DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The 2009 Sprint Cup season – and Jimmie Johnson's quest for an unprecedented fourth straight championship – kicks off Sunday with the Daytona 500. Here's a look at the top five story lines heading into the Great American Race:
1. Who's the favorite?
Picking the winner of the Daytona 500 is tantamount to choosing lottery numbers. You could be right, but you won't know until it's over.
Speeds in practice have been all over the place, with Reed Sorenson – Reed Sorenson? – leading the way in Saturday's final practice.
And for good measure, the past two winners of the Daytona 500 (Kevin Harvick in '07 and Ryan Newman in '08) led a combined total of 12 laps and didn't take the lead for good until the final lap of their respective races.
2. Can Mark Martin really win?
He may be 50, but Martin remains as competitive now as he was a decade ago. He's never won a Daytona 500, and while he once made no secret of his disdain for Daytona International Speedway, he's changed his tune, acknowledging that he'd love to add a 500 victory to his resume.
3. What about Joey Logano?
The 18-year-old known as Sliced Bread looked like a bull in a china shop early in the week, knocking into everything and everyone around him. He'd wrecked out of the Bud Shootout, hit the wall in practice and had a tough time keeping his car steered straight.
Then, on Thursday, he came home fourth in his Gatorade Duel.
What seemed like a lock a few days ago – that Logano wouldn't see the checkered flag on Sunday – isn't so definitive anymore.
4. Will tires be an issue?
Tire talk is pretty boring, except when Tony Stewart is involved. In the final practice on Saturday, Ryan Newman had a rear tire blow. That sent him into a spin and directly in the path of his teammate and boss, Stewart, who unloaded on Goodyear following the incident.
"If two guys wrecked, that's one thing, but the manufacturer has the sole deal, they don't have any competition, and they can't give us a tire to keep us from having wrecks," Stewart said.
Both Stewart and Newman, the defending race champion, were forced to go to their backup cars.
For Newman, it was his second tire issue in three days. In Thursday's Gatorade Duel, he, Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all had blistered tires, leaving all the drivers to wonder if Goodyear might be a factor in determining who wins on Sunday.
5. Will the race really be sold out?
According to one NASCAR official and track president Robin Braig, Daytona International Speedway will be near or at capacity for Sunday's race. That means upwards of 170,000 will be in attendance.
Despite the expected crowd numbers, hoteliers are coming up short this year, with rooms still available on Daytona Beach, only a few miles from the track.