The 68th NASCAR season begins with the Daytona 500 and will showcase at least one radical new element when it comes to how points are assigned in the regular season and what has now officially been dubbed the playoffs.
The only reliable prediction is that the powerhouse teams of Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing are the most likely to produce a champion.
Here are the top 10 storylines for the 2017 season.
1. The new points system. NASCAR has made a radical change to help boost its TV appeal and fan following. Are you ready for some complication? Here goes.
Gone is the Chase name in favor of a 10-race playoff. The points leader after 26 races will be declared the regular-season champion and get playoff points -- like the other top finishers in the standings going into the playoffs. All races will have three stages, or segments -- two shorter ones followed by one longer run to the checkered flag. All three stages award championship points as well as playoff points for the 10-race postseason.
Playoff points carry over through the three three-race segments of the postseason. The champion will again be determined by a straight-up race between four drivers in the season finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The upside is that drivers will have some saving grace during the playoffs with more points on the line if they have trouble in one race and those with a good season coming into the playoffs will have a better chance of advancing due to playoff points. There's more emphasis on good ol' fashioned consistency and, theoretically at least, heightened drama over the course of races due to the stages. The best way to get ahead remains being in front at the end of the final stage when the checkered flag falls.
2. New sponsor in town. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series begins with this year's Daytona 500. Although not nearly as lucrative a deal or as long-term compared to previous sponsor deals, Monster Energy will bring a different approach likely to be less conservative judging by other series where it has been involved and certainly will be more oriented to GenX and Millennial fans.
3. Earnhardt Jr. rides again. Saying he wants to keep racing and eventually retire on his own terms, newly married Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be the most closely watched driver in the series.
As a reasonably consistent driver in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevys, Earnhardt is a candidate to win his first title under the new points system. But those aren't necessarily the main reason why all eyes will be on him.
Any time he has contact with the wall, there will be concern whether the concussion problems that sidelined him for the second half of the 2016 season will return.
4. Carl Edwards' departure. Nobody seems to really understand why last year's championship contender for Joe Gibbs Racing elected to sit out the final year of his contract with one of NASCAR's most dominant teams.
Edwards himself, given his roundabout explanations, possibly may not know the motivations. In addition to career burnout and spending more time with his family, another reason acknowledged by Edwards was Earnhardt Jr.'s problems with concussions. Will he be back? The rumor mill has him moving to Team Penske Fords in 2018 -- a scenario emphatically denied by the Penske team.
5. Can Johnson win No. 8? Jimmie Johnson has been a model of consistency, speed and grace under pressure since his first full season in 2005. That was 543 starts, 80 victories and seven championships ago, all in Hendrick Motorsports Chevys.
This year Johnson will have his first chance to win a title that puts as much emphasis on season-long consistency as on winning in the final 10 races of the season. Will he climb the hill again in 2017? If last season's surprise finish was any indication, Johnson, now 41, is likely to win that eighth title sooner or later.
6. Ford eyes a championship. There's a new push at Ford to reimagine the company in the image of its founder Henry Ford and as a home of American performance. The class victory by a Ford GT at the Le Mans 24-hour last year on the 50th anniversary of Ford's win there in 1966 was more than symbolic.
Chip Ganassi's sports car team in its first outing in the great French race scored the victory against veteran factory teams from General Motors (Corvette), Ferrari and BMW, proving Ford's technical skills are world class.
The recruitment of Stewart-Haas Racing to the NASCAR Ford camp -- along with former champions Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch -- and away from Chevrolet was another big step for the company. SHR has two titles with Chevy and its drivers will likely join Team Penske as contenders for this year's title under the blue oval banner.
7. Danica on the ropes? Danica Patrick has been the fourth wheel ever since joining Stewart-Haas full time in 2013. A competent professional with a huge social media following, NASCAR's only female driver has earned her keep at SHR by sustaining major sponsor deals.
But when the replacement for sponsor GoDaddy reneged on its arrangements after just one year in January, Patrick's status came under question. She has received strong support from Ford and one of her longtime backers Aspen Dental has stepped up to help fill the void. Given that Patrick has usually been far more consistent than fast, maybe the new points system will help her -- but only if she can manage more top-10 finishes. In 154 starts, she has only six top 10s.
8. Viva Suarez. At long last, NASCAR will have a Mexican driver in its premier series. Daniel Suarez has had a whirlwind career over the past few months. He scored the Xfinity Series championship and suddenly was drafted into the seat left vacant by Edwards. The step up to NASCAR's top series has always been a big one with a steep learning curve and more than a few have stumbled.
Driving for the dominant team of JGR in the Xfinity ranks, Suarez scored three victories and 45 top-10 finishes in 68 races along with six poles. Still without a start in the Cup ranks, Suarez won his Xfinity title in the first year of the Chase format. Surrounded by a veteran team and drivers, Suarez is likely to prove he belongs. But he has two tough rookie acts to follow in Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney.
9. Stages to generate excitement? It's anybody's guess how much close racing will be generated by the first two stages under the new points format. There is one playoff point available to the winner of each stage. Given that this playoff point will stay in place all the way to the start at Homestead, there's incentive to contest the top position as the mandatory caution flag flies at the end of each of the first two stages.
But there's always plenty of regular-season championship points for the guy who is runner-up (the winner gets 10, second gets nine and so forth down to 10th place). So how much risk will drivers be willing to run to move up to first at the end of a stage?
10. The TV ratings swoon. The new points system and partnering with a sponsor that will take a different approach are both responses by NASCAR to a steady decline in TV ratings. It's all relative when it comes to major league sports, but the Cup series has experienced relatively steeper declines under TV package that began in 2015 and includes a heavy emphasis on new cable channels. If nothing else, officials are looking to stop the bleeding.