The NASCAR Sprint Cup series fires up again this weekend with the 51st running of the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway Sunday.
Yet, while it seems like yesterday that Jimmie Johnson was being crowned Sprint Cup champ in Homestead, it also seems like forever since we've seen a race. Although the Bud Shootout last week was exciting and fun to watch, it was a dash for cash and little more.
Well, let me correct myself. Besides being a dash for cash, it was a test session for the big show. But with no points awarded, teams were free to gamble on set-ups.
As I write this, another test session awaits. But this one is for the entire field, and some drivers will have to pack up their cars and leave. The Gatorade Duel at Daytona -- two 150-mile qualifying races -- has not happened as of my deadline. By the time this newspaper is in readers' hands, however, that chapter of the 51st annual Daytona 500 -- qualifying -- will be history.
There's little doubt after watching the Shootout that Daytona is still a treacherous track. Or maybe what we used to call NASCAR's "Car of Tomorrow" is the culprit. One thing is for certain -- handling will be key to who makes the field and who stands in victory lane Sunday.
Of course, engines must be fast and dependable, and that will be an issue, too. Ryan Newman's Stewart-Haas car blew an engine in practice this week, relegating the defending Daytona 500 winner to the back of his Duel.
But with team owner Tony Stewart getting engines from Hendrick Motorsports, the question is, will the other Hendrick cars have engine troubles? I'm sure Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin are hoping not.
Speaking of Martin, how cool is it that the front row for Sunday was locked in by the two Martins -- Martin Truex Jr. on the pole, and Mark Martin outside him? For Truex, it's his first race for the newly organized Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Martin is experiencing a late-career rebirth as part of the Hendrick Motorsports stable, taking over the No. 5 previously driven by Casey Mears.
Martin, 50, will be joined in the field Sunday by a pair of veteran drivers, bringing an old-school feel to the race. Among them will be two champs -- Bill Elliott, 53, and Terry Labonte, 52. Labonte is assured of making the race via the past champ provisional, which goes to the most recent champ needing it to make the field. Labonte got some help when a more recent champ, Tony Stewart, qualified fast enough to assure himself a 500 spot based on speed.
Ellen Siska writes about NASCAR for The York Dispatch. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, "Pitting Outside the Box," at the Blogzone at yorkdispatch.com.