Can you smell it? It's the scent of high-octane gasoline, burnt rubber, Copenhagen and Danica's overwhelming perfume. You bet. It's the start of NASCAR sneaking up on us like a 500-pound pit bull driving the No. 14 Old Spice Chevy.
The Bud Shootout is this weekend, and that signifies the start of the festivities at Daytona. It's exciting, especially after the way NASCAR ended last season with a fireworks-filled finish. The new rules worked better than anyone this side of the France family could have imagined.
It would be a tall order to expect an encore, considering the way the cosmic carburetors clicked together and delivered a Tony Stewart-Carl Edwards winner-takes-all showdown in the season finale. It was a World Series walk-off or a game-winning drive in the final minute of the Super Bowl.
While the reality may be that matching that drama will be difficult, it's also very difficult to temper expectations. There are ample opportunities for excitement.
• There's the biggest haired rookie since Kyle Petty hit the track. Yep, let's all welcome Danica Patrick, the former Indy Car driver who is bringing her marketing mojo and heavy right foot to the Sprint Cup Series this year.
Before anyone gets the wrong idea, we're not anti-Danica. OK, maybe the perfume joke was easy and cheap. Maybe.
That said, we're not a fan of Danica getting an automatic bid into the Daytona 500 by dealing and trading -- her powerful Stewart-Haas Racing team trading some of its ample assets for Dave Blaney's guaranteed starting spot in the Daytona 500. Hey, it's not the first time this kind of wink-wink, nod-nod deal has happened in NASCAR. (Hey, "If you're not cheatin' then you're not tryin'" is the best NASCAR game plan of them all.)
But bending over backward to make sure Danica succeeds will only fuel doubters. If NASCAR wants her to succeed, then she needs to succeed on her own merits, and if that happens it will be the biggest story in sports. Seriously. (Think of it this way: If Danica wins the Daytona 500, you're not going to hear about Jeremy Lin for like four or five hours at least.)
Now, after allowing her to bargain her way into the field, even if she wins, there will be some folks pointing out that the only reason she got in the race in the first place was because of NASCAR creating a spot for her.
• The only story that could approach topping a potential Danica daydream at Daytona would be Dale Earnhardt Jr. getting back into victory lane.
Earnhardt, who showed up at Daytona this week with a new beard, has long been the sport's most popular driver. He used to be one of its contenders, too. That seems like longer than three years -- and 129 races -- since his last win.
Here's saying that Dale Jr. will end that streak this year. If not, he may have to consider changing his name.
• While Dale Jr. is looking to end his slide, there are a list of high-profile names entering contract years with a lot on the line. Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. are some of the marquee names in the 2012 free agent class.
• Despite two wins and 16 top-10 finishes in 2011, Kurt Busch was forced to find a new ride after Team Penske had obviously had enough of his less-than-popular antics. Busch, however, appears to have kept his sense of humor about it, even telling reporters Thursday that making the Forbes list of 10 most hated athletes was OK. "I actually went from third to 10th, so I actually think I improved."
OK, Kurt, but as long as NASCAR's back, that's a real improvement.