Cory Mccartney
Friday February 12th, 2010

Three Daytona storylines that could set the tone for the entire season:

1. The pressure is on for Denny Hamlin and Mark Martin. They're two of the presumptive frontrunners to thwart Jimmie Johnson's drive for five and they can throw down the gauntlet on the sport's biggest stage. But Hamlin's main obstacle at the Daytona 500 isn't the ACL he tore playing basketball. (He's putting off surgery until after the season -- "What you have to remember is that the ACL, what it controls is rotation," said Dr. Scott Gillogly, an orthopedic surgeon for the Atlanta Falcons and Thrashers. "From the actual driving, I think he's going to be able to do that.") Martin's roadblock isn't that he's 51. The ageless wonder has seized his first career pole for the Great American Race.

What's standing in the way of both drivers is their inability to win points races at the World Center of Speed. Hamlin has an average finish of 23rd and no wins in eight Daytona starts. Martin is winless in 49 starts, averaging an 18th-place finish. Obviously, neither driver can win or lose the championship in one race, but if the trendy pick (Hamlin) or the sentimental one (Martin) are going to truly challenge J.J., then finally proving that they've put their restrictor-plate demons behind them will be a resounding statement.

2. Richard Childress Racing is seeking a rebound. Roush Fenway may have had it bad last season, but no team had a worse 2009 than RCR. Not only did the usually rock-steady team fail to win for the first time since '04, but also it was the first time it didn't put a single driver in the Chase. Was it as simple as Childress getting too greedy by adding a fourth team? It's hard to argue against the lousy results. But here are four reasons to believe this season will be different:

RCR is back to three teams because Casey Mears, who was behind the wheel of the fourth car and 21st in the standings, is gone after the No. 07 lost its sponsorship.

The renewed focus on holdovers Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick includes Childress socking $3 million into a new fleet.

Despite its struggles, the team quietly finished strong in '09 with 11 top-10 finishes.

Maybe the most intriguing aspect of RCR is that Harvick, who has openly feuded with his boss, is in a contract year -- and you know what they say about contract years? They're huge. Harvick had his best season the last time he was in that position, racking up five wins and 15 top-fives in 2006.

RCR has already gotten off to a strong start in Daytona with Harvick winning the Bud Shootout, but we said the same thing last year when he won the prelude and finished second in the 500 only to tank the rest of the season. So maybe we shouldn't hold our breath. But a strong performance by the entire team on Sunday would at least go a long way to showing that this power is intent on bouncing back in a hurry.

3. Can Team Smoke avoid a sophomore slump? It didn't take long for Stewart-Haas to get some of its owner/driver's swagger as Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman both made the Chase in the team's first season. Of course, success breeds expectations and now the bar will be high (maybe too high) for the two-car team.

There's no doubting Stewart's talent or the advantage of an affiliation with Hendrick Motorsports that gives Stewart-Haas the best engines money can buy, but the bigger question lies with Newman. He overcame an abysmal start (36th at Daytona, and 28th, 25th and 22nd in the weeks that followed) that included plenty of pit crew problems by making an impressive run, but the track gods turned on him and he fizzled in the Chase, averaging a 16th-place finish. If Stewart-Haas is going to make a run at passing Joe Gibbs Racing as the series' No. 2 team, Newman can't afford another slow start. But it's so far, so good as he had the third-fastest time in qualifying.

26: Bill Elliott's career Daytona 500 starts, more than any other active driver.

16: Cup drivers born after Awesome Bill made his 500 debut in 1978.

15.5: Elliott's average finish at Daytona, second only to Johnson among current Cup drivers.

Each week, we'll feature the best tweet from the NASCAR universe. Send your trash talk/predictions/witty observations to @SI_CoryMC to make your entry for next week.

Best typo on Twitter so far was Juan [Pablo Montoya] saying he was in the Can until 1pm! He meant to say car. That's funny stuff. --@jamiemcmurray

In arguably the worst paint scheme since Ken Schrader's Carrot Top ride in 2003, Kim Kardashian of E!/sex tape/Reggie Bush fame will be on Mike Bliss' No. 36 car as a one-time sponsorship for the Feb. 28 Las Vegas Cup race. She'll be promoting her new fragrance.

Blogosphere ... start ... your ... rear bumper jokes.

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