Those of us who can't live without NASCAR are lucky that it has the shortest offseason of any sport—about two months, not counting winter testing in January and early February. But having a short offseason doesn't mean that a lot of things don't change from one season to the next, to which the jump from 2012 to 2013 can easily attest.
Plenty of high profile names are changing places this season, from a former champion ending a decade-plus relationship with his team to some complete overhauls at the sport's lower levels. One series announced that it would add dirt and road-course racing for 2013. And with no more top 35 rule, the return of testing, and new cars that look like their street counterparts, this year's Sprint Cup Series feels like a throwback to where the sport was 20 years ago.
So out of all of these changes, which are the most significant? Counting down from ten to one, here they are:
Sometimes it's a long road to relevance for start-and-park teams at NASCAR's highest level, as years can pass between when a team begins to show up at races and when it finishes them. But thanks to Swan Energy CEO Brandon Davis, the former Inception Motorsports team looks to run all 36 races on the Sprint Cup schedule in 2013, instead of just a handful.
David Stremme and the familiar No. 30 Toyota will return, but just about everything else has changed. Davis brought in two former key figures from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to make the team competitive as soon as possible. Steve Hmiel will act as team manager, while Tony Eury Jr. will return to crew chief duties at the Sprint Cup level after JR Motorsports relieved him of his duties with Danica Patrick at the Nationwide level last year.
After a tough year that saw only one Nationwide win and two Camping World Truck victories—none of which came from its owner—KBM chose to focus its 2013 efforts on winning championships instead of races in both series. On the Nationwide side, Parker Kligerman will take the helm of the No. 77 car, moving up after nearly winning last year's truck championship.
Joey Coulter will move from Richard Childress Racing to drive KBM's No. 18 truck. It's an interesting pairing given that Busch and Coulter have had run-ins in the past, but one with a lot of potency nonetheless. As for Busch, he'll move back to Joe Gibbs Racing for the majority of his Nationwide races, but will run a handful of races in both series for his own team.
When A.J. Allmendinger tested positive for Adderall last July, Penske Racing had a high profile seat to fill in its No. 22 car and a lot of high-profile options for it. Sam Hornish Jr. drove in the interim, while Trevor Bayne, Ryan Newman, and even Allmendinger post-reinstatement were rumored to take over the ride in 2013.
But when Logano was replaced at Joe Gibbs Racing, Penske jumped at the chance to add him. Logano's the kind of driver that could fit well at the clean-cut and disciplined Penske organization, refining his raw talent as the second driver to defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski.
This one's pretty fresh and hasn't quite settled all the way yet, but here's what we know: Kasey Kahne and Brad Sweet will take their shared Great Clips sponsorship from Turner Motorsports to the No. 5 car at JR Motorsports, bumping Regan Smith to the No. 7 (and probably frustrating the folks at Lionel, who already rendered all of Smith's die-casts as No. 5). Kahne and Sweet will drive 15 and 12 races, respectively, with no word on the rest of the schedule.
In response, Turner Motorsports will reportedly honor Danica Patrick's 10-race Nationwide commitment for 2013 with GoDaddy.com on board. ESPN says that Patrick wanted to run the season opener at Daytona, and Turner could offer her that race, while Richard Childress Racing—her previous rumored destination—had already signed Tony Stewart, Patrick's Sprint Cup owner, to run its only available car for that race.
For years now JGR has been the class of the field by a wide margin in the second-tier Nationwide Series, but since Sprint Cup drivers became ineligible for points at the lower levels, they haven't gone for a drivers' championship. That will change in 2013, with two entries almost guaranteed to score top five points finishes.
Brian Vickers relaunched his career with a limited schedule at Michael Waltrip Racing last season, and he performed so well that JGR snapped him up for its No. 20 Dollar General car. Meanwhile, Elliott Sadler, the best remaining driver in the series after Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s promotion, brings sponsor OneMain Financial to the No. 11 car. The series runner-up from the past two seasons, Sadler is the immediate title favorite.
The best crew chief in Roush Fenway Racing's history has been deployed to try and fix the struggles of one of its most talented but inconsistent drivers. Edwards has a penchant for following up strong seasons with stinkers; in 2008 and 2011, he would have won championships if not for the Chase, but he failed to win a race in either 2009 or 2012.
Fennig joined Roush in late 1996 and won the 2004 title, the first of the Chase era, with Kurt Busch. He's worked, and seen success with, Mark Martin and most recently Matt Kenseth as well. If he can't right Edwards' ship, who can?
After four years in the No. 20 car, the past two of which were rife with rumors of his replacement, Joe Gibbs Racing finally decided that Joey Logano wasn't the right replacement for Tony Stewart after all. A win at Pocono in June wasn't enough to keep Logano on board after four straight years of missing the Chase, and Logano had better offers elsewhere than to wait for a potential fourth car at JGR.
Sponsor Home Depot had coveted Carl Edwards as a replacement in 2011, but that never came to fruition. So when another Roush Fenway Racing driver, Matt Kenseth, became available, JGR jumped at the chance to sign him. Kenseth, the 2003 champion, joins Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch in what may be the most talented lineup in the team's history.
The Camping World Truck Series has posted a bit of an experimental schedule for 2013, with two new races that will each require specially built trucks. The more high-profile addition was that of Tony Stewart's Eldora Speedway, the Ohio dirt track that has hosted all-star dirt races for years, in July. Trucks running that event will race without splitters on the only track in NASCAR allowed to host an event without SAFER barriers.
But in September, the trucks will go road course racing in Ontario at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (previously known as Mosport). It'll be the first international truck race and its first road course race since the 2000 season, when the series ran at Portland at Watkins Glen.
Next year's Sprint Cup season may remind NASCAR old-timers of the days of the Winston Cup with key rule changes to testing and qualifying. First, the testing ban on NASCAR-sanctioned tracks that had been in place since 2009 has been removed, meaning teams don't have to run at abandoned tracks with different tires anymore. Each organization, not individual team, gets four tests in 2013, wherever they'd like to use them.
Meanwhile, the new qualifying system for Sprint Cup in 2013 isn't actually all that new. In fact, it's not all that different from the provisional system the sport used before the top 35 rule was instilled in 2005. The top 36 cars make the race on speed, followed by the next six cars in owners' points who haven't made it otherwise, followed by the champion's provisional (or a seventh, if no champion needs a spot).
The frequently maligned Car of Tomorrow is on the way out of the Sprint Cup Series, to be replaced by the new and popular Generation Six model. Aesthetic changes differentiate Fords, Chevrolets, and Toyotas better than with the COT, while still preserving aerodynamic equality between manufacturers.
So far the new cars have been a huge hit with just about everyone, performing well at Charlotte testing and wowing fans with slick new designs. They're not a full-fledged return to the days of "stock cars" back when the sport first began, but they're a step in the right direction. The hope is that the new cars will produce some of the best racing the sport has seen in years.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.