The essentials

What: First race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season

When: Noon Sunday (Ch. 9)

Track: Daytona International Speedway (tri-oval, 2.5 miles). An overhaul of NASCAR's most storied track is complete. The project took three years to complete at a cost of $400 million. … The speedway has sold out all 101,500 seats.

Race distance: 500 miles, 200 laps

Last year's winner: Joey Logano

Qualifying: Chase Elliott became the youngest pole winner in race history at 20. He has replaced the retired Jeff Gordon in Hendrick Motorsports' No. 24 Chevrolet. Gordon won't be driving for the first time since 1993.

Fast facts: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch won Thursday's qualifying races. … Among those who wrecked strong race cars Thursday were Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. All will have to go to backup cars for the 500. Kenseth had earned a front-row starting spot, but he'll now forfeit it because of the crash. … Newly elected baseball Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. will serve as honorary starter. … The weather forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and 75 degrees.

2016 STORY LINES

Busch's defense: Kyle Busch finally won his first championship after years of fading in the Chase. It was a remarkable story considering he broke his right leg and left foot in a horrific crash during the Xfinity Series opener and missed the first 11 races of the Sprint Cup season, including the 500.

Flare for drama: The knockout-style Chase format has provided plenty of fireworks in two years, and is sure to provide more this season. Last year, Logano appeared to be the odds-on favorite to win his first championship until Kenseth spun him out in Martinsville, essentially costing Logano a spot in the championship round.

Farewell, Smoke: Three-time champ Tony Stewart is calling it quits after this season, becoming another familiar face to hang it up. And Stewart's final season is already off to an unfortunate start, after he sustained a back injury in a sand buggy accident last month and will miss at least the Daytona 500 and possibly more races.

Fresh faces: NASCAR is in the midst of bringing in a fresh wave of talent, and the hope is that they connect and draw in a young fans. Much attention will be placed on Elliott, but he's just one of a strong group of rookies that also includes reigning Xfinity Series champ Chris Buescher.

Eyes on Atlanta: Next week's Folds of Honor 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway will be the season's first using NASCAR's much-anticipated new low down-force aerodynamic package. The hope is that the new package will introduce an era of more competitive, free-wheeling action into Cup racing.

five FAVORITES for the season title

Kyle Busch: Hard to pick against the defending champ.

Jimmie Johnson: He's had disappointing days in the new Chase format, but he's still among the best.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: The only thing missing from his resume is a Cup championship.

Joey Logano: He continues to trend upward, and must not let others decide his fate, like they did last season.

Kevin Harvick: He won his first title two years ago, and remains one of the dominant drivers every weekend.

three DARK HORSES

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Can Danica Patrick's boyfriend finally live up to his potential?

Kasey Kahne: Had a forgettable 2015 with no wins, but he could be poised for a bounce-back season.

Clint Bowyer: Maybe he will have a Martin Truex Jr.-type rebound after signing on with HScott Motorsports.

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