Five good reasons to watch NASCAR in 2010

Long before "The Bachelor" and "Jersey Shore" debuted, NASCAR provided the best reality TV of the week.

Yet at the height of the sport, the sanctioning body decided drivers weren't corporate-friendly enough and officials set out to muzzle the competitors and their personalities -- on and off the track.

The experiment failed miserably. Fans wanted their racers back. And although NASCAR listened to their customers' concerns and promised to be more fan friendly in the past, it appears that Daytona has finally received the message loud and clear.

Last month, NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton insisted, "We will put it back in the hands of the drivers and say, 'Boys, have at it and have a good time."

For the fans, this fresh approach portends a season we won't soon forget.

Here are the storylines we'll be monitoring during Speedweeks and beyond:

Will Junior rebound?

There's a reason NASCAR chairman Brian France refers to Dale Earnhardt Jr. simply as "The Franchise."

Off the track, Junior is one of the most captivating stars the sport has ever created. Even Earnhardt is mystified by his own massive popularity. The kid, who is now 35, is so genuine and honest that people are drawn to him despite a lag in his on track performance.

How long can that last?

As witnessed by Earnhardt's souvenir trailers dwindling from seven rigs to four (and certainly the economy contributed to the decline), the answer is "not long."

The key to Earnhardt's success in 2010 is to come out of the box strong at Daytona -- one of his best tracks on the circuit -- and carry that momentum throughout the year.

Crew chief Lance McGrew believes "it takes four or five races to set the tone" for the year, but Earnhardt's hopes were dashed on the pit road at Daytona and he never quite recovered.

Earnhardt appears encouraged by the renewed alliance the Nos. 88 and 5 teams have forged. As Mark Martin trended skyward last season and Earnhardt struggled, a chasm appeared to form. Now, the driver insists a bond has been created between the teams that emanates throughout the 5/88 shop.

The addition of three new engineers -- including two who worked on the No. 5 last year -- should smooth the transition and develop instant chemistry between the teams.

Starting out with a positive perspective will be half the battle for Junior and his crew.

The Danica Show

Want to see a record-setting attendance for an ARCA race? Just show up for Saturday's Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200 featuring the stock car debut of Danica Patrick.

Promoters of ARCA and Nationwide Series races are banking that the Indy car darling delivers the same masses to their facilities through the course of her limited schedule.

Certainly, the crowds will continue whether or not Patrick's performance lives up to the hype. But given the recent history of other open wheel drivers transitioning to closed cockpits, the process hasn't always been pretty.

Here's hoping Patrick proves to be the exception.

Can anyone stop the Hendrick express?

Last season the only team to put on a show that rivaled Hendrick Motorsports was its satellite operation Stewart-Haas Racing.

Although the competition didn't continue at the same pace with Stewart throughout the Chase for the Sprint Cup, it quickly became apparent that to beat Hendrick equipment a driver had to race with Hendrick equipment.

It was no surprise that Hendrick swept the top three positions in the point standings and HMS powered cars won half the races in 2009.

After stark wake-up calls, Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing will come back with a vengeance in 2010.

Although Penske Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing are revitalized with fresh talent and Richard Childress Racing right-sized to three teams and revamped its operating structure, the Cup champ will hail from HMS, RFR or JGR.

RFR won't whimper away as it did after winning the first two races of the season and qualifying just two of its three signature racers into the Chase. Jack Roush has stepped up his engineering staff internally. The Ford stable has grown by six and RFR will use the additional data to its advantage moving forward.

Initially, Kyle Busch appeared to be the racer to beat in 2009. He won three of the first 10 races but was so inconsistent through the remainder of the season that Denny Hamlin was the only Gibbs horse to make the Chase.

Both racers will be on a mission this season.

Who completes the "Drive for Five" first?

While 42 drivers will attempt to knock Jimmie Johnson off of his pedestal, Jeff Gordon has the most at stake.

Why?

Gordon had the "Drive for Five" titles rolling well before J.J. was a household name.

The Nos. 24 and 48 teams are in the same shop. The drivers have access to the same equipment. What dramatically distinguishes Johnson from Gordon on the team side is crew chief Chad Knaus.

Gordon admits that there have been communication issues with his crew chief Steve Letarte but the issue has been addressed.

Still, you have to wonder if Ray Evernham will come out of retirement any time soon and find his way back atop the No. 24 pit box?

Picture this: Ray v. Lil Ray.

Could be interesting.

Change is in the air

Literally, with NASCAR increasing the size of the restrictor plates to 63/64ths of an inch for Daytona it will be game on for the Sprint Cup races at Daytona International Speedway.

Drivers are expected to have more throttle response which in turn should offer more control over the cars.

Expect the 2010 Daytona 500 to be a show.

With the shift to the pony cars in the Nationwide Series, expect NASCAR to move toward a sexier vehicle in Sprint Cup as well. Swapping the wing for the spoiler is the first step to returning to a stock version.

A clearer picture of where free agent drivers well end up should come into focus by May. Team changes will start in earnest after the fifth race of the season. If owners aren't in the top 35 expect shuffling of drivers, crew chiefs and modified schedules.

And speaking of schedules, winners and losers of the event lottery should be named by fall. As Kansas Speedway expands to two Cup dates, who will drop a race?

Stay tuned.