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A history of The Sprint Unlimited

February 14, 2013, Pat DeCola, NASCAR.com

A history of The Sprint Unlimited
Race format has changed over years, but great moments have remained

As the countdown draws closer to NASCAR’s season-opening, newly re-branded exhibition race, The Sprint Unlimited, it’s time to take a look back at the history of the traditional embarkment of the NASCAR season. Saturday’s race will be the 35th running of The Sprint Unlimited, so it feels appropriate to look back at the history of the race, five years at a time, to see how the format has changed while highlighting important turning points.

30 years ago | Feb. 14, 1983

Winner: Neil Bonnett, No. 75 Hodgdon Chevrolet

Starting position:

15th

Prize money:

$50,000

Laps:

20

Margin of victory:

1/2 car length

Time of race:

15 minutes, 35 seconds

Average speed:

192.513 mph

Cautions:

1 for 3 laps

Lead changes:

3

In the first of Neil Bonnett’s back-to-back The Sprint Unlimited victories, rain washed out all scheduled activities, forcing the race to be pushed to the following day, a Monday. Bonnett led just one lap, a feat that he repeated in his 1984 victory, as well. Only nine of the 16 competitors finished the race.

25 years ago | Feb. 17, 1988

Winner: Dale Earnhardt, No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet

Starting position:

2nd

Prize money:

$75,000

Laps:

20

Margin of victory:

One car length

Time of race:

15 minutes, 40 seconds

Average speed:

191.489 mph

Cautions:

None

Lead changes:

1

 

In Dale Earnhardt’s third Sprint Unlimited victory, he started in second position, quickly caught up to Geoffrey Bodine on the sixth lap, and held on until the end. The race featured no cautions and just the one lead change, both Sprint Unlimited records. Bodine finished fourth overall behind Earnhardt, Davey Allison and Bobby Allison.

 

20 years ago | Feb. 7, 1993

Winner: Dale Earnhardt, No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet

Starting position:

15th

Prize money:

$60,000

Laps:

20

Margin of victory:

Two car lengths

Time of race:

16 minutes, 3 seconds

Average speed:

186.916 mph

Cautions:

1 for 2 laps

Lead changes:

7

 

With his fourth Sprint Unlimited victory sprinkled in with a win in the 1991 running of the race, Earnhardt continued his hot streak by winning his fifth in 1993. No driver in history has won The Sprint Unlimited, a Budweiser Duel and the Daytona 500 in the same year, but Earnhardt came close that year. After winning The Sprint Unlimited and Duel #2, he took second place in the 500, finishing 0.16 seconds behind Dale Jarrett. Coincidentally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won both a Duel (#2) and the 500 but finished second to Jarrett in The Sprint Unlimited in 2004.

 

15 years ago | Feb. 8, 1998

Winner: Rusty Wallace, No. 2 Miller Lite Ford

Starting position:

13th

Prize money:

$100,000

Laps:

25

Margin of victory:

0.290 seconds

Time of race:

20 minutes, 57 seconds

Average speed:

178.998

Cautions:

2 for 0 laps

Lead changes:

3

 

Seeing the first increase in laps in the race’s history, the 1998 running had a format change to a 25-lap circuit at noon that followed a 25-lap qualifying race at 11 a.m. which featured the previous year’s second-round qualifiers. The winner advanced to the main race and one two-tire pit stop was required in both the qualifier and main event. Rusty Wallace led for just the final lap, earning the victory and ending his record-long cold streak of 11 Sprint Unlimited starts without a win.

 

10 years ago | Feb. 8, 2003

Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet

Starting position:

19th

Prize money:

$205,000

Laps:

70

Margin of victory:

0.180 seconds

Time of race:

58 minutes, 4 seconds

Average speed:

180.827

Cautions:

none

Lead changes:

13

 

The race was moved from Sunday afternoon to Saturday night, marking the first time The Sprint Unlimited was held under the lights. The 2003 running also saw a significant format change, working with the 70-lap format established in 2001 and breaking it up into two segments: a 20-lap portion, followed by a 10-minute intermission, finished with the final 50 laps. Pit stops were no longer required by officials, but fuel cell sizes were reduced from 22 to 13.5 gallons, making a fuel stop essential. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s performance in this race was particularly memorable, as he moved up 18 spots for the victory, passing Jeff Gordon (who started one spot ahead of him and led for 31 laps) in the 66th lap for the victory.

 

5 years ago | Feb. 9, 2008

Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet

Starting position:

7th

Prize money:

$215,000

Laps:

70

Margin of victory:

0.136 seconds

Time of race:

1 hour, 14 minutes, 36 seconds

Average speed:

140.751 mph

Cautions:

4 for 14 laps

Lead changes:

17

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. dominated this race, leading for a record 47 laps in his first Sprint Unlimited start since switching to Hendrick Motorsports. Tony Stewart had a late lead, pulling ahead of Earnhardt in the 61st lap before surrendering it in the 68th. Earnhardt’s purse of $215,000 is also tied with Stewart's from the previous year for highest purse in The Sprint Unlimited history.