The Great American Race is upon us, and as fans we couldn't be happier about that. Going into the race there are plenty of questions to be answered.
No one wants to wait until the end of the season to have all of their questions answered about the upcoming season. Who will win this race? Who will win that race? Who will the champion be at the end of the year?
Plain and simple, we want answers. And, that's why I'm here. While there are many questions as we enter the season, I have picked out 20 of the more burning ones, that fans want answered by the time we leave Daytona.
The same question gets asked every time that NASCAR goes to a restrictor plate track. Will the big one happen? The consensus is usually "yes", and this year, with the new surface and faster speeds, I would be inclined to agree.
Before I had seen any action on the track, I was confident that the big one would not happen this year. Now, having witnessed the Bud Shootout, I am confidently changing my answer. The speeds are even higher than they have been in 20 something years, and that in itself only adds to the possibility of a big crash.
It seems almost inevitable that a big incident will occur, that only leaves the question of when. And, unfortunately, that is an answer that is impossible to predict.
This one almost seems like a no brainer. Most definitely, yes. The speeds in the Budweiser Shootout were topping out at just over 206 miles per hour. Keep in mind, there were only 24 cars on the track at that point. When the green flag waves for the start of the Daytona 500, there will be 43 cars, running close to that speed.
The new surface has so much grip, and causes so little tire wear, that a lot of drivers feel invincible. They are able to put the cars anywhere on the track that they want to go, and when you are able to do that, it only adds more pressure to not screw up.
As exciting as this race has the potential to be, it can also be equally as scary. The drivers will not be the only ones holding their breaths, countless number of fans will be as well, just watching it.
Another important question, with a simple answer. No. As a driver, the last place you will want to be when the white flag waves, is at the front of the pack.
Ryan Newman said it best after losing the Budweiser Shootout, by being the victim of a last lap pass. He said that he knew he was a sitting duck, because there was no way he could block all the different lines that Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, and Jamie McMurray were planning on using to get around him.
The only hope for the leader of the white flag lap, would be for a caution to come out before the drivers that are lined up behind him have the chance to make their move.
That is the only possible way that we won't experience a last lap pass for the win. And even then, I wouldn't bet on it.
Last year, the Daytona 500 turned into the Daytona 520, as it took eight extra laps and 20 extra miles to determine the winner. Expect this year's event to only go the scheduled distance.
While predicting cautions is nearly impossible, as I mentioned, it almost seems inevitable that the big one will happen. So, using that logic, I would assume that at least 10 or 12 cars will be out of the race by the time the field takes the white flag.
With just 30 or so cars remaining on track, and most likely not all of them, contending for the win, the likelihood of a late race caution seems to dwindle. I think that this year we will actually see only 500 miles, which may not be enough for some die hard fans.
As disappointing as this is, I think that the 500 will shape up much the same way that the Shootout did. By that I mean that we will see a lot of two car breakaways as opposed to the 20 car packs that we have grown accustomed to.
The 24 drivers that participated in the Shootout proved that two cars lined up bumper to bumper goes faster than one car by itself, or than a large pack of cars. Only in the closing laps did we see a breakaway that consisted of more than two cars.
It was an odd sight to see, watching that many pairs of cars marching back and forth on the track, but I think we need to get used to seeing it, because I have a feeling that we will see a whole lot more of it come Sunday.
I think that they are. The 2009 season, and the start to the 2010 season were huge disappointments for the whole organization. Until Greg Biffle's win at Pocono in late July, the team was on a 56 race winless streak. That sort of streak had been unheard from Ford's top team.
Then, in the second half of the year, they really turned things around. Both Biffle and Carl Edwards ended the year with two wins, with Edwards winning the final two events of the season. Matt Kenseth also started to show strength as he posted some of his best finishes towards the end of the year.
I think that that success will carry over into the new season. Does it mean that one of them will win at Daytona? Not necessarily. But I do think that all four of the Roush drivers, David Ragan included, will have solid season openers, and the season as a whole will be a big year for Roush.
The easy answer to this question is yes he can. Will he do it? That is another question. And unfortunately, the answer to that one is no. Undoubtedly, he has to go in to the race as one of the favorites. Not only did he win the Shootout, but his Daytona 500 record has been very solid over the years.
Busch has never won the Great American Race, but he has been close. He has five top 10 finishes in this race, and has finished runner up on three separate occasions.
