It's less than a week until the Daytona 500 lifts the curtain on the 2010 NASCAR season, with all the fireworks (on and off the track) it's sure to bring.
But with the series having its most famous race at the start of the season and the Speedweeks build-up that precedes the race itself it's all too easy to forget that Daytona is just the first week of the Sprint Cup Series' thirty-six race season that stretches all the way to late November. Basically conceive a child now, and you have a shot at naming him after the 2010 Cup Champion.
That's even more the case this year with much of the pre-Daytona talk focused on a trio of surprising rule changes that threaten to turn Daytona into a referendum on NASCAR's fluctuating rulebook.
They have relaxed controls on bump-drafting, relying on drivers to self-regulate during the race, a complete u-turn compared to the previous restrictor plate race when they banned bump-drafting entirely. Speeds will also be higher with the hole in the restrictor plate fractions of an inch larger, giving drivers more horsepower and throttle control, again, the complete opposite of what they did before the race at Talladega last Autumn.
But the third rule change, switching from the rear wing to a more traditional NASCAR spoiler won't be seen at Daytona, but could be the most important change of all in terms of effect on the season.
It's a well known fact that some teams and drivers have struggled to get to grips with the kind of technique and set-up the be-winged cars take to be fast, most notably though still arguably Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“We hope that, besides all that we've done, when the spoiler comes that it takes a little bit different setup, it takes a little bit different spring combination, maybe a little bit different shocks, different attitude of the car,” said Roush Racing's Greg Biffle on the annual media day. “We hope that will kind of give everybody a chance to start figuring it out over again.”
However, opinions and predictions vary from driver to driver with Marcos Ambrose saying he “didn't feel much difference” when he tested at a Floridian short track.
Of course, no-one will suggest that the re-introduction of the spoiler will see Hendrick Motorsports dumbfounded, render Jimmie Johnson incapable of driving Chad Knaus unable to form coherent sentences, but while it's an unknown there is always hope.
But what of the drivers who will line up against Johnson.
Well, the off-season has been a largely quiet one for big name driver moves. Roush Racing has finally given up its fifth team with Jamie McMurray leaving to be reunited with Chip Ganassi in the EGR no.1 car.
He takes the seat vacated by Martin Truex Jr., who has moved to Michael Waltrip Racing, replacing the man himself as the 2001 and 2003 Daytona 500 winner retires from full time racing.
But perhaps the first thing you will notice about the NASCAR fields is that the 'start'n'park' teams are back for 2010 and in seemingly greater numbers than ever, despite NASCAR decreasing the prize money for races.
OK, so labelling them 'start'n'parks' before the first race is a little unfair, but I'm inclined to use a guilty-until-proven-innocent-scheme here.
Prism Motorsport, who briefly fielded Dave Blaney last year are back, even going so far as to promise a full season with two cars. Joe Nemechek, who joined Blaney in the garage most weeks also returns with his own NEMCO team, who have entered two cars at Daytona.
And the old favourites are joined by some new names, as even previously respectable names get embroiled in the dirty game that lies at the bottom of NASCAR's economy shrunken barrel.
Casey Mears, ousted at Richard Childress Racing, has found a drive with Keyed-Up Motorsport, named after owner Raymond Key, while Boris Said will race at least the opening handful of races for Latitude43, using a guaranteed starting spot thanks to the owner points of McMurray's 2009 Roush team.
However, some new teams are trying to try and race the right way. Step forward TRG (The Racer's Group) with Bobby Labonte on board and Tommy Baldwin Racing, the later switching to Chevrolets after debuting with Toyota last year. The team has some sponsorship on the car, in Wave Energy drink and Baldwin plans to add a second car for Johnny Sauter for a limited schedule this year.
But, perhaps the biggest question is who can beat Jimmie Johnson.
Denny Hamlin is a media favourite to be challenger to the four-time champion, though potential rivals are far more numerous.
None of the Hendrick stable can be counted out, I'll even humour Junior nation for the time being. Similarly, at least three of the Roush drivers have proven pedigree and the odd one out, David Ragan, is well overdue a maiden win. And Kyle Busch is a constant threat, though his move into ownership with a Truck Series team could affect the on-track performance.
Then there are a few uncertainties. Richard Childress's teams endured a torrid 2009 with no wins in points paying races, with fingers pointed at their expansion to four teams to accommodate Casey Mears.
Now Mears has gone, can the stable rebound?
Kevin Harvick has given us the best possible indication that the answer is 'yes' by winning the Budweiser Shootout, but the fact he won that last year should stop any premature celebrations. Jeff Burton ended 2009 in the best form of any RCR driver all year, and if that continues the team could easily return to the heights of 2008 when all three teams made the Chase.
Then there are the Dodge stories. Penske are now the only team running the Charger in the Sprint Cup, with Kurt Busch once more leading the charge, this year with Steve Addington, the man who oversaw Kyle Busch's 2008 'coming out season', as his crew chief.
Penske are left at the marque by Richard Petty Motorsports merger with Yates Racing and switch to Ford, Roush assisted equipment. That potentially gives Kasey Kahne a chance to challenge for the title. The Washington state native has oft been the master of the intermediate tracks that dominate the season. If the newly merged team can get swept along by any Roush resurgence this year, expect Kahne to visit Victory Lane a few times in 2010.
But perhaps the real dark horses for wins this year are Michael Waltrip Racing, and their satellite JTG/Daugherty team with Marcos Ambrose. The Australian is becoming a less and less surprising player at the sharp end of the field on ovals, and is perhaps the best driver in NASCAR when it comes to turning right.
NASCAR also sanctions two other nationally touring series, the Nationwide Series and the Camping World Truck Series and at times this year it could be the second tier Nationwide Series making the headlines.
Firstly, the series will be at the vanguard of NASCAR's Danica-mania, with Ms. Patrick scheduled to start 13 races over the course of the year.
Secondly, the series sees the introduction of its own COT, with Ford and Dodge opting to bring iconic models Mustang and Challenger to the track. The car, far more aesthetically pleasing than the Cup Series machinery will debut at a handful of races this year, ahead of a wider program in 2011.
The series has also stumbled into a race that flies in the face of NASCAR's normally stagnant, or at best glacial, calendar changes. With the Milwaukee Mile in dire financial troubles the series has opted to race at Road Atlanta instead, we only have until June 19 to wait.
Lastly, it is perhaps the best chance in years for a nationwide-only driver to win a series normally dominated by carpetbaggers from the Cup Series.
As of now only three full season Cup drivers – Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Paul Menard – are planning to run the full Nationwide schedule as well. That could easily leave the door open to a driver like Jason Leffler or Justin Allgaier to take the title and take a step towards a Cup drive (or a step back towards a cup drive for Leffler).
No matter how you look at it, at which series to you look at its going to be an interesting nine months, so I wouldn’t get the baby clothes monogramed for little Jimmie just yet.