Posted: Mon February 20, 2012 12:11PM; Updated: Mon February 20, 2012 2:55PM
Dustin Long
Dustin Long>INSIDE NASCAR

Can NASCAR keep the good times rolling after incredible '11 season?

Story Highlights

Tony Stewart, 18 different race winners made 2011 an all-time NASCAR season

Several storylines could help sport carry momentum through the 2012 season

There's no clear-cut favorite for the title; Danica-mania hits NASCAR full-time

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Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart won five of 10 Chase races en route to winning the 2011 Sprint Cup title.
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

As photos go, it wasn't particularly striking. It was even slightly blurry. The subject -- a tunnel -- is not something that stirs much interest or excitement.

Yet, this photo evokes emotions.

Matt Kenseth snapped the picture as he went through Daytona International Speedway's tunnel last week. He posted the shot on Twitter, adding the caption: "Heck yea!''

Nothing else needed to be said.

While there's excitement surrounding the return of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series after a seemingly long offseason (the season starts a week later than it has in previous years), there is more to that for drivers and fans.

It's the hope that this year can thrill even more than last season when the champion was determined by a tiebreaker.

Tony Stewart's championship duel with Carl Edwards energized race fans and helped raise ESPN's ratings 14 percent compared to the previous year's Chase. It was part of a season-long upswing for the sport that began with Trevor Bayne's dramatic Daytona 500 victory and would help FOX record a three-year high in average viewership for its Cup races.

Add in 18 different winners, including five first-time winners, and the argument could be made that last season was one of NASCAR's best, if not the best.

"While we all know that the economic climate around the country is still difficult, still presents challenges for everyone in the industry, we're pleased with some of the positive signs that we began to see improve last year,'' NASCAR chairman Brian France said. "Obviously we're encouraged by ratings increases across all of our national series. We were very happy to see some gains in attendance at a number of venues. ''

The sport carries that momentum into this weekend's Daytona 500.

But that is only part of what has NASCAR Nation ramped for the upcoming season. Consider these storylines that could help push the sport forward:

•Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's most popular driver, is coming off his best points finish in five years and seems set to end a winless drought that has spanned three-plus years.

•Danica Patrick, who some suggest could rival Earnhardt for most popular driver, leaves the IndyCar circuit behind and focuses on NASCAR this year, running full-time in the Nationwide Series and 10 races in Cup, including the Daytona 500.

•There's no clear-cut favorite to win this year's championship.

•The ongoing theatrics of the Busch brothers. Can Kyle and Kurt Busch remain on their best behavior or at least avoid a repeat of last season?

Adding to the drama were the first few days at Daytona.

It began with controversy. Jimmie Johnson's Daytona 500 car failed inspection before getting on the track. NASCAR forced the team to make alterations and hinted that more penalties could come after Speedweeks ends.

That had many buzzing about the five-time champ and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, who has run afoul of NASCAR's rules before.

That talk soon faded when former champions Stewart and Kurt Busch triggered a multi-car crash in the first practice session of the season. It would prove to be a sign of things to come.

Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout returned mayhem and magic to restrictor-plate racing, along with the pack racing fans wanted. Kyle Busch, whose car wiggled and swayed more than Ricky Martin, made some of the most remarkable saves in the track's history and ended the night by nipping Stewart to win in the event's closest finish, .013 seconds.

Others were not as fortunate. Twenty of the 25 cars that competed were listed as being involved in accidents, including Jeff Gordon, whose car rolled -- marking the first time in his Cup career he's been upside down.

Even so, Gordon remains a fan of pack racing compared to the tandem drafting style fans grew to hate last year.

"It's pretty wild and crazy, but I mean I like this better than what we had last year, definitely,'' Gordon said.

He's not alone.

After the race, fans on Twitter praised the racing style with many saying they preferred it over last year's racing. Many drivers agreed with the fans.

"I like this kind of racing better,'' Earnhardt said. "At least I know what to expect. I feel like I have a better chance with this style than I did last year for damn sure."

His fans can't wait. They're sick of being reminded of his 129-race winless drought. Encouraged by his performance last year, they no longer hope he wins; they expect him to.

"I'm frustrated that we didn't win last year, we came close,'' said Earnhardt, who nearly won at Martinsville and the Coca-Cola 600 last year. "I'm ready to get back to that. I'm ready to get chances again. I want to win a race pretty bad.''

When it happens, it will provide another spark for the sport.

He isn't the only one motivated at Hendrick Motorsports. After winning the title in five consecutive years, Hendrick failed to place a driver in the top five in points last year.

Hendrick's performance last year adds a layer of intrigue this year. No longer is Johnson simply expected to win the title. There are other contenders:

•Kevin Harvick has finished third in the points each of the past two seasons.

•Denny Hamlin has a new crew chief, taking Darian Grubb, who won the title with Stewart last year.

•Carl Edwards will try to avoid the letdown runner-ups in the title race seem to have the following year. He got off to a good start, winning the pole Sunday for the Daytona 500.

•Despite his crown, many seem to overlook Stewart's chances of repeating. Can he prove doubters wrong?

The talk at Daytona, though, hasn't been all about championship contenders. Much of it has focused on a driver who won't win the title. Patrick makes her Cup debut in the 500 and promises a new attitude this season, one that mimics the honey badger.

"The honey badger, he doesn't give a crap, he takes what he wants," Patrick said. "And that's how I'm going to be this year, like a honey badger. It's a mindset. I even have a honey badger picture on my screensaver on my phone to inspire me.''

Kurt Busch says his attitude this year is all about having fun after splitting from Penske Racing in the offseason. That divorce ended a disappointing season for both Busch brothers with NASCAR parking Kyle at Texas after he wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution in the Truck race at Texas.

The public will be closely watching their reactions this year. Kurt smiled even after he was collected in a wreck in the Shootout, and Kyle beamed after taking another checkered flag.

Fans have a couple of days to reflect on what happened before the action resumes at Daytona later this week. But like Kenseth, they're excited to get back to the track.

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