While there is no doubt Busch has the talent to get the job done, too much luck is also involved in winning this race. He will again put himself in a position to be there at the end, but when the checkers wave, Busch will once again fall short.
Mark Martin has left Daytona with disappointment 26 times. Unfortunately, this year will make that tally rise to 27. The 52 year old Martin has never won the Daytona 500, though he was inches away from doing so in 2007.
No one is sure what the plans are for Martin after this season. He is entering his final year driving for Hendrick Motorsports, and while he has said he will be racing next season, no one can hazard a guess as to where that will be.
So, that could make this his last best chance to win the biggest race of them all. Martin has never been a fan of restrictor plate racing, and after another year of missing out on the 500, his disdain towards it may grow even more.
Probably not. Keep in mind that Earnhardt also started on the front row for last year's Daytona 500. He also finished in the runner up spot in that race, but even that wasn't enough to jump start his season.
His three years at Hendrick Motorsports have been nothing but a disappointment. In that time span, he has scored just one victory, and had points finishes of 12th, 25th, and 21st respectively. I wouldn't expect that big of a turn around over the course of just one season.
Many things have been tried to turn around his fortunes, but none of them have worked. He has changed crew chiefs three times in the last two seasons, including starting this season with new chief, Steve Letarte.
While Earnhardt Jr. winning the pole makes for a great story, and gives his legions of fans something to cheer and get excited about, it really is just a small step in what could be a really long process.
Remember a time not too long ago, when Jeff Gordon was winning countless races each season, and always in contention for the championship trophy? It wasn't really all that long ago, but sometimes it feels like it was actually decades ago.
Well, get ready to relive those feelings again. Gordon is poised to have a really big season. Though he has won just once in the last three seasons, I think all that changes this year, starting in Daytona.
Gordon has been paired with crew chief Alan Gustafson for the 2011 campaign, and I think that duo has some real potential to click, and win a lot of races together. Last year, Gordon came close to winning on numerous occasions, and I think this year, he will not only put himself in position to win, but he will actually get the job done.
Kasey Kahne enters his one and only season driving a Red Bull Toyota. He is just making a quick stop with the Red Bull team, before going over to Hendrick Motorsports beginning in the 2012 season.
So, what does that mean for this season and Kahne? I don't have too high of expectations for him. Last season, his final year with Richard Petty Motorsports, Kahne had one of his worst seasons in the Sprint Cup Series.
His 20th place points finish was the second worst of his seven year career, and he failed to record a victory for just the second time in the last six years.
I think that Kahne will have a little bit better year than this year, but on the whole, I think he is basically trying to make it through this season, until he lands a ride with Hendrick.
Brian Vickers story has been well documented over the last eight months. Last season, his year was cut well short as he had to recover from blood clots in his legs. There was actually some question as to whether or not his career may have been over as well.
The Daytona 500 marks the comeback race for Vickers, and a lot of wondering eyes will be focused squarely on him. Everyone is curious to see how aggressive he will be in a race car, and conversely, how aggressive his fellow drivers will be around him on the track.
I think that it will certainly take Vickers a little time to adjust to life back in the car. I wouldn't expect any spectacular finishes at least for a few weeks. Once he has been back at it for a few races, I think his confidence will come back, and by the end of March, he should be right back in the swing of things.
Not yet. Logano is still one year away from really breaking out into a full blown superstar. While this year will continue to see his development, the big break through that everyone is waiting to see will have to wait until 2012.
The thing to remember about Logano is that while he is entering his third full time season in the series, he is still just 20 years old, and has a long time left in the sport.
Last year he more than doubled his top five and top 10 output from his rookie season. He also saw his points standings improve from 20th to 16th. While I can see him matching his output from last year, contending for a spot in the Chase will have to wait one more season.
Maybe to start the season it has. Busch became an old married man, on New Year's Eve, and at least for the first few weeks, it should provide us with a calmer and maybe even nicer Kyle Busch.
His first trial run at this theory was when he was wrecked in the Budweiser Shootout. Typically, you would have expected Busch to decline the interview request after being involved in an incident, but not only did he oblige with the request, he was almost down right polite.
While that may last for a few weeks, it is only a matter of time before the Kyle of old reemerges. We all know that it is bound to happen, and that the love of a woman, no matter who she is, could ever completely change Kyle.
If practice and time trials are any indication, Trevor Bayne is going to be just fine. Bayne was 11th quick in the first practice on Saturday. Things only got better from there.
