The NASCAR Cup Series season starts Sunday with the Daytona 500. This is the first step in the journey toward the Cup championship. This also is an opportunity to claim one of NASCAR's crown jewels and a playoff spot.
Here are the pressing questions NBC Sports’ Dustin Long and John Newby are answering ahead of the sport's Super Bowl.
Which driver are you watching entering the Daytona 500?
Newby: Kyle Busch. He has achieved so much in his Cup career — two championships, 63 race wins, more than 19,000 laps led and a record 19 consecutive seasons with at least one win. The biggest thing missing from Busch's Hall of Fame resume is the Daytona 500. Busch has superspeedway success with one Daytona summer win and two Talladega wins. He just remains winless in the biggest race of the season.
Long: Brad Keselowski. He’s winless in 14 starts in The Great American Race. He’s been so close. He’s made it to the white flag in each of the last three Daytona 500s but only reached the checkered flag one of those times. He’s led the most laps in the past two Daytona 500s. He has been vocal about wanting to win this race. Can he do it and also score his first victory at RFK Racing? He should be worth watching.
What will you be looking for at Daytona?
Newby: Ford and Toyota will both have new bodies this year. Will this have a major impact on the race's outcome, or will Chevrolet teams have an early advantage with their returning Camaro bodies?
Toyota, in particular, will be under the microscope. Tyler Reddick said ahead of the season that the shape of the old Toyota Camry bumper "was not great for drafting" and that it played a role in him spinning in last season's Daytona 500. He compared the bumper to the flatter bumpers on the previous Ford Mustang, which allowed the Ford drivers to "push really aggressively" en route to three superspeedway wins in the Next Gen era. Toyota has not won a superspeedway race since 2021.
Long: I’ll be watching Hendrick Motorsports. The organization last won the Daytona 500 in 2014 with Dale Earnhardt Jr. The organization has only two Daytona 500 victories since 2007. Is this the year Hendrick Motorsports returns to Victory Lane at the Daytona 500, or will the drought go another year?
Who needs to make it through the speedway races at Daytona and Atlanta that open the season?
Newby: It would be easy to pick Kyle Larson based on his past struggles — he had four DNFs in six drafting races last season — but he will be a favorite to win at numerous other tracks. The actual pick is Corey LaJoie. He has the playoffs as a goal for this season and he leads a revamped three-driver lineup. All eight of LaJoie's top-10 finishes in Cup have been at drafting tracks, so the first two races of the season will be his best opportunities to score crucial points or steal a win.
Long: Anyone from Stewart-Haas Racing. There are questions about this organization after going winless last year in Cup and losing Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola. Car owner Tony Stewart said last week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that if improvements aren’t made, “major” changes will be made. SHR’s lineup this season — Chase Briscoe, Ryan Preece, Josh Berry and Noah Gragson — have combined for one career Cup victory (by Briscoe in March 2022 at Phoenix). Not starting in a hole could be big for all four of these drivers.