Well, three key ones anyway: When the green flag flies on the Great American Race, they will center on a high-profile newbie, a perennial favorite—and on just how close the field can get
1. How will Danica do?
After hinting for several years that a move from IndyCar to NASCAR was possible, Danica Patrick will at last make her Sprint Cup debut in the Daytona 500. She'll compete in nine more Cup events in 2012 for Stewart-Haas Racing while running a full Nationwide schedule for JR Motorsports. Next year she's set to pilot the number 10 Chevy for SHR in all 36 Cup races.
If Patrick, 29, is going to win this season in either series, her best shot will be on Sunday on the 2.5-mile tri-oval. In IndyCar she flourished on big, fast tracks like Daytona—she twice finished in the top five in the Indy 500, where speeds on the 2.5-mile Brickyard layout reach 225 mph—and her car co-owner/teammate Tony Stewart has already said that he'll be her drafting partner in the late stages of Sunday's race. If Patrick has a little luck and can avoid Daytona's traditional big wrecks, she could pull off one of the most memorable victories in the 54-year history of the 500.
2. Will the two-car draft return?
Yes, but it won't be as prevalent as it was in 2011. Last Saturday in the Budweiser Shootout, a 75-lap exhibition event, pack racing returned to Daytona for the first 70 laps (and with it, several multicar crashes). In the Shootout, drivers feared pairing up in two-car tandems because this off-season NASCAR, trying to end the era of the push-me-pull-you two-car draft, tinkered with the cars' radiator and grille. Engines will now overheat after a few laps of running nose-to-tail. But in the closing laps, with the Shootout on the line, drivers threw caution to the winds and once again paired up, with Kyle Busch taking the checkered flag.
The 500 likely will follow a similar pattern: traditional pack racing for the first two thirds, but as the laps wind down, drivers will seek a drafting partner. Drivers can go about 5 mph faster in a two-car draft than they can in the pack, which means the only way to win will be to get hooked up with another car for the final 10 miles or so. The vast majority of fans detest this style of racing, but it appears that the two-car draft will play a key role on Sunday.
3. Will Junior finally get back to Victory Lane?
The last time Dale Earnhardt Jr. took a checkered flag was on June 15, 2008, at Michigan. His winless streak of 129 races has become a personal ball and chain; he's asked about it nearly every day at the track. But Earnhardt, voted NASCAR's most popular driver the last nine years, should be fast in the 500. He has two career wins at Daytona—including the 500 in '04—and he's still widely regarded as one of the series' top restrictor-plate racers. Last April, for instance, he pushed Jimmie Johnson to victory at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, the other plate track on the schedule.
On Sunday at Daytona, Junior figures to be the one getting pushed. With Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon leaning on his bumper on the final lap, Earnhardt is likely to end his drought to earn his second career Daytona 500 victory.