In the second practice session, he posted the fourth fastest time. Then he really backed it up in time trials. He posted the third fastest qualifying lap. Unfortunately, his third starting spot is not locked in, and he still has to race for his actual starting position.
Regardless, Bayne couldn't have hoped for a better start to Speedweeks. Having a starting spot guaranteed takes a lot of pressure off the young driver, and driving a Wood Brothers Ford, with their rich tradition, can only make the opportunity all the more satisfying for Bayne.
Look for big things out of him right out of the gate.
The last two seasons have been polar opposites for Mark Martin. In 2009, he won five races at 50 years old. He won a series high seven pole positions and for the fifth time in his career, he finished runner up to the championship.
Then in 2010, his performance was more like what would be expected from a 51 year old. He finished last year with no wins, one pole position, and failed to qualify for the Chase, as he finished a very disappointing 13th in the standings.
So which Martin should we expect this year? I think it will be a combination of the two. I don't think he will win five races, but I don't think he will be shut out either. He has looked good thus far at Daytona, as he paced the field in both of the early practices, and put down the eighth fastest lap in time trials.
I expect him to qualify for the Chase, in his final year driving for Rick Hendrick, and wouldn't be at all surprised to see him score one or two wins in 2011.
Denny Hamlin came as close as anyone has to dethroning the five time champion Jimmie Johnson. He took the points lead into the final race at Homestead, but after spinning out early in the event, he could never recover, and had to settle for runner up to the title.
Will any of that disappointment carry over to the start of this season for Hamlin? Sadly, I think it will. Hamlin is a very emotional driver who is not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. He was clearly devastated at not winning last year, and I think that will cause him to overdrive a little bit to start the season.
I think eventually, Hamlin will right the ship, but don't expect him to come anywhere close to matching his eight wins from a season ago. I expect the season to start slow for Hamlin, but he will rally to make the Chase again this year. Just don't look for him to be much of a factor when it starts.
Kevin Harvick had such a strong season in 2010, that it will be impossible for him to repeat those same successes. Harvick had 26 top 10 finishes, which were three more than any other driver. He also had an average finish of 8.7, which was over three full positions higher than anyone else.
Harvick won three times a season ago, and was the runaway point leader for much of the regular season. When the Chase started, Harvick maintained his strong season. Though he only finished third in the final standings, he was still alive for the championship throughout the entire race at Homestead.
Had the points been decided using the traditional method, Harvick would have been the winner by 285 points over Johnson.
There is no reason to think that Harvick won't have another productive year, most likely finding victory lane at least one time, but it would be ridiculous to think he can come close to matching his 2010 output.
Last season, Jamie McMurray completely resurrected his career. After being labeled as an under achiever, McMurray silenced everyone last year when he won not only the Daytona 500, but also the Brickyard 400 and a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
So who has the best chance to make a name for themselves this year? The popular answer to this one would have to be either Joey Logano or Brad Keselowski. And while both are certainly in a position to do just that, I will go a little further out on the limb and say that this years breakout performer will be Paul Menard.
Last year, for the first time in his career, Menard posted multiple top 10 finishes. He ended with six of them. He also finished a career best 23rd in the point standings.
This year he takes his family owned sponsorship over to Richard Childress Racing. With them, he will undoubtedly be driving the best equipment he has had in his career. Will he really break through and win his first career race?
That may be a stretch, but it could certainly happen. If nothing else, he will surely post a double digit number of top 10 finishes, and will finish right around 15th in the points.
We are only midway through February and haven't even had a points counting race, and still everyone wants to know if anyone can finally dethrone the five time defending Sprint Cup Series champion, Jimmie Johnson.
Finally after a long wait, this will be the year. While Johnson will no doubt be in the hunt for the championship, common logic says that this streak cannot go on much longer. While I have never been one to give in to common logic, this time it only seems natural.
Johnson will win at least four races, which if successful, would mark the eighth straight year in which he accomplishes that. But so many teams and drivers have closed the gap on Johnson and the No. 48 team, that this year one of them has to overtake him.
The popular picks to do the honor are Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, and Carl Edwards. While those are all well deserving candidates, I think that the championship will be decided by two different drivers.
Call it a hunch, but I think at the end of the season, Matt Kenseth will edge out Jeff Gordon for the 2011 Sprint Cup championship.