George Diaz: Top 5 storylines for 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season

DAYTONA BEACH — The quiet calm of the short NASCAR off-season ends tonight with the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway.

Be prepared for a lot of noise.

As with any sport, there were some significant and interesting changes that evolved in the off-season, since Tony Stewart edged Carl Edwards to win the Sprint Cup title in Homestead last November.

A quick look at the top five storylines as everybody tweaks their restrictor plates to get ready for the Big One — The Daytona 500, on Feb. 26:

Danica-mania: Consider us guilty-as-charged in fueling the hype. But resistance is futile. No driver drew more interest during the Media Day scrum than Patrick, who will drive full-time in NASCAR's Nationwide Series, and 10 select races for the Stewart-Haas race team on the Sprint Cup circuit.

Is she nothing more than some Go Daddy eye-candy? We'll find out very quickly, as she prepares to rumble with 42 boys in the Daytona 500.

Sponsorship woes: NASCAR is not immune from feeling the economic pinch, as drivers and teams are still scrambling to find sponsors that can fill up the 36-race schedule. Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne has secured sponsorship for 18 races, but that's only half a season.

Other prominent drivers are having to piecemeal sponsors. Ryan Newman, for example, will have eight primary sponsors in 36 races.

Will Jimmie jam in 2012?: Johnson won five consecutive titles before losing the way last season. Johnson finished sixth in points, his lowest point since he began running full-time on the Cup circuit in 2002. That won't happen again, according to the media soothsayers. Members of NASCARMedia.com picked Johnson to win the Sprint Cup title. Johnson received 147 votes in the annual preseason poll, just two more than Carl Edwards, who finished second in last season's championship points.

"I'm just upset at the way we lost the championship last year," Johnson said. "At points within the chase, we had momentum and things going our way. When I look back on it, I find the way in which we lost it is the tough thing. If we get beat, we get beat and I just don't want to, we beat ourselves, and I just don't want to do that again."

Squish the love bugs: NASCAR officials are determined to curb the tandem, or 'love-bug' style of racing that the majority of fans considered boring. The plan is to return to the traditional cluster of cars on the restrictor-plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega. The changes in the car setups include a smaller rear spoiler, softer springs and a slightly larger restrictor plate.

It remains a work in progress. Several cars were involved a chain-reaction wreck during practice early Friday night. The wreck took out Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, among others. Busch, now driving for Phoenix Racing, will have to go to a backup car for tonight's shootout.

Who is where? NASCAR's "silly season" got a little sillier in the off-season, with a number of key driver changes. Kasey Kahne is now driving for Hendrick Motorsports. Mark Martin joins Michael Waltrip Racing. Clint Bowyer is there too, after leaving Richard Childress Racing. Kurt Busch is with Phoenix Racing after getting bounced from Penske Racing.

The changes will make for compelling stories that will evolve as the season progresses. Stay tuned.

gdiaz@tribune.com Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego
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