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2014 Sprint Unlimited Preview

2014 Sprint Unlimited Preview

by February 14, 2014 0 comments

Photo Credit: Getty Images for NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is one day away from holding its first competition of the year with the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway; an exhibition race for drivers who earned a pole position during the 2013 season or are a previous winner of the event.

While a victory here will not count towards qualifying for the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup, there is still plenty at stake. The winner will pocket over $1 million while the drivers and their crews will be able to practice various strategies for the 56th running of the Daytona 500 next week.

The new aero package the Sixth Generation Sprint Cup car has provided since its introduction last year has been a more retro style of restrictor plate racing that hearkens back to the racing witnessed up to the early-to-mid 00s. Gone are the days of the two-car tandem drafting which various fans and drivers alike viewed as a plague on the racing action at Daytona and Talladega.

While the drafting style may be a new change, old questions regarding drafting will still be asked during the race by drivers and their crews. How many cars are required to drop out of line and make a freight train-like charge to the front? How late can we wait before making a move? Where on the track will we be able to get the best run possible to pass for the lead? Just who are our friends out there? After the conclusion of the race tomorrow night, teams should have a better picture of what to expect for the rest of Speedweeks.

As was the case in recent years for the Unlimited, NASCAR is providing fans the unique opportunity to vote on and decide three key specifics of the race. The Unlimited is to be split up into three different segments totaling up to 75 laps; fans have the ability to choose the length of the second and third segments (the first segment is set at 30 laps.)  Fans may choose between having the last two segments be a length of 35 and 10 laps, 30 and 15 laps, or 25 and 20 laps.

Should voters choose the first option, teams will have the best opportunity to simulate how a frantic dash at the end of the Daytona 500 will likely run. The statistics suggest that a very late caution should be on the cards for next week; the last five 500s that have been run to completion have had their last regulation time caution come out on average around Lap 197.  Should voters choose the last option, the field of 18 runs the chance of becoming spread out (should the race go green all the way of course) and teams will be able to examine how passing for the lead with the help of a handful of cars will work.

The second detail of the race fans decide on is how the starting lineup will be ordered for Saturday night’s shootout. If fans choose to give the pole to the driver with the most career pole position awards, Jeff Gordon will bring the field to the green tomorrow night. If they choose to order the field in the same order as the 2013 championship standings, Jimmie Johnson will lead the field for the start of the race. If voters do not like either of these options they may vote to grid the field by their final practice speeds.

The last facet of the race that the fans will decide upon is how the starting lineup for segment three will be ordered. Option one is by the fastest lap times from each driver from either the first or second segment. Option two is the most laps led across both segments while the final option goes by the race off pit road from the mandatory pit stops after segment two; giving pit crews their pre-Great American Race warmup.

When it comes to the Sprint Unlimited, several familiar names are mentioned as favorites. Three time Unlimited winners Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick are both excellent restrictor plate racers who are always considered contenders when NASCAR visits the high banks of Daytona. This year they find themselves on the same team as Harvick will make his debut for Stewart-Haas Racing in the #4 Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS tomorrow. While Harvick is aiming to impress for his new team, team owner Stewart is viewing this as a rehabilitation start of sorts. After breaking his right leg during a sprint car race in early August, ‘Smoke’ will make his first NASCAR race start in six months upon taking the green flag Saturday night.

Other formidable plate racers in the field for the Unlimited are all three of Hendrick Motorsport’s entrants for the race, Gordon, Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Between the three of them they have five Sprint Unlimited victories and six Daytona 500 victories, Johnson last year became the first driver to sweep both Daytona points races since Bobby Allison accomplished the feat in 1982. If anybody has figured out how the Sixth Generation car runs at Daytona, it has to be Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.

A name that might not be on many watch-lists for the Unlimited would be Jamie McMurray of Joplin, Mo. McMurray has a strong track record in this exhibition race, with three Top 5’s and four Top 10’s in seven career races in the event. McMurray has also found success at Daytona outside of the Unlimited, winning his second career points-race in the Coke Zero 400 (then Pepsi 400) in 2007 and in the 2010 Daytona 500. McMurray is also the most recent Sprint Cup winner at a restrictor plate track, taking the checkered flag at Talladega in October. It would not be a surprising sight if we saw the driver of the #1 Cessna Chevrolet in victory lane by the end of the night on Saturday.

The biggest threat out of the non-Chevrolet drivers are Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, who both may play a factor in the finish of the event. With Busch putting on an absolutely stunning drive in the 2012 event and with championship runner-up Kenseth having two Daytona 500 victories to his name, both are proven winners at the track. Toyota, however, was the only manufacturer to not win a restrictor plate points race last season; they may find themselves playing catch-up compared to the raw power of Chevrolet’s Hendrick and Ganassi-Childress power plants.

Historically, the Sprint Unlimited has not provided many long-shot victors; the most recent instance of a surprise victor in the event came when Denny Hamlin won it in his rookie season in 2006. Two drivers are making their debut in the event tomorrow with Danica Patrick for Stewart-Haas Racing and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for Roush-Fenway Racing running in the Unlimited for the first time. Both have proven themselves to be competent at navigating the circuit as both drivers had Top-13 finishes in the Daytona 500 and the Coke Zero 400 last year. The odds may be stacked against them, but at restrictor plate tracks like Daytona anything can happen.

Which brings us to just what makes this race so exciting: anything can (and will) happen. Will we see another controversial three-wide finish as we did in 2011’s event? Will we see another driver nearly lose their car twice and rebound to take the victory by .013 of a second such as what happened in 2012’s running? Will we see a surprise winner? What is the one thing that’s to be expected for Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited? The unexpected.

The Sprint Unlimited will air live on Fox Sports 1 starting with pre-race coverage at 6:30p.m EST.

Kyle Pokrefky
Follow Kyle Pokrefky on Twitter at @KPokrefky

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