Commentary

Daytona testing: Let the fun begin

Updated: January 9, 2014, 4:23 PM ET
By Brant James | ESPN.com

Austin DIllonJared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images Austin Dillon will pilot the iconic No. 3 Cup car for team owner and grandfather Richard Childress.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The brief interruption that is NASCAR's "offseason" officially ends Wednesday, with Sprint Cup teams set to begin testing at Daytona International Speedway for the Feb. 23 Daytona 500.

Or maybe it already ended at an open test at Charlotte Motor Speedway in December. At least Nationwide and Truck teams will begin in earnest, also, conducting their own two-day sessions beginning this weekend.

Even with just 54 days elapsed since Jimmie Johnson won his sixth Sprint Cup title at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the offseason has been replete with change. Drivers and crew chiefs moved in droves and members of the old guard -- like Mark Martin and Jeff Burton -- began ceding to a wave of new hopefuls like Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon.

A primer of the storylines and the shuffles as testing resumes:

New addresses

[+] EnlargeKurt Busch
Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesKurt Busch will drive the No. 41 Chevrolet at Stewart-Haas Racing, joining a star-studded driver stable that includes Kevin Harvick, Danica Patrick and team owner Tony Stewart.

Kurt Busch, No. 41 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing -- The 2004 Sprint Cup champion joins new teammates Kevin Harvick, Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart, eventually. Stewart has yet to return as a driver after breaking his leg in a sprint car accident in August. After making the Chase with one-car Furniture Row Racing last season, Busch returns to the landed gentry, although SHR struggled much of last season. Much will be expected of him.

Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing -- The rebranded No. 39 of vanquished Ryan Newman becomes Harvick's new ride at SHR. Look past the absence of the 29 usually on Harvick's doors and he will at least be recognizable much of the season by sponsors Budweiser and Jimmy John's.

Terry Labonte, No. 32 Ford, FAS Lane/Go Green Racing -- The two-time series champion is scheduled to contest at least the Daytona 500.

Ryan Newman, No. 31 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing -- The 2008 Daytona 500 winner slides into the seat vacated by Jeff Burton.

Martin Truex Jr., No. 78 Chevrolet, Furniture Row Racing -- Released by Michael Waltrip Racing when NAPA pulled its sponsorship in the Richmond race-manipulation fallout, the two-time Nationwide champion landed in one of the most desirable rides available. He brings his pit crew with him from MWR, which should improve the prospects of a car Kurt Busch used to qualify for the Chase (and remain there).

New opportunities

AJ Allmendinger, No. 47 Chevrolet, JTG Daugherty -- The erstwhile Penske Racing Sprint Cup and IndyCar driver returns to a full-time Cup program after completing a comeback from NASCAR drug rehabilitation in 2012 and a season of working in various series.

Alex Bowman, No. 83 Toyota, BK Racing -- The former RAB Nationwide driver will test at Daytona and appears set to replace David Reutimann in the car after the veteran and team split this week.

Austin Dillon, No. 3 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing -- Certain to be one of the focal points of the early parts of the season, if not its entirety, the 23-year-old former Truck and Nationwide champion will be the first to campaign the 3 at NASCAR's highest level since Dale Earnhardt was killed in a Chevrolet bearing the number on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Parker Kligerman, No. 30 Toyota, Swan Racing -- Half of an all-rookie lineup for a rookie Cup team, Kligerman finished ninth in the Nationwide Series last season. He brings the owner points from Swan's No. 30 to his first full Cup campaign.

[+] EnlargeKyle Larson
Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty ImagesBudding star Kyle Larson takes the reins of the No. 42 Chevrolet for Team Ganassi.

Kyle Larson, No. 42 Chevrolet, Chip Ganassi Racing -- The 21-year-old's rapid and resplendent rise from sprint car dervish to Sprint Cup rookie is complete. Now comes the part where he's expected to win races and championships and all the while become the face of NASCAR diversity. No pressure there. He's been up to the task so far, though.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., No. 17 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing -- The Sprint Cup rookie of the year remains in place at RHR but is reunited with Mike Kelley, with whom he won two Nationwide titles.

Ryan Truex, No. 93, BK Racing -- The younger brother of Martin Truex Jr. will test at Daytona this week and seems set to replace Travis Kvapil.

Brian Vickers, No. 55, Michael Waltrip Racing -- The 11th-year Cup performer contested 14 races in the No. 55 last season before a recurrence of blood-clotting prompted physicians to shut him down. A Nationwide regular last year with Joe Gibbs Racing, Vickers relaunches into a full-time Cup campaign for the third time in his career.

Cole Whitt, No. 26 Toyota, Swan Racing -- The journeyman former JR Motorsports Nationwide driver entered seven races for Swan in Cup last season.

Early storylines

3 is a magic number -- Austin Dillon's progression to Sprint Cup has been made methodically and successfully with a stylized No. 3 on the doors of a truck or car fielded by his grandfather and team owner Richard Childress. That he will utilize the family number as a Sprint Cup rookie came as no surprise to the nostalgic. But a No. 3 Sprint Cup car at Daytona International Speedway will evoke memories and emotions from the nostalgic and pragmatic alike. The series will be reminded, even as it moves past a hurt 13 years running, how much the late Dale Earnhardt meant and still means to it.

Comeback kids -- Success in the Daytona 500 is not necessarily a precursor to season-long prosperity. Success in a preseason test relates pretty much the same way to the Daytona 500. But for drivers like 2012 series champion Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin, who finished unfulfilling 2013 seasons with flourishes, there will be an eagerness to get on with things, and get on with them well.

Seven up -- Six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson returns to the 2.5-mile superspeedway as defending series and Daytona 500 winner.

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr. He once induced Danica Patrick into a dance number from Moulin Rouge by saying the word "Switzerland." It's been pretty interesting so far.

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