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NASCAR's new season: Five storylines

Leading up to Speedweeks, economic issues have taken their toll on stock car racing, NASCAR has proclaimed its changes and new teams have announced their intentions. As attention turns to the start of another season, we take a look at five questions:

1. Do Danica Patrick's cards trump NASCAR's?

While most of the IndyCar star's first season in stock car racing involves the Nationwide Series, her debut was in Saturday's ARCA season opener, the same day as Daytona 500 qualifying and the Bud Shootout. A lot of the media's and public's attention will be on Patrick. But it was in a race that does not have NASCAR's much-cherished branding. Where was the most attention? Patrick could not have planned it better had she set the Speedweeks schedule herself.

2. Can Jimmie Johnson win a fifth title?

At this point, with no offseason testing on NASCAR tracks and few other significant changes, it's difficult to come up with a reason for betting against him. Denny Hamlin appeared to be the media favorite as a top challenger, but he suffered a ligament tear in his left knee playing pickup basketball and it remains unclear how that will affect his season.

3. Will NASCAR's changes make the racing better?

With great fanfare and rhetoric, NASCAR announced several changes this season. Among them: Changing from a rear wing to a spoiler on the Cup car; bigger restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega; letting competitors be the police when a race is under way, particularly when it's at Daytona and Talladega. It's hard to measure how much the racing will change. The spoiler is not likely to show up before late March or April. Even then, drivers participating in tests say they have not noticed a lot of difference.

4. Whose fault is it?

Anything wrong in stock car racing, particularly NASCAR's brand, is the fault of newspapers, TV stations, non-licensed cable networks and - gasp! - the Internet. All the warnings could not be more clear: Fans must, at all costs, refrain from forming any opinions based on the musings of the motorsports media. Here's another thought: Let fans figure it out for themselves. Why not let them judge for themselves, based simply on what they see with their own eyes?

5. Has the economy changed, or NASCAR?

It is unlikely, even with a strong recovery, that businesses will hire back all the employees they have let go. Sponsors standing in line to spend $20 million-plus a year with a Cup team are fewer and farther between. Roush Fenway Racing has for some time been working with a model many believe could become more common in NASCAR. It involves several "primary" sponsors. They share - and spread - the cost of a team. In this respect, NASCAR might have changed forever.

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