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.
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.
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.