- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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Over the next two weeks -- in case you're new to this whole NASCAR scene, we call them Speedweeks -- we are all going to become very intimate with the No. 50. Why? Because it's the 50th edition of the Daytona 500, that's why.
The nostalgic feel of this year's trip to the beach comes at a great time for a sport that is suddenly fighting to retain its "core audience," as league chief Brian France likes to call them, the folks that have been watching NASCAR their entire lives, not just since Kasey Kahne and Dale Junior showed up.
But lost in all the complaining about "it ain't as good as it used to be" is one simple fact -- we are currently witnessing the most competitive era in the history of stock car racing. More cars than ever have a chance to win races each weekend, and more drivers than ever are moving to North Carolina in search of rides.
So before we start looking back at 50 years of the Great American Race, let's take a look at all the reasons we need to watch and the stuff we need to know heading into NASCAR 2008. It's a combined list of reasons to help us appreciate the here and now all season long plus info to help you impress your friends and enemies from Daytona to Homestead.
How many did we come up with? Well, 50, of course.
1) The Car of Tomo oops, Today
Hey fellas, time to quit complaining about the boxy winged machine now known simply as the COT. Yeah, we know it's ugly, but so was my first car, and there was no use complaining about it. It was all I had and I still had to drive it to school.
2) Dream Team or Nightmare?
The fearsome foursome of Hendrick Motorsports -- Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- is already being hailed as the greatest in NASCAR history. But that distressed look on Rick Hendrick's face is no accident. He's been here before with the "Dream Team" of 1987 -- Darrell Waltrip, Geoff Bodine, Tim Richmond and Benny Parsons -- which had worse chemistry than the New York Knicks. Can the superstars continue to play nice when there aren't enough wins to go around? Stay tuned.
3) Dale Junior will win six races
You heard it here first.
4) JGR = WWE?
Another delicate personality experiment will be taking place at Joe Gibbs Racing. Tony Stewart has long been the most vocal critic of Kyle Busch's ready-fire-aim driving style, announcing at Daytona one year ago that "he's going to end up killing someone." Now the sport's two shortest fuses are on the same team and, oh by the way, Denny Hamlin's no king of patience himself.
5) Busch Brothers Bash
Though they play nice publicly, Kyle Busch and big brother Kurt Busch are getting along about as nicely as those two whiny brothers from Oasis. Tension still lingers from last May's run-in at the All-Star Race in Charlotte. Expect to see this boil over by the time we reach Bristol in March.
6) Ashley Judd
Her husband, Dario Franchitti, is a member of this year's amazing rookie class. The most asked question at Daytona testing in January? How often will Dario's movie-star wife be coming to the track?
7) The countdown to Jacques Villeneuve's quitting
The former F1 and Indy 500 champ's deal with Bill Davis Racing is on shakier legs than a newborn deer. If no sponsorship materializes or JV is outside the top 35 after the first five races, he's likely to vanish as quickly as he appeared. Then again, he might win three races and Rookie of the Year.
8) Qualifying will actually be entertaining again
Ever since the top 35 in owner's points have been guaranteed starting spots, Friday qualifying sessions have been about as watchable as an "American Books" marathon on C-SPAN 3. But NASCAR's decision to bunch the "go or go home" cars together will rekindle at least a little bit of the drama that we all loved so much back in the day.
9) Get to know your aero
Thanks to the COT, there are little or no adjustments that teams are allowed to make body-wise. What they can work with are a variety of angle adjustments and tiny attachments to the rear wing. The term you'll hear the most is "Gurney Flap" or in some circles "Wicker Bill." Those are the tiny flat panels that are added to the rear and sides of the wing. They may not look like much, but they can be the difference in being glued to the track and sliding around like someone trying to figure skate with bedroom slippers.
10) Does this make my butt look big?
Teams will be living in the rear of the COT all season once we leave Daytona, as witnessed by all the dudes carrying around all those shocks and springs at last week's tests at Vegas and Fontana.
11) Jeff Gordon will reel in the immortals
The Rainbow Warrior enters 2008 sitting on 81 career wins, which puts him only two behind Cale Yarborough and three behind Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison (four if you ask Bobby). If he has his average season of five wins, he'll end the year ranked third all-time behind Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105). Holy cow.
12) The Sam Hornish Jr. Sheet Metal Supply Co.
We love the three-time IndyCar Series champ and we have no doubts that Sam Hornish Jr. will develop into a solid Cup contender with Penske Racing. But if his prior record is any indication, he's going to destroy some cars in the process (he shortened his Vegas/Fontana car during testing last week), which means the vets will be avoiding him in the Daytona draft like his car is covered in the Ebola virus.
13) IndyCar Series defection watch '08
Dario and Hornish's departure for NASCAR means four of the last seven IndyCar Series championships and the last two Indy 500 winners have abandoned the league. Danica Patrick's biggest headlines last season involved rumors of her defection and '05 champ Dan Wheldon and "Dancing With The Stars" ace Helio Castroneves are already being pounded with questions about NASCAR.
