The Daytona 500 can propel a driver to prominence, just ask Jamie McMurray, the surprise winner of the 2010 event. It's probably the only race that comes close to matching the accomplishment of winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. It is also the start of a grueling 36-race season that ends four days before Thanksgiving.
An iconic name will be the focus of Sunday's race. It has been 10 years since Dale Earnhardt was killed in the last turn of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. NASCAR is honoring the seven-time Cup champion with a moment of silence on the third lap of Sunday's race.
It's a spectacular way for NASCAR to start its season, and what follows are some other storylines worth noting at the 53rd Daytona 500.
1. Will cars continue to run over 200 mph? In the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona a week ago, the highest speed recorded was 206 mph. That's something NASCAR isn't comfortable with, which is why it instituted a couple of rules changes in the wake of that race. For starters, the size for the restrictor plate was reduced from 1/64th of an inch to 57/64ths. That's a decrease of 12-horsepower and will lower the rpms after some teams reported running over 9,000 rpms in the Shootout. NASCAR also lowered the tolerance in the air inlet on the front grille, hoping to keep drivers from staying locked in two-car packs that tend to raise speed. Time will tell if the moves worked. In Wednesdays practice session, Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle both topped 200 mph, but no one reached 206.
2. How the new track surface allows cars to go three-wide. The repaving of Daytona after a pothole marred last year's race has provided impressive grip. That has featured three-wide racing in groups of two-car packs. By having grip on the low, middle and upper grooves, race drivers can use lines unavailable before. That will create a whole new dynamic for the Daytona 500. Although it is a restrictor-plate track, Daytona used to be about handling while Talladega was flat-out racing. Now Daytona is also flat-out and handling is no longer at issue.
3. The rapid closing rate between one two-car pack and another. Because of the new front nose and the rear spoiler, the draft works perfectly for two cars when the second car is tucked underneath the rear of the lead car. That allows them to achieve speeds around 200 mph, but at some point these cars have to unlock to keep the engines from overheating. When that happens, the next two-car pack has a closing rate of nearly 20 mph faster. The dangerous combination could lead to more crashes.
4. Can big-name drivers who lose the lead two-car pack can get back to the front. It was obvious in the Shootout that if the second or third two-car pack was too far behind the lead tandem near the end of the race, they were mere spectators for the finish. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over 500 miles in the Daytona 500.
5. Unlikely partners. At some point in the race there will be an alliance between drivers who simply don't like one another (more on that later). But in this new style of racing look for a few unlikely pairings -- just don't expect them to last any longer than either side needs it to.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. So he crashed in Wednesday's practice session and will have to start at the rear of the field in a backup car. If Junior is ever going to break out of his long winless streak, what better time than now? What better time than here? It's NASCAR's biggest race and the 10-year anniversary of his father's death. At one time Dale Jr. dominated the restrictor-plate tracks, including his victory in the 2004 Daytona 500, but his career has hit the skids.
As far as Earnhardt's new starting spot, if he finds the right drafting partner, he can be back to the front by the 20-lap mark. In a restrictor-plate race, cars drop to the back and make it back to the front several times throughout the race. In this case, Earnhardt's job just got a little harder but not impossible.
2. Kevin Harvick. He won the '07 Daytona 500 and showed his restrictor-plate ability last April at Talladega when he beat teammate Clint Bowyer by just a few inches when the yellow light was turned on because of a crash on the last lap. Harvick has the benefit of an Earnhardt Childress Racing engine and those have been quite impressive so far at Daytona.
Keep in mind that it was Harvick who took over the car at Richard Childress Racing following Earnhardt's death. While there has been plenty of focus and fan sentiment for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win, there are plenty of old-school racers who would like to see team owner Richard Childress return to Victory Lane.
In nine Daytona 500 starts, Harvick has four top-five and five top-10 finishes. He was 12th last year but with a new style of racing at Daytona, Harvick has other fast teammates in Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton and Paul Menard to work with in the race.
But what Harvick really has is the instinct that is necessary to succeed in this high-risk, high-reward race.
3. Clint Bowyer. He's another driver who has been impressive this week at Daytona. In five Daytona 500s, Bowyer has two top-five finishes, including fourth the past two years. He also has three top-10 finishes.
As with teammate Harvick, Bowyer has ECR engines. For him it'll be a matter of making the right moves at the right time to be in the right two-car pack at the end of the race. Bowyer has just as good a chance as anyone to take the checkered flag.
4. Tony Stewart. The two-time Cup champion has three victories at Daytona but all three were in the July 400-mile race. He is 0-12 in the 500 but has an impressive three top-five and six top-10 finishes in the race. With his racer's mentality and veteran savvy, Stewart appears destined to one day win the event, it's all just a matter of when circumstances fall in his favor.
