DAYTONA BEACH FL - FEBRUARY 20: Trevor Bayne driver of the #21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 20 2011 in Daytona Beach Florida. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images for NASCAR)
The 2012 NASCAR Season kicks off with the Bud Shootout, the annual season-openers for the Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series, and the 54th-annual Daytona 500.
The cars and stars of NASCAR's top-three divisions hit the high banks in Daytona beginning next Friday (not this Friday, next Friday) with practice for the Sprint Cup Series Budweiser Shootout. No points are on the line in the February 18 75-lapper, but a ton of cash and plenty of beer courtesy of the event sponsor always makes for a thrilling show. Kurt Busch grabbed the win in last year's race, the third straight win for the Shell/Pennzoil-sponsored car. Kevin Harvick claimed the 2009 and 2010 races. If you're planning to bet on this year's event, keep in mind that A.J. Allmendinger will be piloting the yellow-and-red machine this year.
A day later, the Cup teams will pound the pavement in pursuit of the pole position for the Daytona 500. The top-two qualifiers will lock into the front row for the 500 - unless, like Dale Earnhardt Jr. last year, they're involved in an incident in practice or their 150-mile qualifier.
After a day of practice Wednesday for the Cup teams, the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series teams will take to the track for their first practice sessions of the year on Thursday morning. Thursday afternoon brings arguably the most excitement of Speedweeks with the Gatorade Duels, a pair of 60-lap, 150-mile qualifying races that will set the field for the Daytona 500 and decide what drivers will be heading home three days earlier than planned. Last year's races brought a pair of dramatic finishes and a high-speed case of brotherly love, as Sprint Cup star Brad Keselowski pushed older brother Brian Keselowski's un-sponsored, self-owned effort to a fifth-place finish in Duel No. 2 and a spot in the biggest race of the year.
Both the Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series teams will qualify for their respective races Friday afternoon. The Camping World Truck Series opens its season Friday evening with the NextEra Energy Resources 250. Michael Waltrip claimed an emotional triumph in last year's race, 10 years to the day of his first Sprint Cup victory and the death of team-owner and friend Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500. There will be no repeat as Waltrip will be in the booth covering the race for SpeedTV. Camping World Truck Series champion Austin Dillon has graduated to the Nationwide Series, marking the first time since 2001 that both the defending race winner and series champion weren't in the Truck Series opener.
Saturday brings the start of the 30th-anniversary season for the NASCAR Nationwide Series, which began life in its current incarnation in 1982 after decades as the NASCAR Late Model Sportsman division. The 120-lap Drive4COPD 300 will showcase the Nationwide Series regulars, but the top story will be Tony Stewart's pursuit of his fifth-straight Nationwide opener. Stewart, who has never won the Daytona 500, has six victories in the last seven February Nationwide races at Daytona, dating back to his maiden triumph in the series in 2005.
Of course, all of the on-track action listed above will take a backseat at approximately 1:16 p.m. on Sunday, February 26, when John Cena - yes, that John Cena - waves the green flag to start the 54th Annual Daytona 500. Trevor Bayne will be looking to duplicate last year's performance, in which he scored arguably the greatest upset victory in NASCAR's modern era. Should he win the race, Bayne will join Richard Petty (1973-74), Cale Yarborough (1983-84), and Sterling Marlin (1994-95) as the only drivers to win consecutive 500s. He would also join Marlin as the only two drivers with the distinction of claiming their first two Sprint Cup victories in the Great American Race.
There will be plenty of other storylines for every event on the Speedweeks schedule, and SB Nation Atlanta will take a closer look at each race as Speedweeks moves along. As soon as official times for Bud Shootout practice and the race itself, we will also have a schedule of all on-track action so you can print it off, slap it on your refridgerator, and make sure that everyone knows exactly what dates and times to leave you alone because all is right in the world - stock cars are on the track in Daytona.