Long: Five questions to ponder before action at Daytona begins

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Your wait for NASCAR’s return is almost over.

Cars for the Sprint Unlimited practice for the first time Friday, while the rest of the Daytona 500 field practices Saturday before the exhibition race later that night.

Until engines rev to end a long winter slumber, here’s five questions to consider while while you count down the hours, minutes and seconds to action at Daytona International Speedway.

1. Who is going to lose the Daytona 500 because of a pit road penalty?

NASCAR’s new pit road camera system is more precise than officials were last season. When NASCAR tested this system during the Chase, the two penalties that were cited most by the computer were crew members jumping off the wall early and cars driving through more than three pit stalls entering or exiting their stalls.

Yet last year, NASCAR officials did not penalize any drivers for going through more than three pit boxes in 36 points races. That’s hundreds of pit stops per race and no penalty called by a human, even as a computer detected the infraction multiple times.

Also, NASCAR cited Cup teams only 24 times for pit crew members going over the wall too soon. There were 20 points races where no team was penalized for this infraction.

Teams will have had the off-season to adjust, along with the Sprint Unlimited and the qualifying races, before the Daytona 500. Still, it’s likely teams will be penalized for these two types of infractions. If the infraction happens late in the race, losing track position could cost someone a chance to win.

With a win all but getting a driver in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, a mistake on pit road could have significant consequences.

2. How will Jeff Gordon do in what is likely his final Daytona 500?

The three-time Daytona 500 winner has said this will be his last full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series. Another 500 win would tie him with Cale Yarborough for second on the race’s all-time victory list, but Gordon’s last 500 triumph came 10 years ago.

He’s had only two top-10 finishes in the 500 since that last victory. Gordon’s average finish in the last nine years is 22.9. Martin Truex Jr., who finished last in this race a year ago, has an average finish of 23.8 during the same period.

3. Will Kurt Busch ever win a Sprint Cup restrictor-plate points race?

While he won the Sprint Unlimited in 2011 and also a qualifying race that year, Busch continues to search for his first trip to Victory Lane in a points race at Daytona and Talladega despite being so close.

Busch is winless in 14 previous Daytona 500 starts (posting three runner-up finishes and five top-five results). He is winless in 14 previous July Daytona races (posting three third-place results and five top-five finishes).

At Talladega, Busch is winless in 28 combined starts with six top-five finishes.

Combine Daytona and Talladega, and Busch is winless in 56 career points races despite scoring 16 top-five finishes. Kevin Harvick has made 55 career starts in points races at Daytona and Talladega. At those tracks, Harvick has three wins – two at Daytona, including the 2007 Daytona 500 – and 12 top-five finishes.

4. Will the magic continue at restrictor-plate tracks for this driver?

Landon Cassill is not someone most might think about as a threat to win but don’t discount him.

Last season, Cassill finished 12th in the Daytona 500, placed 11th at Talladega in the spring, finished 31st at Daytona in July after he was eliminated in the 26-car crash, and scored a career-best fourth at Talladega in the Chase. Three finishes of 12th or better is more than what Jimmie Johnson did last season in plate races.

Looking for a dark horse, Cassill could be your driver at Daytona.

5. What’s next?

Nearly every year a story develops that few, if any, anticipate. What will happen that will have people talking at Daytona this year?