5. Jamie McMurray. The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver had a Cinderella season in 2010 and he showed that success was no fluke as he finished second in last week's Shootout. Just as the RCR cars have superior horsepower, McMurray also has an ECR engine under the hood of his Chevrolet, and that can be a big advantage this year.
1. Earnhardt Jr. and Truex Jr. Chevrolet driver Earnhardt and Toyota driver Truex have a long history with each other as Truex won the '04 and '05 NASCAR Busch Series championships (now Nationwide) driving for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Earnhardt was the Cup driver at that team and the two formed a friendship, both on and off the track.
2. Ryan Newman and Stewart. Teammates at Stewart Haas Racing, these two have fast race cars and work well together. Both came up through the United States Auto Club (USAC) ranks in Indiana and have the same racing philosophy.
3. Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski. Again, stick with the teammates here as both race for the famed Roger Penske. Busch proved he is a Daytona threat by winning his first-ever restrictor-plate race in last weekend's Shootout and Keselowski won at Talladega in 2009. Both have Dodge-power at Penske Racing and will likely be together in a two-car pack throughout the race.
4. Harvick and Clint Bowyer. Two drivers with two of the best engines in the field, this is a likely pair to hook up early.
5. Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart. They've worked well together in the past at restrictor-plate tracks with Stewart pushing Earnhardt to several of his victories.
1. Harvick and Kyle Busch. They've had their share of run-ins, including the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway when Harvick put a wheel into Busch and spun him out. Busch hasn't forgotten about that and said he owes Harvick. Expect to see that payback on the short tracks, not at Daytona, because there is too much risk involved.
2. Keselowski and Carl Edwards. Their bitter rivalry started when Keselowski flipped Edwards at Talladega. They simply don't like each other and would probably rather help anyone else on the track.
3. Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. After losing the 2010 Cup Series championship in the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway to Johnson, Hamlin isn't likely to ever want to help the five-time defending Cup champ win another Daytona 500. In fact, some believe Hamlin may still be rattled by the psychological head games Johnson pulled in the final two races of last season.
4. Hamlin and Keselowski. Hamlin put Keselowski in the wall in the '09 Nationwide finale after a few run-ins throughout that season. One thing about drivers, they never forget when another driver does them wrong.
5. Steve Wallace and anybody. Already guaranteed a starting position by taking over the Cup points from Sam Hornish Jr. last season, Wallace has had more than his share of crashes in the Nationwide Series. When a rookie driver starts his first Daytona 500, none of the veterans want to work with him.
1. Kasey Kahne. Kahne left Richard Petty Motorsports for Hendrick Motorsports, but that contract doesn't begin until 2012. In the meantime he's driving one of Team Red Bull's Toyotas.
2. Bobby Labonte/Marcos Ambrose. The 2000 Cup champion drove for four teams in '10 but takes over the No. 47 Toyota from Marcos Ambrose, who has moved over to Richard Petty Motorsports in the No. 9 car.
3. Paul Menard. The son of home improvement store magnate and former IndyCar Series team owner John Menard is undergoing a "racing improvement" of his own this season after leaving RPM for Richard Childress Racing.
4. Hendrick crew chiefs. Steve Letarte moves from Jeff Gordon's car to Earnhardt Jr.'s, while Junior's crew chief from last year, Lance McGrew, joins Mark Martin and Alan Gustafson moves from Martin's team to Gordon's.
5. Brian Vickers returns. After experiencing blood clot issues and a hole in his heart, Vickers returns to Team Red Bull. The eight-month layoff may have made Vickers a tad bit rusty but he should be able to shake that off.
1. Daytona's new pavement. After last year's pothole incident, track officials repaved the surface for the first time since 1979. Much has been said about the new asphalt and the new style of racing it has ushered in. Even more will be said about it during the race.
2. The two-car packs. Count the number of times the subject has been discussed in this column alone and it's a good bet the fans are already seeing double. But expect Sunday's race to be another example that driving in tandem is the only way to race at this track.
3. Earnhardt Jr.'s 93-race winless drought. He's NASCAR's Most Popular Driver, but he isn't close to being its most successful, though a victory Sunday would help him become more relevant.
4. The simplified scoring system. Instead of the complicated and convoluted scoring system that was first introduced in 1975, NASCAR will give 43 points for first all the way down to one point for 43rd. Of course, the winner will get a three-point bonus for winning the race and another one-point bonus for leading a lap and one more if he leads the most laps, so winning the race can pay as much as 48 points to the winner.
5. The yellow-line rule. As Hamlin discovered at the end of last Saturday's Shootout, if a driver drops below the yellow "out of bounds" line to improve his position, they will get dropped to the last car on the lead lap.