Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 22, 2005

The 2005 NASCAR season is fast approaching. Teams in all three major divisions are in Daytona, testing for the annual Daytona Speedweeks.

The fun starts in three weeks with the Bud Shootout on the night of February 12. The competition begins in earnest the weekend of February 18 as the trucks race on Friday night, the Busch race is Saturday afternoon and the Daytona 500 is Sunday afternoon.

The 2004 season was probably the most anticipated season in NASCAR history. The introduction of Nextel as the new title sponsor combined with the introduction of the Chase for the Cup, the new system for awarding the championship, made the 2004 season one to remember.

As we get closer to the beginning of the 2005 season, here are several things to watch for:

A new qualifying system: Gone are the provisional starting positions. For the upcoming season, the top 35 teams based on owners’ points will be guaranteed a position within the top 42 starting positions. Qualifying speed will fill the other seven spots and the 43rd position will be reserved for a past champions’ provisional. This system will help ensure a starting spot to the full-time teams that show up every week. You will see less of the &uot;field fillers&uot; that so often made races last year.

Farewell seasons for several superstars: 2005 will be the final seasons for a handful of veteran superstars. Rusty Wallace will go into the announcers’ booth after the 2005 season. &uot;Rusty’s Last Call&uot; will gain attention at every track throughout the season. Mark Martin will also retire at the conclusion of the season. Martin will be the sentimental favorite to win the championship this year after coming so close several times over the course of his career. Terry Labonte will compete only on a part-time basis this year. Labonte will change car numbers to no. 44 yielding the Kellogg’s no. 5 ride to rookie Kyle Busch.

Hard Liquor allowed: NASCAR finally relented and changed its policy on allowing hard liquor companies sponsorship opportunities. To date, three teams have taken advantage of the influx of new sponsorship money. Richard Childress will field the no. 07 Jack Daniels Chevy with Dave Blaney driving. Crown Royal will be a major associate sponsor and will be the main sponsor during several races for champion Kurt Busch. Just this week, Jim Beam brand announced a deal with Robby Gordon and his new no. 7 team.

New Dodge Model: The Charger will make a triumphant return to the production line and the track in 2005 replacing the Intrepid as Dodge’s competition model. The production car is very attractive and there is no reason to believe that it will not be competitive on the track.

Dodge has come along way since re-entering the sport several years ago and is now a force on the track.

Lack of rookie drivers: Since the trend started several years ago towards young, marketable drivers, there have been a good crop of rookie drivers every year. This year the story is different. There will be only three drivers eligible for the Rookie of the Year award in 2005 and it looks like only two will drive full time. As it stands now, Kyle Busch, Travis Kvapil, and Boris Said are the drivers that will be eligible for the award. Look for Busch to run away with the title of NASCAR’s best rookie.