14) Return of The King
Don't look now, but the famous No. 43 Dodge is slowly becoming relevant again. Bobby Labonte finished 18th in points one year ago, the car's highest ranking since 1999. Say what you want, but the sport is better off if the Petty family is around and there's not a person in the Cup garage that doesn't want to see Kyle win one last race, dedicate it to his late son Adam, and walk out the door triumphantly.
15) Richard Childress Racing matters again
Five years ago, it looked like the Team That Earnhardt Built was going to bottom out like the Pettys, but RC has done what RC does best -- worked his butt off -- and his three teams have all become title contenders.
16) Need a new favorite driver?
Speaking of RCR, who saw Clint Bowyer coming last year? For all you old-school race fans who say these young guys aren't like the old ones, here's a guy you can pull for. Bowyer's Mom and Dad run a tow truck business back in Kansas and three years ago he was racing on dirt and working in a body shop at a Ford dealership. What's more old-school than that?
17) The World according to Jeff Burton
In a world of whitewashed sponsor-laden sound bites with all the substance of a marshmallow Peep, we don't just like Burton's honest and frank opinions, we need them.
18) Mangled sponsor plugs
How many times do you think these guys are going to say Nextel instead of Sprint or Busch instead of Nationwide? When Craftsman leaves the Truck Series in '09, it'll be even worse. How long before the boys on frat row turn this into a drinking game?
19) Mark Martin's Farewell Tour IV
Remember when Mark Martin said his emotional goodbye and announced his 1999 "Salute to You" tour? He's retired more times than Jay-Z, but keeps coming back. Fine by us.
20) The Old-School Racing Champions Tour
On May 18, the day after the Sprint All-Star Race, a pack of NASCAR legends will kick off a 10-race schedule on short tracks across the South, including Harry Gant, David Pearson, Geoffrey Bodine, and Dave Marcis. As long as no one gets hurt, this will be the coolest scene since Marcis drove with his wing tips.
21) Boris Said's hair
Boris Said's coif looks like something that might have been pulled out of a water clog in the Bronx, but the world's fastest Afro will be in action at least eight times in 2008, including the Daytona 500 and road-course appearances in both Cup and Nationwide.
22) Tony Stewart's Mullet
While Said's 'do is embraced by race fans, the follicles creeping down the back of Stewart's neck have left most fans in recoiled horror. Perhaps he's paying tribute to the rear wing on the COT?
23) Kevin Harvick's temper
You know spring has arrived when Happy Harvick strolls into the media center and announces that a rival driver is "a total jackass."
24) James Hylton's cojones
I ran into the 73-year-old in Charlotte two weeks ago and asked him whether he will attempt to make his 17th Daytona 500 this year (he made his first start in 1966). He smiled, winked, and said, "Why wouldn't I?" Good point.
25) Crew chief musical chairs
If the NFL has more than five or six coaching changes during the offseason, it's considered cataclysmic. This year the Sprint Cup Series kicks off with no fewer than 18 crew chiefs working in different locales. "Everything's new," admits Hendrick Motorsports newbie Tony Eury Jr. "I've had to ask where the bathroom is a hundred times already."
26) Jeff vs. Jimmie
While Jeff Gordon is busy writing history, his protégé and employee Jimmie Johnson is running along behind him rewriting it. While we've all been busy trying to find a modern-day version of Petty-Pearson or Rusty-Dale, this two-man wrecking machine has been happening all along. Don't believe me? Just pull the tapes of their 1-2 Martinsville finish last April.
27) Matt Kenseth is turning into David Pearson
Dale Junior may get all the attention, but Kenseth has quietly compiled the better career with 16 wins, at least one win over the last six seasons, and has Rookie of the Year and Winston Cup trophies at the house. When he retires 15 years from now, we're going to say, "He won how many races?"
28) Greg Biffle will return to relevance
The COT initially baffled Biffle, but he got a handle on it at the end of last season. Look for an output much closer to '05 (6 wins, second in points) than '07 (1 win, 14th in points).
29) The Carl
The mysterious phantom punch last fall at Martinsville exposed the chasm between Roush Fenway's five drivers, especially Edwards versus buddies Biffle and Kenseth. Why do I think that deep down Jack Roush enjoys that?
30) Green-white-checker finishes
There have been fewer than 30 GWC's in Cup history and seven happened last year alone, including the Daytona 500, which may have been the greatest last lap in NASCAR history. Makes you wonder why we ended races under yellow for so many years.
31) Toyotas will win then do it again and again
"Made in the USA," be damned, the Camry's first victory is coming this season and it'll come via one of the three cars at Joe Gibbs Racing. Their partnership wasn't officially announced until fall, but JGR engine guru Mark Cronquist had his team began secretly testing Toyota power plants way back in the summer. The result of that R&D work was revealed the second their Camrys hit the track for testing. Besides, we're pretty sure Stewart could still win races even if his car was powered by rubber bands and a gerbil wheel.
