Joe Gibbs Racing driver looking to repeat his season-opener title
Last year Kyle Busch started the season off on a high note, winning the preseason event now known as The Sprint Unlimited by narrowly beating Tony Stewart to the finish line by 0.013 seconds.
As Busch and his competitors head to Daytona Beach for this year's Speedweeks, Busch looks to defend last year's Sprint Unlimited victory. However, with a new set of variables for the race (most notably the debut of the Gen-6 car and fan votes deciding several competition elements) it's anybody's guess as to who might find Victory Lane at the end of this year's 75-lap exhibition race.
Even if Busch isn't the driver celebrating amidst confetti on Saturday night, he's hoping to get a lot out of the race by learning how the new car performs -- information he hopes to use throughout the season on the way to his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
"We're curious to see how the car is going to race and how it's going to handle and what it's going to react like."
"We always look at The Sprint Unlimited race as a race to watch to see exactly what's going to happen and what characteristics you have in your race car," said the driver of the No. 18 M&M's Toyota Camry. "It's a learning experience for everybody."
Saturday's The Sprint Unlimited marks the official debut of the Gen-6 race car, which NASCAR, the manufacturers and teams have been working together on for the past few years. Although drivers have tested the new cars on a select few racetracks over the past couple of months, it's the first time the cars will see on-track racing competition.
With the introduction of a new car and rules package there is always going to be a learning curve for the drivers and teams, and that's no different this year.
"We're curious to see how the car is going to race and how it's going to handle and what it's going to react like," Busch said.
The new car is not the only new thing fans will notice about this year's Sprint Unlimited. The exhibition race brings a fan-voting element that hasn't been seen before in sports.
The fans have until 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, February 13, to vote on the length of the race's three segments. The three choices are 30 laps, 25 laps and 20 laps; 35 laps, 30 laps and 10 laps; and 40 laps, 20 laps and 15 laps.
Fans will have until the green flag drops on the start of the race to vote for the type of pit stop each team must perform after the first race segment. The three choices are none, two-tire change and four-tire change.
The fans can also vote on the number of cars that will be eliminated after the second segment. They have until the start of the second segment to cast their ballots. The choices are none, two, four and six.
Votes can be cast on NASCAR's new official mobile app -- NASCAR Mobile '13 -- or at NASCAR.com/SprintUnlimited. All votes cast through the NASCAR Mobile '13 app will count twice.
In addition, fans at Daytona International Speedway this Saturday will be able to vote on how the starting positions for The Sprint Unlimited are awarded. The three choices are by number of career wins (most to least), 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup final driver points standings and order of when they earned their pole position last year (2012 Daytona 500 pole winner on the pole; Ford EcoBoost 400 pole winner at the back).
"I think that what's going to be most confusing, or a little chaotic, is all the changes happening throughout the race with the fan votes and everything," Busch said. "I think that's exciting for the fans. I think that's a neat thing Sprint brings. I'm excited to see how all that plays out."
Aric Almirola among starting field for first time
Among the 19 drivers entered in this Saturday's The Sprint Unlimited, only one, Aric Almirola, will be making his first start in the race.
The pre-season race returns to the model where drivers who captured a Coors Light Pole Award the previous season would qualify.
Almirola earned his first career pole last season for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, qualifying him for the race that officially kicks off Speedweeks. He went on to finish 16th in the late-May race driving the Richard Petty Motorsports' No. 43 Smithfield Ford.
Richard Petty Motorsports has both its cars in the exhibition race. Marcos Ambrose, who drives the No. 9 Stanley Ford, also made the cut for the field after taking the pole in back-to-back races at Michigan International Speedway and Auto Club Speedway.
"No matter the outcome, having some track time in a race setting should really help us for the 500 and help us figure out the new car in the draft," Almirola said. "The ‘Unlimited' has always been an exciting race and the new format should add to that, so I'm looking forward to being a part of it this year."
The 19 drivers entered are Almirola, Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Mark Martin, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ken Schrader, Tony Stewart and Martin Truex Jr.