NASCAR's Daytona 500, the most famous race in motorsports, will kick off this weekend on Sunday, February 26th. The field of racers is already at the track testing their vehicles and it's already shaping up to be one of the more competitive fields ever.
Public interest for this year's race is at a high because of the inclusion of Danica Patrick. According to Forbes, NASCAR officials said that the crowd of reporters around Patrick during the practices were among the largest ever. The female driver will be racing alongside NASCAR veterans like Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson as they compete for the first win of the season.
Although Patrick is considered a longshot to win the whole thing, Daytona has been known to produce more than its fair share of surprises. The restrictor plates affixed to each car result in large packs and very tight racing, which in turn leads to unpredictability. One small mistake - or one brilliant maneuver - can be all the difference.
Last year's race was a prime example. Among a stacked field of racing's best, it was rookie Trevor Bayne who beat them all to the finish line. Even with the win, Bayne struggled to find a full-time ride for the season. It wasn't even locked in that Bayne would be in this year's race until he made it through the qualifying stage this week.
That covers the longshots, but what about the well-known names? Tony Stewart provided one of the most exciting finishes to the season ever last year when he won the championship in the last race of the season. However, the veteran driver is 0-for-13 when it comes to Daytona. Stewart was runner-up to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in 2004 and is still searching for his first win.
Stewart actually co-owns the car that Patrick will be driving in the race, making them partners in the draft-heavy atmosphere of Daytona. Ryan Newman, who led the most laps in 2011, is also a potential ally for these two high-profile riders. Most of the memorable wins at Daytona have come about due to help from other riders - but it can also result in tense moments when drivers turn on each other and look out for themselves. Last year, Carl Edwards had no way to get around Trevor Bayne and instead pushed him forward for the win. Stewart has said that in a similar situation, he would "absolutely" do the same for Patrick.
While Daytona can be unpredictable, the smart money would be on a member of Hendrick Motorsports. Often called the "New York Yankees" of NASCAR, Hendricks is the team with the most cash and star power. With top-of-the-line racers like Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the team will likely be constantly threatening the front of the pack, if they're not leading themselves.
Whatever happens out on the track, the consensus is that it will be good for NASCAR. New viewers are expected to tune in to see Patrick, and old fans are returning after the excellent finish to the end of the last season. Even though the sport has declined over the past few years, the outlook for the future is strong.
"I’m as optimistic about the business side of this sport as I’ve been in five years," Marshall Carlson, president of Hendrick Motorsports, told Yahoo! Sports.