You gotta love a sport where the biggest event of the year is merely the beginning rather than the end of a new season. The Daytona 500 is a race without equal, and with so much riding on the result, it's only natural that there are a few burning questions going in.
On one hand, it's true that a driver's performance at the Daytona International Speedway isn't necessarily indicative of what is to come. You can win and bottom out later in the year, or you can crash on the first lap and still win the points title.
On the other hand, it's the Daytona 500. This race is used to separate the good drivers from the great drivers and the great drivers from the legendary drivers.
Among some of those aforementioned burning questions heading into Sunday's race, these three are the most prominent.
Can Anybody Stop Jimmie Johnson?
Jimmie Johnson is both the reigning Sprint Cup and Daytona 500 champion. It's getting a bit monotonous with him, as the 38-year-old has won six of the last eight season titles. Few athletes have dominated their respective sport in the way Johnson has over the years.
In fact, some believe that the new rule changes to the Chase for the Sprint Cup were implemented with the purpose of ensuring that somebody else other than Johnson wins the title. The 2013 champion dismissed the conjecture, though, in an interview with Forbes' Kurt Badenhausen:
I don’t see it that way. Honestly this sport is bigger than any one driver. It always has been and always will be. The decisions they make are solely for the advancement of the sport and not to come after me or take something away from me. We’re by far the winningest car in the Chase and that’s what it takes to advance. If I want to look for a silver lining, I can say this could be a good thing for us.
Although Johnson can't win the title in Daytona, he can at least set the tone for the rest of the season.
The odds are against him repeating, as almost 20 years have passed since Sterling Marlin won back-to-back Daytona 500s in 1994 and '95.
No. 48's talent is never in doubt, though, and starting out in 32nd could prove to be a positive, as it allows Johnson to sit back and wait for the race to develop before he makes his move up the pack. Even a finish in the top 10 would lay down a major marker for Johnson.
How Well Will Stewart-Haas Racing Perform?
No team will be more fun to watch in 2014 than Stewart-Haas Racing. With the additions of Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick, no other group of drivers has as good of a chance of blowing away the competition as it does imploding in the middle of the season.
Tony Stewart, one of SHR's stalwarts, thinks that the talk of possible dissension down the line between himself, Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick and Kevin Harvick is overstated, per Randy Covitz of The Kansas City Star (via The Sacramento Bee):
We are putting a collection of talent together. There are flaws in all of us. As much as people are making it out to be a recipe for disaster, I think it's the opposite. Kurt, Kevin and I ... have had our less-than-stellar moments, but the good thing is because of that we all understand each other and what it was that put us in those situations.
Danica had to go through the same thing during her time in IndyCar, and she deals with a lot of pressure here. All four of us understand the challenges we face and, because of that, there is almost a peace of mind in knowing that if we're in a tough situation, we have teammates we can talk to ... as a support system.
Although it's foolish to expect much drama at Daytona, the seeds of conflict could be sewn on Sunday. One wrong move could lead to tension, which stews as the season goes on and boils over at a later date.
Or everything could work in Stewart-Haas Racing's favor, and these four seemingly contrasting personalities/drivers meld together into a workable unit, thus becoming one of the best teams in NASCAR.
Is Austin Dillon Poised for a Breakout?
Few drivers will be under the microscope in 2014 more than Austin Dillon.
For one, he's the grandson of Richard Childress, which has inevitably helped his career but also led some to wonder if nepotism is the reason for his rise. Dillon will also be driving the No. 3 car this year, which is the first time it will be on a NASCAR track since Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash at the 2001 Daytona 500.
That's a lot of pressure for the 23-year-old.
However, Dillon should be able to handle it.
He had the fastest lap in qualifying to earn the pole for the Daytona 500. With his experience and success in the Nationwide Series, as well, Dillon should make a major impact in his rookie season.