It’s almost racin’ season, baby!

We’re mere weeks from the sixtieth running of the Daytona 500 and the official beginning of the NASCAR year. On February 18, the latest edition of The Great American Race will get underway beneath the benevolent Florida sun, as forty or so of the best drivers on the planet hurtle around Daytona International Speedway’s massively banked turns in excess of two hundred miles per hour, only inches from each other.

Daytona is by far the most prestigious event in the sport—in racing, it’s like the Super Bowl multiplied by the Kentucky Derby. And unlike every other sport, NASCAR’s most important event kicks the season off, instead of closing it. What rush! But then what?

Before we go further: How the hell does the NASCAR season work?

A Refresher for Fans, An Intro for Newbies

The NASCAR season shakes out over thirty-six races, with the final ten of those being playoff races. Over the course of the first twenty-six races, drivers and teams build up points and race for wins that all count toward playoff contention. A race win at any point in the season guarantees a driver a playoff bid. Which theoretically means that if a driver wins the Daytona 500, he can ostensibly take the next twenty-five weeks off, sandbagging at the rear, biding his time until the playoffs come around. NASCAR combatted this by implementing the stage racing format that we often see under the lights on local race tracks around the country. Each race is broken down into three stages, with each stage winner getting points that count toward the playoffs.

Once the playoffs start in mid-September, the top sixteen drivers in the point standings (or those who have won a race over the early part of the season) race to move on. The playoffs are broken into four segments, with each of the first three containing three races. The third race of each of those segments is a cutoff, leaving the lowest four (13 through 16 after the first round of three, 9 through 12 in the second, and 5 through 8 in the third) eliminated from the playoffs.

The final segment is a winner-take-all run for the Cup at Homestead-Miami Speedway between the four remaining drivers.

You’re right. That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

I totally understand. It’s confusing. NASCAR has tinkered endlessly to make its often opaque rules easier for casual fans to grasp, and while there’s been some progress, it remains an ongoing weakness in terms of marketing the sport beyond its rock-ribbed constituency. Is it perfect? Hardly. But it’s what we race fans get. Just hang in, and I promise you’ll get the gist of it. I’ll be here if you have questions. (You will.)
So, you ask, What should I be looking out for? Good question.

Stock car racing has seen something of a dearth of personality among drivers over the past decade or so. Fortunately, there’s a burgeoning crop of exciting wheelmen, some new, some veteran, that take to the track every Sunday.

Each week, from now until the running of the Daytona 500, I will profile one of the four drivers that I predict will find himself in the Final Four, once the haulers turn their noses toward Homestead-Miami.

I’ll explain why I think each driver will put himself and his team in a position to race for the cup, why each is a compelling driver from both a professional and personal standpoint, and, with any luck, convince more than a few of you to give yourself over to America’s most exciting sport.

Next Tuesday we begin with a hot young product out of High Point who has spent the past two seasons quietly sharpening his craft behind the wheel of one of NASCAR’s most historic and prestigious cars. This year he’s got a new team, top-flight racing equipment, and enough poise, pedigree, and experience to contend at Homestead.

Until then, stay in your groove.