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 résumé.
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 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 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.
One off-the-track story line worth watching: 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. NASCAR still is searching for a replacement, creating uncertainty for NASCAR's most significant and profitable sponsorship.