The Sprint Unlimited -- a non-points race -- still gets drivers geared up
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The only thing drivers were willing to predict about The Sprint Unlimited race at Daytona International Speedway is that they can’t predict a thing.
Saturday night’s non-points race -- featuring a 19-car field comprised of last season’s pole winners and former winners of the event -- kicks off NASCAR Speedweeks and will mark the competition debut of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ anticipated Generation-6 car.
A fan vote already decided the 30/25/20 lap format, and fan voting online and through NASCAR’s mobile app is still going on to determine the number of pit stops allowed and the number of cars eliminated after each of the race’s first two segments. Fans in attendance at the speedway Saturday will vote on the starting grid.
“You kinda go into the race knowing it’s going to be crazy if for nothing else because there’s no points on the line,’’ said Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. “Of course, we have a new car, there’s a lot of unknowns, a lot of things where we don’t know what to expect.
“I love it, absolutely love it. That’s the coolest part about it, no points, no worries.’’
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That may be the case come race time, but Friday’s two practice sessions for the race proved to be a test of discipline. Drivers and crew chiefs are still experimenting with the draft and learning the new car. And there was a real balance between being tempted to learn the limits and being conservative enough to save the car.
A 12-car accident during drafting practice at the Daytona Preseason Thunder test last month sent many teams home with totaled cars still unsure of what to expect.
A five-car accident only eight minutes into Friday’s first practice was a firm reminder of what can happen. Fast. However, that crash was a result of simple driver miscalculation, not an issue of learning the new car.
Defending Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth’s Toyota clipped Kurt Busch’s Chevrolet and collected three other cars, including Carl Edwards, Mark Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya. Busch, Martin and Edwards will have to use a back-up car for the race.
“I feel bad for my guys, they put so much work into these cars for me to wreck them in practice,’’ Edwards said.
The second session was less dramatic. Only 12 cars went out, mostly doing single car runs, less willing to chance unintended consequence of bump drafting in practice.
Toyota driver Denny Hamlin led the second session, followed by Fords driven by Joey Logano and Greg Biffle. Two-time Sprint Unlimited winner Kevin Harvick recorded the fastest lap of the day at 197.364 mph in his No. 29 Budweiser Chevy in the opening practice.
The defending winner of the event, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch had the 10th quickest speed but was more pleased he’d avoided any contact.
After prevailing in a thrilling finish to last year’s race -- Busch was eighth on a re-start with two laps remaining and nipped Tony Stewart at the finish line by .013-seconds -- he has proven that it won’t matter where you start or how good you were in practice.
“That was a cool race, it was a lot of fun, but I drive the same in every race,’’ Busch said. “You go for all you can every time you get out there on the race track. It’s going to be a learning curve for some of us to figure out what’s going on, to figure out how big of a draft these cars will get on one another and what you do with that.
“It’s certainly different for all of us, having the different rules and everything that’s coming through as we go through the days leading up. It makes it different for us but adds a fan element and that’s kind of cool they have some say in what’s going on. So that’s good.’’
As much as The Sprint Unlimited will be a test run for the Feb. 24 Daytona 500, it’s still a race, and 19 of NASCAR’s best want to win it.
“It is a fun race, just having the format and atmosphere that you get and just going for broke,’’ Kyle Busch said.
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