Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart headline several captivating stories entering race week

DAYTONA BEACH FL - FEBRUARY 17: Dale Earnhardt Jr. (L) driver of the #5 Hellmann's Chevrolet talks with Tony Stewart (R) driver of the #4 Oreo/Ritz Chevrolet in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona International Speedway on February 17 2011 in Daytona Beach Florida. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR)

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. - With qualifying in the books, the 2012 season is officially underway. Everything from this moment leading into Sunday's Daytona 500 counts.

Between the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, there's a multitude of stories to tell here at Daytona International Speedway. Here's a sample of them to wet your appetite until track action resumes on Wednesday:

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series:

14 - That's defending Cup Series champion Tony Stewart's car number. It's also the number of Daytona 500 attempts he will have logged after Sunday night. Is 14 three-time's magic number? He's told reporters this weekend that car numbers won't decide the race. And if it did, he would have changed his number years ago.

Stewart's the highest-profile driver to have not yet won the Daytona 500. He's begun to draw comparisons to the legendary Dale Earnhardt, who finally broke through on his 20th attempt. Much like Earnhardt, Stewart's won every race at the Speedway, except the 500.

That's likely starting to get old.

Stewart's won five of the last ten Sprint Cup Series races en route to winning the 2011 championship. Momentum may finally be on his side leading Stewart to a victory in the Great American Race.

129 - Come on, you know this one, right? Steve Letarte does.

That's the number of races Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s winless-streak extended to after a third-consecutive winless season behind the wheel of the Hendrick Motorsports #88.

Earnhardt showed some signs of life last season, nearly picking up wins at Martinsville, Charlotte and Darlington. Earnhardt also made the Chase for the first time since 2008. His seventh place championship finish is also his highest since a fifth in 2006.

Things may be turning around for the Dew Crew but Earnhardt has to start leading laps. That's exactly what he did in Saturday's Budweiser Shootout, leading twice for 12 laps before being eliminated in a lap 54 accident. At one point during that race, a dominant Jeff Gordon called the Shootout, a two-car race between him and Earnhardt.

The same could hold true for Sunday's Daytona 500 if Earnhardt shows the speed that led him to last year's pole and a third place qualifying effort in this year's race. Earnhardt's victory could be exactly what NASCAR needs to maintain the momentum earned from last year's championship battle.

NASCAR Nationwide and Truck Series stories can be found after the jump.

NASCAR Nationwide Series

Ricky vs. Trevor was a clever marketing scheme designed by Roush Racing to deemphasize the lack of a sponsor on both contenders' cars during the 2011 season. Neither Stenhouse Jr. nor Bayne have secured funding for a full-time Cup or Nationwide schedule which is a shame considering one is the defending series champion whilst the other is the defending Daytona 500 race-winner and media darling. Jack Roush has committed to running Stenhouse's entry out of his own pocket while Bayne has just enough funding to run the first five races. Bayne is hoping to have the opportunity to challenge his friend and teammate for the Series championship.

"We're going to go all-out in the first five races and hopefully be leading the standings," Bayne said. "Hopefully that will earn us additional funding or make them think twice about sitting us down."

If both drivers maintain their rides, Ricky vs. Trevor could become the Nationwide Series' championship marketing phrase.

Tony Stewart is king of the Nationwide Series at Daytona. On Saturday's Drive for COPD 300, Stewart will be gunning for his fifth straight Nationwide Daytona opener victory and seventh overall. He also hopes to tie a record, Dale Earnhardt set from 1990-1994 when he won five-straight Nationwide Series openers at Daytona.

Stewart is entered for the race in the Richard Childress Racing #33 and should enter that race as the favorite. He'll face strict competition from Dale Earnhardt Jr.,Danica Patrick, and Austin Dillon. Can anyone stop Smoke from winning five straight?

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series

When NASCAR Camping World Trucks hit the track on Wednesday, it will be a far different field than last seen in November at Homestead Miami Speedway.

Defending Series champion Austin Dillon has graduated to the Nationwide Series. Defending Daytona race-winner Michael Waltrip has graduated to the booth and wins-leader Kyle Busch has sworn off truck racing for 2012.

That means several new faces will compete for the Truck's most sought-after trophy in 2012. This includes defending ARCA Series champion Ty Dillon, Austin's brother. Ty will compete in the same equipment that netted Austin the 2011 Series championship. Will his prior success carry-over into 2012?

Other contenders include former Kevin Harvick Inc. developmental driver Cale Gale, Dakoda Armstrong and Grant Enfinger.

And don't forget the one-race return of former championship contender, Rick Crawford, who we interviewed in January. Crawford will attempt to make the Daytona field for Tagsby Racing and long-time sponsor SUPERSEAL Construction in the NextEra Energy Resources 250 on Friday night.

Which stories are you most looking forward to this week? Tell us in the comments section!

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