By Rob Tiongson, Nick Brincks, Matt Kacar, Shelby Parrack, and Ashley Hobbs

Very few events carry as much prestige, excitement, and drama like that of the Daytona 500, NASCAR Sprint Cup racing's "Super Bowl."  For at least 200 laps or 500 miles, it's a high speed game of chess where the stakes are high, the competition is heavy, and certainly, the paint trading will be at a maximum.  From Danica Patrick to Cole Whitt, it's a race where the nation's top stock car drivers, teams, and equipment are put to the ultimate test for one of racing's most illustrious prizes in the form of the Harley J. Earl Trophy. That precious award is one's affirmation to the sporting world that for at least one hotly contested afternoon, you were the best in class and all around against the most elite talents around.

For the past week, the drivers have done their rounds of interviews, tested their steel chariots to the limits, and to say the least, they're ready to just things underway and go for the win at "The World Center of Racing."  Everything that they've worked for in the practice rounds, test sessions, and their mental conceptualizations all come down to a Sunday afternoon affair which won't be the typical single file parades we've seen last year.  Try as they might in their top lane racing, it might just be a "Great American Race" where we'll see double to triple wide racing and with that comes the increased probabilities of the inevitable "Big One" or multi-car crash.   Drafting is paramount but the emphasis has been made to enter and exit pit road within the speed limit and avoiding the chances of flatspotting a tire.

From veterans like Jeff Gordon to a fresh-faced talent like Trevor Bayne, this race is the great equalizer in terms of the biggest prize in all of stock car racing.  The one who typically wins this race is the most courageous, guile, and cunning of them all in the 43 car and driver field.  Don't be surprised to see an unexpected face leading the way along with the usual favorites come race day.  Before the hardworking Track Talk team reveals their picks for Sunday's Daytona 500, let's get to our first round of "Trending Topics" in our first full season version of "Track Talk!"  

Each week, we'll talk about the latest and hottest issues in NASCAR racing before we talk about our favorite for the upcoming Sprint Cup race.  Like the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, we'll keep track of the points standings and award points and deduct them too when penalties occur.  While we will stay true to the NASCAR Sprint Cup points race, we won't implement the playoffs in the Chase as it'll only involve five panelists.  And who are our panelists this year, you may ask?  They are Matt Kacar, Nick Brincks, Shelby Parrack, and newcomer Ashley Hobbs!  Give them a warm welcome and let's get to it right now!

Trending Topics

Question 1

We've had a vast number of changes in the off-season, ranging from the new qualifying procedure to the Chase format overhaul.  In your opinion, what will likely be the best change that NASCAR made for the 2014 season and beyond?

Brincks :  There's no question in my mind that qualifying will be better this year thanks to the changes. However, for the sport's future, the Chase changes have the biggest potential. If the racing isn't better on the track though, it'll all be pointless. On-track excitement brings in long term fans. Championship changes may draw in some casual fans, but if the on track product isn't impressive, they'll leave as quickly as they came in.

Kacar :  The best change will be the new knockout qualifying. For the past like 5 years, there has been nothing more boring then watching qualifying.  With only 45 cars showing up, there was absolutely no drama. This will add some much needed excitement to qualifying and get it done in around 90 minutes.  

Parrack :  I'm very uncertain about the recent changes, the Chase format in particular. There is no telling how it will turn out, but my hope is that it will turn out in my drivers favours and produce a great chase. You'll need wins but you also have to be consistent throughout the final ten races and that screams Carl Edwards in my opinion. 

Hobbs :  Until we see exactly how this new Chase format is going to unfold, the best change NASCAR has made comes in terms of qualifying (for the fans). Let's face it, single car runs were uber boring and no one wants to watch it for several hours, except maybe when your favorite driver is on track. Now, with multiple cars on track, almost a mini-race is happening. Plus, the drivers will get more track time and the better the driver is, the more track time which is very valuable!

Question 2

Recently, Richard Petty mentioned that the only way that Danica Patrick would win a race is if "everybody stayed home."  Would you agree with his opinion or do you find that it was an off base remark?

Brincks :  I agree with Petty (both of them, actually). She hasn't shown she can win, let alone even run near the front. There are drivers with less experience and lesser equipment doing more than she has in her entire career. For NASCAR's sake, Danica success would be great. But she's been overhyped and over marketed for her on track performance. I think Johanna Long would dominate Danica in equal equipment.

