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Season of uncertainty dawns Road to the Chase begins in Daytona

Some fans still don't know which drivers are in which cars after a shell game of an offseason. Heck, some drivers don't know too much about what kind of performance they'll be getting out of their cars after an offseason of no testing.

That makes for a lot of questions as Sprint Cup racing gets started with today's twin qualifying races for Sunday's Daytona 500.

Who is the favorite to win the Sprint Cup? Just about everyone and their back-seat-driver agrees on the three guys who dominated last year: Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards. Edwards seems to be getting most of the buzz.

But who's going to win? As long as the 10-race postseason format remains the same, and as long as crew chief Chad Knaus and Johnson are together, we'll take the 48. They've got it figured out. Coming in 2010: A tweaking of the Chase.

Which driver will surprise by making the Chase? David Ragan is a popular breakout candidate after he caught a whiff of the Chase fumes last season.
Which driver will surprise by not making it? Dale Earnhardt Jr. One of the big guys is going to tumble, and it could be the beloved Junior. He joined up with Hendrick and was solid but unspectacular. Something's missing. (Our e-mail address is at the bottom, Junior Nation.)

Is there any other sport that will be affected as much by the sluggish economy? Not by 500 miles (or 200 laps). Sure, contract signings in sports like baseball may be dampened, but where else do you find a sport that changes the rules so people don't spend as much money?

For a sport that relies on sponsorships that just aren't there, and is bolstered by an American auto industry that needed a bailout, it didn't have much choice. In an effort to help Sprint Cup teams save money, NASCAR outlawed them from testing at its tracks in the offseason, which has led to an increased air of uncertainty about the season.

Who will win first: Tony Stewart's old car or his new one? Joey Logano, now driving the No. 20 Home Depot car for Joe Gibbs Racing, is the real deal, and he'll show it before the series comes back to Daytona.

Better story line: Stewart or Logano? Watching the next big thing become the next big thing will be a blast, but we're going with Stewart. A driver who has had some serious authority issues -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- now is the authority. He seems very comfortable in his driver-owner role to start the year, but there's a reason driver-owners have gone the way of tobacco company sponsorships. Another dichotomy: Conventional wisdom says the equipment he has with his smaller Stewart-Haas outfit will trail that of the big teams, but he might be the NASCAR all-time leader of taking a "top-20 car" and making it finish in the top 10.

Will Stewart get his first win as a driver or as an owner? An owner. Ryan Newman languished the last few years but he seems as happy as Stewart, and all Newman has to do is drive.

Which Hendrick teammate will win first: Jeff Gordon or Mark Martin? If it seems like you've seen four-time series champion Gordon more often on daytime television -- with Regis and Kelly or Rachel Ray (this week with his mom promoting a cookbook) -- than you have in victory lane, that's because he didn't win last year. After his second straight part-time season and test-drives of retirement, Martin is in for a full year with the vaunted Hendrick squad, and all this guy does is race well (and no cookbooks).

What's the deal with qualifying today? The first race of the season has the most complicated qualifying format, one unique to the Daytona 500.

Only the front row is determined by qualifying speed -- Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin earned the top two spots Sunday. The remainder of the top 35 in owner's points last year are guaranteed spots in the 43-car field, but their finish in today's races will determine their starting position.

In each race, the fastest two cars from outside the top 35 -- a group referred to as the "go-or-go-home" cars or those who have to "race their way in" -- will earn a spot in the field.

The next three spots are awarded due to Sunday's qualifying times and the final spot in the field will be awarded to a past series champion.

From among the go-or-go-homers, Bill Elliott, Travis Kvapil and Tony Stewart had the fastest qualifying laps Sunday to guarantee themselves starting spots. The success of Elliott and Stewart also made for a good day for fellow series champion Terry Labonte, who will take the 43rd spot.

There are 16 go-or-go-home cars vying for those top two spots in each race today. However, if Elliott, Kvapil, Stewart or Labonte finish in one of those top two spots, that would open up an entry for drivers with the next-best qualifying speeds: those are Regan Smith, Joe Nemechek, Boris Said and Scott Riggs.

Who's going to win Sunday's race? With winners like Kevin Harvick and Newman the last two seasons, we'll get back to you on that one -- for the last two years, you couldn't even pick a winner with two laps to go.


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