DAYTONA BEACH — It's called the Great American Race, but to us it's known by a more familiar name: the Daytona 500.

Either way, it's a cornucopia of noise and speed, from pre-race music to high-powered engines, with colored flags waving on the track and the American flag all around.

Even if you're not a NASCAR aficionado — even if you've never heard of bump drafting or don't care about Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr. — you might have some interest in Danica Patrick.

Buckle up and have no fear. We're here to help.

First tip: Sunday's 500-mile, 200-lap race starts at 1 p.m., and full-field qualifying is today at Daytona International Speedway.

What does NASCAR stand for?

National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, formed in December 1947 with the help of Daytona Beach's Bill France Sr., who ran a local service station and promote local races.

There are three divisions: Sprint Cup, Nationwide and the Camping World Truck series.

Sprint Cup is the top tier. The other two are developmental series.

The Daytona 500 is arguably NASCAR's biggest race of the year, the sport's Super Bowl. What's up with that?

Tradition, history, weather and marketing. Because the sport was founded in Daytona, the race has always been first on the schedule.

The first race attracted 41,000 fans on Feb. 22, 1959, and it took three days to declare a winner. Officials had to inspect a photo finish between Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp. Petty won by 2 feet.

As the sport grew, so did Daytona International Speedway. It was the first with high banking and was the first superspeedway.

Although NASCAR won't crown its annual champion until November, the Daytona 500 is considered the hardest race to win for many drivers. Sunday's race punctuates more than two weeks of racing events and activities.

What's the hubbub over Danica Patrick?

Popularized by commercials, Patrick is an accomplished Indy Racing League driver. (She is the only woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and owns the highest finish by a woman, fourth in 2005). But she'll make her NASCAR debut when she drives in Saturday's Nationwide race (the DRIVE4COPD 300).

"I think it's all good for the sport," defending Daytona 500 champ Matt Kenseth said. "I think you'll have people come in and watch her race who maybe have never watched a NASCAR race in their life just because she's in the race."

She drove in another series in Daytona last week, and television ratings were up 59 percent versus last year. So NASCAR officials are hopeful the petite, raven-haired driver will help them gain more fans at the track and on TV.

However, Patrick isn't driving in the Daytona 500.