Kacar :  For the most part, I agree with Richard Petty's comments about Danica. She has basically no shot at winning Cup races at most of the tracks. However, the exception is the four plate races. She has shown she can be competitive there.  And with Ragan winning at Dega last year, no out of realm of possibility that she could win there as well.

Parrack :  From one stand point, I understand why Richard would make such a remark, but I do however disagree. I'm not going to sit here and say Danica can go out and win any race we go to, but I do think she has as good of a chance at a plate track as anyone else. We've seen in recent years it's anyone's race to win at a plate track (i.e. Trevor Bayne, David Ragan, and second place David Gilliland).

Hobbs :  I am all for women in a male dominated field, as I am one of those. However, when a female is there not based on what she can bring to the table (besides looks), that does us chicks no good. Danica did not prove in Nationwide that she had what it takes to be in a stock car. Some of the best in Cup spent a few years in Nationwide and actually were able to contend for wins and race with the big guys. Danica on the other hand did not. She did not prove herself in Nationwide and she did not prove anything (good) during her rookie year. Will we see any improvement in her this season? I say barely if at all, especially with a new group of rookies who actually have what it takes. But I will add to Petty's comment: Even if everyone stayed home, Danica may still struggle to stay off the wall and on the lead lap.

Question 3

Tracks like Daytona and Talladega have gone towards the movement of decreasing capacity and having seats mainly along the frontstretch.  Is this a sign of the sport declining in terms of popularity or are the other factors to consider?

Brincks :  Declining popularity is no doubt behind the cutbacks. When there are empty seats, values go down. It's simple supply and demand. Simply reducing seats will cost fans more as tracks will place more value on the remaining seats, likely raising overall prices. I hope that's not the case, but I find it hard to believe fans will benefit.

Kacar :  This is 100% a sign that NASCAR is not as popular as it used to be.  Tracks over built seating capacity in the early 2000s when NASCAR was super popular but it's nowhere near as popular as now. When one of the most exciting track Talladega is getting rid of the whole backstretch grandstand you know there is a problem. Almost every ISC track is getting rid of some seating capacity.

Parrack :  I wouldn't take it to the point to worry, as I've personally have never been to a race at a plate track but I have heard from many fans that the view is not the best. I can imagine the most popular seating would be on the front stretch as that would be where you can see the most. I wouldn't worry too much about it!

Hobbs :  I would not say it's 100% about a decline in the popularity but it is a factor. I can see many factors of this; economy, ticket prices, people being out of work and not attending, people not being able to get time of work, no incentive to go to the track any more, concession stand prices (for those that do not bring their own grub). Let's face it, attending any sporting event is expensive and takes planning. Some of these tracks added seats even though they did not need to and now they are seeing their mistake. My hope is that these changes bring a different life back into NASCAR, but everything else needs to happen the right way as well for NASCAR to get back to its glory days.

We've covered the three big topics heading into the Daytona 500, our "storylines," you see.  With those thoughts revealed, let's now get to it and unveil our picks to win the Daytona 500 right now!

Brincks :  I'll kick off the year with somewhat of a surprise pick. He's finished 2nd or 3rd in this event three times, he's a restrictor plate ace, and he has the best average finish of all drivers in the last two plate races, including a win.  

He'll either crash out or battle for the win at the end. I'm going with Jamie McMurray.

Kacar :  This is a tough one because of the unpredictable that a plate race is.  But I am going with Kevin Harvick getting the win in his first race with his new team.  

Hobbs :  Author's Note :  Our resident stats guru made it known that her pick is Dale Earnhardt Jr. in her newest article here on TPF, but in case he doesn't come through, you can't count out Denny Hamlin.

Parrack :  I'm going to take a different approach here: My hopeful outcome of the Daytona 500 would be Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski duking it out for the finish and placing first and second. But my un-biased choice is going to be Jeff Gordon, I have no reasoning other than he keeps coming to mind when I think of VL on Sunday afternoon.

Tiongson :  If the man says he will retire if he wins the title this year, that means he's going to give it all he's got.  Not a lot of attention has been given to the 24 team thus far but it'll change on Sunday afternoon when Jeff Gordon takes home his fourth Daytona 500 win.  Sure he's not been as great as he had been in the past but he's still got what it takes to win at this track and with a break or two in his direction, he'll be up there for the win!

There you have it, race fans!  The TPF crew has spoken and given their thoughts on the start of the NASCAR season.  How about you?  What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into the 2014 season?  And who is your favorite to win the Daytona 500?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!  Thank you, Nick, Matt, Shelby, and Ashley - I look forward to a great season ahead with you all!