Dale Earnhardt Jr. speaks with members of the media during the 2011 NASCAR… (Todd Warshaw / Getty Images…)
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' new season gets rolling this weekend with somber reflection, added uncertainty and cautious optimism.
There's also the question that will linger over stock-car racing's premier circuit all year: Can anyone snap Jimmie Johnson's record string of five consecutive championships?
In preliminaries ahead of the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 20, the series kicks off with the 75-lap Budweiser Shootout exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night.
That's followed Sunday with qualifying for the first two spots on the starting grid of the 500, NASCAR's most prestigious race. Under the event's unique qualifying format, the rest of the 43-car starting lineup will be based on how drivers finish two qualifying races next Thursday at the 2.5-mile, high-banked Daytona track.
Amid the racing will be widespread reflection on the death 10 years ago of NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt, the seven-time Cup champion, on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
The remembrances also will turn up the spotlight on his popular son Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will feel the weight of the anniversary's focus while trying to reverse his own racing struggles of the last two years.
"It will be an additional stress and strain on him," veteran Mark Martin, Earnhardt's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, said Thursday at Daytona. But he said Earnhardt has "the strongest set of shoulders in motor sports. I think he can handle it."
Earnhardt, who won the Daytona 500 in 2004, said his father will "be recognized a lot over the weekend, I'm sure. It will be awesome to see all those things, hear all the great things."
For all the drivers, there's a new layer — literally — of uncertainty about this year's 500 because Daytona was repaved in the off-season. The new surface not only smoothed Daytona's once bumpy ride, but it also increased the speedway's traction, which is expected to further tighten the cars' freight-train-style of racing there.
The initial evidence will come Saturday night.
"The Shootout is my first experience with a big pack [of cars] on the track" since the repaving, "so it will be a big learning curve for myself," said Johnson, who won the Daytona 500 in 2006.
Defending 500 champion Jamie McMurray agreed that "the Shootout is going to be really important" to understanding the track's new surface. "There's so many new things that go with this race, so many unknowns, you just don't know."
Drivers and NASCAR officials are hoping that the Daytona 500 also launches a rebound year in the popularity of the 36-race Cup series. Although it's still among the most watched of sports, NASCAR's overall attendance and television ratings have been dropping.
NASCAR recently installed a simplified championship points system to help boost interest in the series, a move that also raised the question of whether the new system might complicate Johnson's quest to add another title.
Johnson said that regardless of how points are doled out, "the overall concept of running up front is still in play. You need to be inside the top 10 to perform."
For his rivals, the prospect of knocking Johnson from his pedestal is "motivating," said Joey Logano, who drives the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. "It's something where you want to take him off the top. Every driver thinks that way."
Peltz reported from Los Angeles.