32) Kasey Kahne's watershed year
After leading the league in wins in '06, the Pretty One was shut out in '07. With Bud on the hood, it's time to stop merely looking like a contender and time to start racing like one. Screaming soccer moms can only get you so far.
33) Regan Smith versus The World
All this 24-year old DEI prodigy needs to do to win Rookie of the Year is beat out three Indy 500 champs and a five-time Champ Car winner. Good luck with that.
34) We don't have to hear about Junior versus Teresa anymore
At least not until Dale stops bitching about his stuff being removed from DEI's museum.
35) DEI now belongs to Mad Max and the "Other Junior"
Martin Truex Junior is visibly relieved to have the rift between his bosses and his friend behind him. And any Dale Earnhardt Inc. fan who thinks the sky is falling needs to spend five minutes with Max Siegel, the team's jazz-playing cool-as-an-igloo VP. If he'd gotten the job six months earlier, Dale Junior would still be at DEI.
36) The Lady in Black is old but still a looker
Every empty seat at California Speedway during Labor Day weekend -- and there are plenty -- is further proof that the rickety old Darlington Raceway is more important than ever.
The '08 season begins with a bushel of impressive streaks intact. Jeff Gordon has started 509 consecutive races (Ricky Rudd's record is 788), Gordon and Johnson have posted eight consecutive lead-lap finishes (record is 21, Gordon 98-99), Gordon has won at least one race in 13 consecutive seasons, Hendrick Motorsports has won in 22 straight years, a member of the Petty family has started every Daytona 500, Chevy has won the last five manufacturers' championships, Kevin Harvick hasn't posted a DNF in 44 races, and Kenny Wallace is still the active driver with the most starts and zero wins (342, good for 10th all-time).
38) Didn't you used to be Young Guns?
Paging Elliott Sadler, Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman if you're going to capitalize on all that potential we were bragging about five years ago, now is the time. Why?
40) I'm going to need to see some ID, dude
One name missing from our list above is 17-year-old wunderkind Joey Logano, who will make his Nationwide debut with more hype than "Cloverfield." But the racer already tabbed as the next superstar by the likes of Stewart and Martin may have to wait four years to make his Cup debut thanks to a possible new minimum age of 21. "It's not fair to the guy," said Kyle Busch, who was put in a holding pattern by a then-new minimum of 18 a few years ago. "If someone's ready, then they're ready."
41) Lost in translation
Want to see something funny? Watch a bunch of NASCAR beat writers from Charlotte and Greensboro try to decipher rookie Patrick Carpentier's French-Canadian accent. Here's a tip: He's not calling you a fink, he's saying "think."
42) Give a call to Barney Hall
When MRN Radio broadcast its first Cup race on Feb. 22, 1970, Jeff Gordon was still 18 months away from being born and Barney Hall was on the mike. This February Gordon will be 37 years old and Barney Hall will be on the mike.
43) Martinsville's April azaleas
Not only are they beautiful, they apparently contain some sort of crazy Miracle-Gro strain that allows them to actually thrive on carbon monoxide.
44) The ugly paint contest
Despite the crash of the die-cast market, teams still trot out new promotional paint schemes at a rate that makes it impossible to find your favorite car. Jeff Gordon alone had 11 different paint jobs in '07. While some look great, the misfires are more fun. Last year's losers -- the No. 99 Red Sox/Liquidators Ford, which looked like a slapped together ARCA ride, and the Shrek III M&M's No. 38 Ford with what resembled a neon green booger slapped across the hood.
45) A plate full of fun
Say what you want about restrictor-plate races, but they're the only four events where you can't even get up to go to the bathroom. The two Daytona finishes alone where among the top 10 closest 1-2's of all time and it looks like the COT is only going to make them better. Last fall at Talladega we had 42 lead changes among 22 different drivers.
46) Passing fancy
Passing isn't just a plate thing, it's a NASCAR thing. Every race but one featured 10 or more lead changes and 16 races had 20 or more. Said Juan Pablo Montoya: "During one bad race in NASCAR we have more passes than an entire season of Formula One."
47) More racing, fewer lawsuits
The Texas Motor Speedway suit is settled, the Kentucky Speedway has been thrown out (though it is under appeal), and AT&T reached an agreement with Sprint-Nextel to let RCR run its colors through '08. Good thing, everyone had used up their retainers.
48) Racetrack roulette
There will I repeat there will be a change in the '09 Cup schedule. The chances of New Hampshire's not losing one of its two race dates to Las Vegas are about as good as Jimmy Spencer's chances of winning "Make Me A Supermodel."
49) No 'roids, no strikes, no lockouts
Sure, NASCAR may have its problems, but no one is ever going to be dragged into a congressional hearing or issue his version of the Mitchell Report. And the last work stoppage we had was in 1969 and it lasted all of one day.
50) Every game is the Big Game
I love it when everyone makes a bid deal out of the musical acts and celebrities and Air Force flyovers at the Super Bowl. We have that every weekend at Sprint Cup races. So enough with the talk already, let's drop the green so I can breathe!
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at email@example.com.