AP Auto Racing Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Jeff Gordon will be in the booth and Tony Stewart in a bed when the NASCAR season begins.
Neither NASCAR star will be in a car when Daytona International Speedway opens Friday for preparations for the Feb. 21 season-opening Daytona 500. Gordon, arguably NASCAR’s biggest star, retired at the end of last season and the four-time champion will now be a Fox analyst.
He has been highly visible during his newly acquired free time, and was on an all-terrain vehicle trip with Stewart a week ago when the three-time champion crashed. Stewart fractured a vertebra and lay in the sand alone for 90 minutes waiting for his group to find him and get him to a hospital.
The accident has sidelined Stewart for the beginning of his final season as a NASCAR driver, denying him a chance to finally win the Daytona 500. He has come heartbreakingly close in his 17 previous tries and spoke last month of his desire to add that win to his resume.
Instead, he will watch the race on television as he awaits approval to travel.
What Stewart will be missing is the start of what is expected to be a dramatically improved season with plenty of story lines.
Kyle Busch will attempt to defend his Sprint Cup title, which he snatched from 2014 champion Kevin Harvick. Defending Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano will be chasing a championship berth he was denied last year because of a feud with Matt Kenseth.
The drivers will all be using a new rules package that they pushed for during a new era of increased communication between NASCAR and its participants. Denny Hamlin spearheaded a driver council last year at a time when the on-track product was practically unwatchable, with rules that made passing very difficult and catching the leader a daunting task.
As NASCAR tried a variety of different packages, the drivers were vocal in the desire for less downforce. Through months of wide-ranging conversations, the drivers secured the rules package they wanted and finally feel that they have a voice in decision-making.
The hope is that the racing will be more entertaining this year.
The field has been cut from 43 cars to 40, and there are only four open slots each week to teams that aren’t guaranteed a spot in the field through NASCAR’s new franchise system. NASCAR is also replacing its “green-white-checkered” system used late in races with an “overtime line” that will vary by track.
Some other things to know heading into the season opener:
CHAMP RETURNS: Kyle Busch begins the defense of his Sprint Cup championship at the same track that cost him a chunk of the 2015 season. Busch broke his right leg and left foot when his car slammed into a concrete wall during the Xfinity Series race at Daytona. He missed the Daytona 500 and 10 more races last year, yet a midsummer hot streak propelled him into the Chase and his first Cup title followed. Daytona has since installed more than 8,500 feet of energy-absorbing “soft walls.”
LOGANO DEFENDS: Joey Logano won the Daytona 500 last year, a milestone victory to kick off the best season of his career. Logano even reeled off three straight wins during the Chase before he was eliminated, ending his bid for his first Cup title. Logano is trying to become first driver to win consecutive Daytona 500s since Sterling Marlin (1994-95). He was eliminated after Matt Kenseth intentionally wrecked him at Martinsville.
DAYTONA RISING: The $400 million Daytona Rising project is complete and will be a featured aspect of the season opener. The massive renovation to NASCAR’s most storied track should drastically improve fan experience and maybe help capture the attention of future generations. The three-year project removed backstretch seating and completely changed the front-stretch grandstands, turning them into the world’s first “motorsports stadium.” The overhaul includes elaborate, corporate-sponsored fan entrances, more than 1,400 high-definition televisions and more diverse food and beverage options.
CHARTER SYSTEM: NASCAR dramatically overhauled its business model this week, shifting to a franchise-like system that is intended to provide financial stability for team owners after decades of heavy reliance on sponsors. The change gets away from the independent contractor model that had been used since NASCAR’s inception in 1948. The 36 charters handed out to team owners guarantee revenue and a position in what will now be a 40-car Cup field, down from 43.
ROOKIES TO WATCH: This season’s rookie class could go down as one of the best in recent years. Chase Elliott headlines the field, replacing the retired Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Chevrolet. Chris Buescher, last year’s Xfinity champ, joins Elliott in a class that also includes Ryan Blaney, Brian Scott and Jeffrey Earnhardt. Blaney will have to attempt to race his way into the field each week because his Wood Brothers Racing team was left out of NASCAR’s new charter system.
SPONSOR SEARCH: Sprint is leaving at the end of the year, pulling out after a 13-year run as the title sponsor of NASCAR’s top series. Nextel initially signed on before the 2004 season, and the series became the Sprint Cup Series after Sprint acquired Nextel in 2005. NASCAR is still searching for a replacement, creating uncertainty for NASCAR’s most significant and profitable sponsorship.