NASCAR season ready to rev up

Reporting from Daytona Beach, Fla. -- The quiet calm of the short NASCAR off-season ends Saturday night with the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway.

Be prepared for a lot of noise.

There were some significant and interesting changes that evolved in the off-season, since Tony Stewart edged Carl Edwards and won the Sprint Cup title at Homestead, Fla., in November.

A quick look at the top five story lines as everybody tweaks their restrictor plates to get ready for the Big One — the Daytona 500, on Feb. 26:

Danica-mania: Consider us guilty-as-charged in fueling the hype. But resistance is futile. No driver drew more interest during the Media Day scrum than Patrick, who will drive full time in NASCAR's Nationwide Series, and 10 select races for the Stewart-Haas team on the Sprint Cup circuit.

Is she nothing more than some Go Daddy eye candy? We'll find out very quickly, as she prepares to rumble with 42 boys in the Daytona 500.

Sponsorship woes: NASCAR is not immune from feeling the economic pinch, as drivers and teams are still scrambling to find sponsors that can fill up the 36-race schedule. Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne has secured sponsorship for 18 races, but that's only half a season.

Other prominent drivers are having to piecemeal sponsors. Ryan Newman, for example, will have eight primary sponsors in 36 races.

Will Jimmie jam in 2012? Jimmie Johnson won five consecutive titles before losing his way last season. Johnson finished sixth in points, his lowest point since he began running full time on the Cup circuit in 2002. That won't happen again, according to the media soothsayers. Members of picked Johnson to win the Sprint Cup title. Johnson received 147 votes in the annual preseason poll, two more than Edwards.

"I'm just upset at the way we lost the championship last year," Johnson said. "At points within the Chase we had momentum and things going our way. When I look back on it I find the way in which we lost it is the tough thing. If we get beat, we get beat and I just don't want to. We beat ourselves, and I just don't want to do that again."

Squish the love bugs: NASCAR officials are determined to curb the tandem — or "love-bug" — style of racing that the majority of fans considered boring. The plan is to return to the traditional cluster of cars on the restrictor-plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega. The changes in the car setups include a smaller rear spoiler, softer springs and a slightly larger restrictor plate.

It remains a work in progress. Several cars were involved a chain-reaction wreck during practice Friday night. The wreck took out Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch, among others. Busch, now driving for Phoenix Racing, will have to go to a backup car for Saturday's Shootout.

Who is where? There were a number of key driver changes in the off-season. Kasey Kahne is now driving for Hendrick Motorsports. Mark Martin joins Michael Waltrip Racing. Clint Bowyer is there too, after leaving Richard Childress Racing. Kurt Busch is with Phoenix Racing after getting bounced from Penske Racing.

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