Busch out to defend NASCAR crown, Stewart looking to exit on a high


All eyes will be on defending NASCAR champion Kyle Busch as he attempts to go back-to-back, while outgoing driver Tony Stewart looks to bow out on a high.

The 2016 season gets underway at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday, with Busch the man to beat after breaking through for his maiden NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title last year.

Busch recovered from a devastating season-opening broken leg to reign supreme in his Joe Gibbs Racing car.

The 30-year-old will now return to the scene which forced him to miss most of the 2015 season, and he will have to overcome defending Daytona 500 champion Joey Logano on February 21, though Stewart-Haas Racing's Stewart will not be there.

Stewart's farewell tour has been delayed by a fractured vertebra, which he suffered on vacation.

The injury to the three-time Sprint Cup champion has raised doubts over his potential Chase eligibility this season.

NASCAR rules state a drive must compete in all 26 points-paying regular-season races and be in the top 30 in points in order to be in contention for the play-offs, though the governing body waived that rule for Busch, who missed the first 11 races of the season.

And they are expected to do the same for Stewart.

"I think we're going to treat that just as we did Kyle Busch," NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. "There obviously is a balance ... you can't come in the race before the Chase starts and win that race and expect to cruise on in for the final 10 races. So there's some balance, but this is the beauty of the Chase.

"We have that ability to make some medical and other important exceptions for things like this. But you still have to compete at a high level over a number of events.

"We will cross that bridge when we can. I hope for his sake, just like I was hoping for Kyle's, that will be sooner rather than later. And the sooner the better in terms of making a decision on our end."

All of this comes as NASCAR unveils a reduced field in 2016.

A reduction of the weekly fields to 40 cars from 43 and a guaranteed starting spot for all races this season are just some of the many changes NASCAR is implementing with a new charter system designed to give owners a more secure financial position in the sport.

This season will see 36 cars - called charters, or car franchises - guaranteed a spot in every race regardless of qualifying times.

The four non-chartered race teams will compete for the final entries during qualifying with the rest of the 36 charters in starting line-up each race weekend.