2012 Daytona 500: Is Danica Patrick or Tony Stewart a better NASCAR story?

The Daytona 500 this Sunday gets NASCAR's 2012 season started with a big splash. Danica Patrick competes in her first full season of NASCAR.

Terry Renna/AP
Danica Patrick, left, talks with Tony Stewart, right, during practice for Sunday's NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race in Daytona Beach, Fla., Wednesday, Feb. 22.

Every year at this time, NASCAR returns to its roots by staging the Daytona 500 in Florida. The stock car racing group got its start near the Daytona International Speedway after World War II.

The 2012 version of 'The Great American Race' has plenty of great storylines.

One big story going into the Daytona 500 will be driver Danica Patrick. The former IndyCar driver begins her first full NASCAR season behind the wheel of the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet. She'll be driving primarily in the Nationwide series of races, but will come to race in the Sprint Cup series from time to time, including the Daytona 500.

Patrick has won one IndyCar race, the Indy Japan 300, back in 2008. She was also the first woman driver to lead the Indianapolis 500, which she did in 2005. Patrick finished third at Indy in 2009. She has made a total of 19 Nationwide series starts in the past two years, with one top-5 finish and three top-10s.

Next up - NASCAR's defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart. The man who finally knocked Jimmie Johnson off the NASCAR throne and stopped his five-year championship streak had an amazing run during the Cup Chase, winning five of the last 10 events in 2011.

Can 'Smoke' disappear from the rest of the field Sunday and win his first Daytona 500? Stewart has won six Nationwide events at Daytona. These races are run on Saturday, the day before the big event.

Speaking of Jimmie Johnson, how does he bounce back from a disappointing 2011? It was a year that saw him win two races and reach the Cup Chase, only to fall short over the final five races to finish sixth in the Sprint Cup driver standings. The five-time NASCAR champion is not getting off to a good start this year after his team was found to have made illegal modifications to Johnson's No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet.

The other man who is glad to see 2011 in the rear-view mirror is Carl Edwards, who was leading the Cup Chase points race down the stretch until Stewart caught him in 2011's final event at Homestead, Florida. Stewart then won the Sprint Cup championship in a tie-breaking process where he took home more checkered flags than Edwards during the NASCAR season.

Eight former winners are in the starting grid for Sunday's 54th Daytona 500, which will be broadcast on Fox beginning at noon ET.

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