They're about to shoot it out.
The Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday begins the NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
It's a warm-up to qualifying for the front row for next Sunday's Daytona 500, the first points event in a 36-race sprint -- or marathon or drama or roller coaster, take your pick -- that will decide the Sprint Cup champion.
Right now, it's Tony "Smoke" Stewart who reigns at the top with his third title. He reeled in Carl Edwards over the course of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship last fall, tying him in points after the end of the last race in Miami and getting the trophy on season victories -- four to one.
It was the closest finish in the eight-year history of NASCAR's Sprint Cup "playoffs." But if no one has slowed down, another finish at the wire could await.
Edwards is sure to reload in a bid to win his first title. Jimmie Johnson didn't win five championships in a row by accident, and he's still considered the best driver in the best equipment in the series.
Who else? The ultra-talented Kyle Busch, perhaps, if he can stay on top of his game in the late stages of the year, not to mention avoid self-inflicted wounds. Maybe it'll be Brad Keselowski, who lit up the summer last year. Or Denny Hamlin, the 2010 runner-up. Or four-time champ Jeff Gordon.
They and everyone else will race for the top in a scene that will include the sport's highest-profile female driver, Danica Patrick. She'll make her Sprint Cup debut this year with a part-time schedule, and she's in the Nationwide Series full time.
For her, and everybody else, it starts in days as NASCAR prepares for its Super Bowl, the Daytona 500.
Storylines to follow
Can Smoke make it four championships? Tony Stewart has three Sprint Cup championships. That puts him on the doorstep of the four most accomplished names in racing -- Gordon (four championships), Johnson (five), Petty (seven), Earnhardt Sr. (seven). He parted ways with his crew chief, Darian Grubb -- a decision that was in the works even before the duo began their championship run -- but he's in a comfort zone with his equipment and his race team.
Did last year's finish fry Cousin Carl? Carl Edwards was so close. He led the Chase for the Sprint Cup almost the whole way. He nearly held off his heckling challenger, Tony Stewart, who chased him for two months. At the end, they were tied in points. But Edwards lost the tiebreaker, and with it, his chance to win his first Sprint Cup title. Edwards is a cool customer, but it's a long grind to get back in position for another championship.
Is Danica Patrick going to "get 'er done" in NASCAR? Danica Patrick has hopped out of her open-wheel racer for the heavy stock cars. She'll run a full season in the Nationwide Series, and she'll run her first Sprint Cup races this season, running a limited schedule for Stewart-Haas Racing. In the Nationwide Series, she wants to collect some top-10s and top-fives. In Sprint Cup, she'd like to be in the top 20 consistently. At Daytona next week, she said anybody has a chance, including her, with a little luck.
What is Kyle Busch going to do without trucks? NASCAR's bad boy finished last year in embarrassment, benched for the third-to-last race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup because he intentionally wrecked title contender Ron Hornaday Jr. in a trucks race. The benching was part of the reason Busch finished last in the Chase standings after entering as a co-leader. He and Joe Gibbs Racing have agreed that he's not going to run the truck series this season. Presumably, it'll help him sell long-term sponsorship on his truck team and let him focus on his Nationwide and Sprint Cup efforts. But Busch likes to race. A lot. He'll have to redirect his energy somehow this year.
The ups and downs of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt had an OK year in 2011. He had 12 top-10s and four top-fives, which are good numbers, by far better than his performances in the previous two years. He made the Chase. But he was never a threat for the championship. He drives Hendrick Motorsports equipment, but he rarely seems to have the fastest car on the track. He nearly won the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend, but he ran out of gas on the way to the checkered flag. His winless streak is at 119 races. The new season brings hope to end that streak.
Here's how we predict the Chase for the Sprint Cup field will look, in order:
1. Kyle Busch
Best combo of talent and equipment
2. Jimmie Johnson
He's Jimmie Johnson
3. Tony Stewart
Smoke is at his peak
4. Carl Edwards
Cousin's in his prime, too
5. Brad Keselowski
Can he repeat his hot '11 summer?
6. Denny Hamlin
New crew chief, new outlook
7. Jeff Gordon
So good on so many tracks
8. Matt Kenseth
Always seems to finish up high
9. Kevin Harvick
The Closer. Can't forget him.
10. Kasey Kahne
Takes advantage of Hendrick power
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Inconsistent, but can be fast
12. Greg Biffle
Surely can't have the bad luck of '11 again
By the numbers
0Points separating the Sprint Cup champion, Tony Stewart, and the runner-up, Carl Edwards, last year. The title went to Stewart on season victories, four to one.
3Victories for Carl Edwards since his nine-win season
7Consecutive championships for Chevrolet.
10Drivers who have repeated as Sprint Cup champion.
113Races since Jeff Burton has reached Victory Lane. Burton won the first Sprint Cup race at TMS in 1997.
Changes this season
Teams and cars
Roush Fenway dropped to three Sprint Cup teams, folding the No. 6 driven by David Ragan.
Germain Racing switched from Toyota to Ford.
TRG Motorsports and Red Bull Racing closed.
Drivers and crew chiefs
Aric Almirola moved up from the Nationwide Series to drive the 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports.
David Ragan left Roush Fenway's No. 6 to drive for Front Row Motorsports.
David Reutimann, let go by Michael Waltrip Racing, was signed by Tommy Baldwin Racing. He will drive SHR's No. 10 when Danica Patrick does not.
Former Hendrick engineer Chris Heroy is Juan Pablo Montoya's new crew chief.
Brian Pattie left EGR to be crew chief for Clint Bowyer at MWR.
Kevin Harvick asked for an in-house switch to Shane Wilson as his crew chief.
Electronic fuel injection debuts in NASCAR, replacing the carburetors that had been in use since 1949.
Drivers and spotters can no longer communicate with other drivers and spotters on radio, part of a crackdown on two-car drafting.
The Daytona 500, Phoenix and Las Vegas are a week later.
The first Kansas race moves from June to April, and the second Kansas race swaps places with Talladega in the Chase. Talladega's spring race moves to May.
The Dover spring race returns to June.
Daytona and Kentucky swapped summer dates.
The Pocono races go from 500 to 400 miles.