Did you think it would never get here? After months of winter doldrums, Daytona opens the 2012 NASCAR season with a celebration tagged Speedweeks. Unlike any other season opener, Speedweeks is a celebration of tradition, history, speculation, expectation, and thank-heavens-winter-is-over-let’s-get-racing!

With the main events yet to come—Friday’s Camping World Truck Series Race, Saturday’s Nationwide Race, and Sunday’s Great American Race, the Daytona 500—the preliminary events raised expectations and answered the question fans had waited expectantly all winter to determine: Two-car tangos won’t win at Daytona this year. Pack racing, side drafts, and three and four-wide around the corners are back… and not a moment too soon!

If you yawned your way through Daytona and Talladega last year, last Saturday’s Budweiser Shoot Out gave you the first glimmer of the excitement to come. Trying to hook up and push a teammate or another driver was likely to send someone spinning up the wall, resulting in spectacular multi-car crashes taking out large portions of the field. Jeff Gordon’s seemingly innocent tap of Kyle Busch’s left-rear fender resulted in the 24 hitting the wall, getting t-boned, pushed on its side and flipping over and over again before finally stopping on its roof.

Unless you are Kyle Busch, of course, who gets the vote as the driver I would want handling my car in any perilous situation. This bad boy spun out multiple times, sustained damage to the front end, somehow avoid crashing, and went on to win the Shoot Out in a true photo finish.

Not enough excitement? Yesterday’s Gatorade Duel provided fireworks of its own. Once again, NASCAR’s modifications and off-season adjustments confirmed that two-car shuffling would not keep up with pack racing. Visions of the good ol’ days of Daytona with drivers bump drafting, side drafting, and storming their way from the back of the pack to the front in just a couple of laps… No, you were not dreaming! The two Duel races confirmed the return of racing, Daytona-style.

Not to imply that there is no place for the two-car tango. A few drivers experimented with limited pushing—Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. notably late in the first duel, setting up a huge what-could-have-been moment. Always in great number in Daytona, the entire Junior Nation rose as one and roared in anticipation as the 88 car was launched and appeared on the verge of passing Tony Stewart going into the back straight… only to collectively gasp as the yellow caution flag fell, abruptly ending the race when Stewart’s teammate Danica Patrick was spun into the wall in a horrifying, jolting crash.

Danica climbed out of that mangled car—unbelievably uninjured—then was back on the track Friday to capture the pole for the Nationwide Race. Talk about running ahead of the big boys! Danica absolutely rocks!

Questions remain as the main events approach. How will the absence of direct communication among drivers affect Sunday’s race? Will spotters work out elaborate communication systems amongst themselves or will drivers resort to hand signals and other non-verbal means of communication? As we saw in the Shoot Out, an unexpected push could have disastrous consequences on the field.

This much we know—NASCAR is back! And not a minute too soon.

One other question remains: Girls, Dale, Jr. with or without a beard?

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