasons.
He is in, perhaps, no better position to win his first championship.
"I think from a mental aspect, this is the best chance," Harvick said last week. "I never really realized how much an effect it takes on you with all the things you have going on on the outside. We made a lot of changes to try as an organization to take ourselves from finishing third to winning the championship."
Harvick has won numerous races in all three national series — Cup, Nationwide and trucks. He owns two Nationwide series championships, an owners title in trucks with Kevin Harvick Inc., and victories in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.
The glaring hole in an otherwise stellar resume?
The Cup title.
His Richard Childress Racing team made changes during the offseason, including new crew chief Shane Wilson.
"We were very consistent in 2010. We were very inconsistent in 2011," Harvick said. "We didn't have the speed we had in 2010 that we had in 2011. I think you need a combination of those two things."
Dinger's big deal
After all the moves in the offseason, the biggest winner was likely A.J. Allmendinger, left.
The five-year veteran, winless in 152 Cup starts, landed a ride with Penske Racing after it fired Kurt Busch from the No. 22 Dodge. Allmendinger finished 15th in points last year for Richard Petty Motorsports and had a career-high 10 top-10 finishes.
Penske is on an upswing. Brad Keselowski, left, won three times and contended for the title in 2011, just his second full season in the series. So Allmendinger, 30, knows his situation.
"I've learned how to run up front. Hopefully, now I have an opportunity to learn how to close these races," Allmendinger said last month. "I have big shoes to fill. I'm not sitting here blind (saying), 'Oh, this is going to be easy.'
"The expectations we know are to win races and make the Chase. If I didn't think I could do it, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be wasting anybody's time."
Information from the Associated Press, Charlotte Observer, racing-reference.info, USA Today and jayski.com was used in this report.
Carl Edwards was second in last year's Daytona 500, staying winless at Daytona while helping push Trevor Bayne to an unlikely victory.
Little did Edwards know how much easier a second-place finish there would be to deal with compared with the one he had in November.
Edwards led the Chase for the Championship going into the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He finished second in that race, which would have been good enough to earn the title in all but one scenario.
It was the one that happened.
Tony Stewart won the race and took the championship on a tiebreaker — his five wins compared with Edwards' one. It was the first time two drivers tied at the top for NASCAR's top honor.
Now Edwards, who is on the pole for Sunday's 500, is eager to race and put 2011 behind him once and for all. His loss to Stewart in the championship was gut-wrenching. And despite holding his head high and demonstrating how to lose with dignity, he has been unable to move forward because of the intense attention on his defeat.
"It seems like every media question and all anybody says is, 'How great would it have been to have one more point and how did you deal with that this offseason?' " Edwards said. "I think this is nice to come here and show everyone that it isn't just talk. Everybody at Roush Fenway went back and worked hard and kept their heads down and dug."
15.1 Winning percentage for Jimmie Johnson, best among active drivers and eighth all time.
20 Victories that Jeff Gordon, third all time (85), needs to catch No. 2 David Pearson.
397 Sprint Cup starts for Dave Blaney, most by an active driver without a victory.