NASCAR's Drive Up to the Daytona 500

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.

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