Of course, seasons can be made or broken on any given lap of every race, but even before the first engines fire for the new season, a handful of races loom as key moments. Mark your calendars for these five.

1. Daytona, February 15: While winning the Great American Race hasn't been predictive of seasonlong success recently (neither Kevin Harvick nor Ryan Newman, the 2007 and '08 champions, respectively, have won since their victories), overall performance in the race, with its strong demands on horsepower and reliability, has proved a decent harbinger of things to come. Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart were both strong at Daytona in '07, combining to lead 130 of 202 laps, and both went on to win multiple races that season. Last year Kyle Busch led a race-high 86 laps in a prelude to his eight-victory season.

2. Las Vegas, March 1: This race has been useful in telling us who is most likely to dominate on the Cup circuit's intermediate tracks -- indicating not only who will run well during the season but also (even more important) who will run well in the Chase, which includes four 1.5-milers in its 10 races. Both Jimmie Johnson (who won Vegas in '05, '06 and '07) and Carl Edwards (who won it last year) have shown their strong hands in Sin City.

3. Bristol, March 22: Many NASCAR fans feel that short-track racing is still the essence of the sport, and no place makes that case better than the bullring at Bristol. Aerodynamics matter less on short ovals, which should translate into a wide-open affair. Nonetheless, quality usually prevails. Non-Chasers have reached Victory Lane at Bristol in just two of the last 10 races.

4. Phoenix, April 18: If, as some fear, the nation's current economic troubles will result in some races being run in '09 without a full field of 43 cars, then Phoenix will probably be the spot in which that first happens. It's the eighth race on the schedule, which means that cars outside the top 35 in owner's points won't automatically qualify. And because it's more than 2,000 miles from NASCAR's southeastern epicenter, some unsponsored teams might not be able to afford to make the trip.

5. Indianapolis, July 26: Last year's Indy race was a disaster, replete with blown tires and competition yellow flags. Both NASCAR and tiremaker Goodyear will be under intense pressure to make sure that fans do not see a repeat performance. The Brickyard is one of the most important weekends on the Cup calendar, and with attendance likely to be down because of the economy, another awful race would be a p.r. disaster that could cost millions in future seasons.

Since the award's inception in 1958, the Raybestos Rookie of the Year award has gone to such future stars as Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Here's a look at the leading candidates to follow in those impressive tire tracks in 2009.

1. Joey Logano: Given Logano's record in racing's minor leagues and the fact that he will be driving for the championship-caliber Joe Gibbs Racing team, it's tempting to think the kid will win rookie of the year in a runaway. He'll certainly be surrounded by the pieces necessary for success. On the other hand, Stewart could only win one race last year in this car. It's hard to picture Logano even matching that success.

2. Scott Speed: Red Bull Racing continues to improve, and the addition of ex-F/1 driver Speed makes it a team worth watching. Like all open-wheel transfers, Speed could struggle with oval racing, but the talent is there for him to surprise a few people in his debut season.

3. Chad Mccumbee: If the 24-year-old native of Supply, N.C., looks familiar, that's because he played Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the '04 ESPN film 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story. Next season he will probably have a full-time ride with Petty Enterprises. It's a big step -- McCumbee made 71 starts in the truck series without a win. His Cup record is even thinner, with no top 10 finishes in eight career starts. He's likely to do much of his learning in the back of the field.

Instead of introducing a new, unraced car -- part time in '07 and full time last season -- perhaps the better solution would have been to modify the old, reliable one. That seems clear now, as disdain for the new car is nearly unanimous. It is widely viewed as a handling and setup nightmare that has improved safety at the expense of competition. It is nothing less than a disaster for NASCAR that the most dramatic change in its history has had the effect of reducing great drivers like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart to also-ran status.

The lords of racing can tell drivers to pipe down all they want, but it won't change the fact that the fans also hate it. Handling problems have made passing nearly impossible, especially when the lead car is running in clean air. This was evident in October at Texas, when Carl Edwards ran out to a large lead before coasting to victory by more than 10 seconds. NASCAR says that no changes will be made to the car for '09. For a sport that will struggle financially for the next year or two, that attitude seems remarkably shortsighted.

The great fanfare that greeted Juan Pablo Montoya's Cup debut in '07 has been played out. There are certainly open-wheel success stories in NASCAR -- look no further than two-time Cup champ Tony Stewart -- but last year made clear that crossover drivers struggle mightily on oval tracks with the circuit's heavier, less-stable car. Three years after he began his new career, Montoya is one of the few open-wheel groundbreakers left in the game.

Juan Pablo Montoya Debut: Nov. 19, 2006 Starts: 73 Best Oval Finish: 2nd (Talladega, 4/27/08) Best Points Finish: 20th ('07) Montoya remains in the Cup series, in the number 42 Dodge for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Sam Hornish Jr. Debut: Nov. 11, 2007 Starts: 36 Best Oval Finish: 13th (Charlotte, 5/25/08) Best points Finish: 35th ('08) The former three-time IndyCar champ has repeatedly denied reports that he's headed back to the circuit he once dominated, saying he plans to remain in the number 77 Dodge in '09.

Dario Franchitti Debut: Feb. 17, 2008 Starts: 10 Best Oval Finish: 22nd (Martinsville, 3/30/08) Best points Finish: 49th ('08) Unable to find a Cup sponsor, Franchitti will return to IndyCar in 2009, driving the number 10 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Jacques Villeneuve Debut: Oct. 7, 2007 Starts: 2 Best Oval Finish: 21st (Talladega, 10/7/07) Best points Finish: 60th ('07) The 37-year-old Villeneuve has not announced his plans for 2009.

Patrick Carpentier Debut: Aug. 12, 2007 Starts: 27 Best Oval Finish: 14th (Daytona, 7/5/08) Best points Finish: 38th ('08) Released from his contract at Gillett Evernham Motorsports after a public fight with team director Mike Shiplett at Talladega in October, the Canadian driver has yet to announce his plans for '09.

A.J. Allmendinger Debut: March 25, 2007 Starts: 44 Best Oval Finish: 9th (Kansas, 9/28/08) Best points Finish: 36th ('08) After losing his ride at Red Bull Racing, he finished '08 piloting the number 10 Dodge for GEM; he currently has no Cup ride for the coming season.

-- Compiled by Mark Beech

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