Top 10 moments in Sprint Unlimited history
February 14, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
It began in 1979 with nine drivers pulling numbered beer cans from a bucket full of ice. It continues Saturday night with twice that many competitors taking to the high banks of NASCAR's most famous speedway. In between, what was originally billed as "the richest race per mile" has become a season-opening tradition that's as much a spectacle as it is an event.
There are no points on the line, and never have been for an exhibition that started as a race reserved solely for pole winners from the previous season. And yet, you'd never know that given the drivers who have occasionally attempted to skirt or outright defy the rules, the cars that have ended up as steaming husks, or the finishes that have been wheel-to-wheel. The name of the race -- which started as a clash, became a shootout and is now the Sprint Unlimited -- has always seemed to fit.
Saturday night a collection of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series stars will go at it again at Daytona International Speedway, once more under a set of unpredictable rules that are contingent upon fan voting. The exhibition race to kick off the season will continue to whet the appetite for the remainder of Speedweeks to come, and perhaps add another memorable moment in an event that has plenty of them despite its relatively short distance. Until then, here are the top 10.
10. The Buddy system
Nine drivers, 20 laps, four lead changes and 15 minutes. That's about the extent of what was the inaugural Busch Clash in 1979. Benny Parsons pulled beer can No. 1 out of the bucket to claim the first starting position, but 20 laps later it was Buddy Baker who cashed the $50,000 first prize. The race went green the whole way, Baker pulled away late with drafting help from Darrell Waltrip, and he went unchallenged in leading the final five circuits. The race was aired on tape delay, as part of the Speedweeks that featured the first live flag-to-flag coverage of the Daytona 500.
9. Rookie statement
A rookie driver had never won the season-opening exhibition at Daytona -- until Denny Hamlin intervened in 2006, when the event was postponed until Sunday afternoon because of rain. Hamlin had won a pole at Phoenix in a seven-race slate the previous season, qualifying him for the event in his rookie season with Joe Gibbs Racing. He made that berth count, leading 16 of the final 21 laps to claim the trophy in his first race as a full-time Sprint Cup driver. Hamlin's crew got him out in first after the crucial final stop, and the No. 11 car outran Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart in the first kickoff event to feature a green-white-checkered finish.
8. Under the lights
Who says nothing good happens after dark? What was then known as the Budweiser Shootout went under the lights in 2003, and the result was vintage Dale Earnhardt Jr. This was at the height of Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s dominance on restrictor-plate tracks, when that red No. 8 car seemed able to make moves and pull away on its own. It certainly did in that first nighttime exhibition race, where Earnhardt led the final five laps and was virtually untouchable at the end. It was a precursor to the next Speedweeks, when NASCAR's most popular driver would add the Daytona 500.
7. The wildest card
Neil Bonnett didn't win a pole in 1982, but he earned entry into the season-opening exhibition the following year because of a "wild card" berth selected by blind draw among those fastest in second-round qualifying (remember that?) the year before. Bonnett made it count, making a final-lap pass on Darrell Waltrip in Turn 3 that earned him the victory in 1983 -- but also sparked a crash involving Baker, Terry Labonte and Dale Earnhardt. The Intimidator had been black-flagged earlier in the event due to an oil leak, but refused to heed the flag and had his scorecard pulled by race officials.
6. Over the line
Aiming for his second victory in the event, Hamlin found himself locked onto the bumper of leader Ryan Newman on the final lap in 2011. Off the final corner, Kurt Busch went high, and Hamlin went low -- but too low, as it turns out. Roughly half the No. 11 car was below the yellow line at the bottom of the race track, under which cars cannot advance their position in a restrictor-plate event. Newman forced Hamlin down there without making contact, opening the top for Busch, who barreled through and won a three-wide finish by .058 seconds. Penalized to the end of the lead lap, Hamlin wound up 12th.
5. Jarrett and Junior
Earnhardt Jr. was a beast at Daytona in 2004, during a Speedweeks where he would win every race -- except one. The exception came in the opener, where Dale Jarrett jetted ahead of the No. 8 car as the field entered the final lap. On the backstretch, Jamie McMurray turned Newman into the outside wall, but NASCAR kept out the green flag and allowed the competitors to race to the finish on the 2.5-mile track. Off the final turn, Earnhardt looked low, then high, but had to settle for second behind Jarrett, who won the race for the third and final time.
4. Sign of things to come
Jeff Gordon wasn't a rookie in 1994, given that he had completed the previous full season -- his first -- in the No. 24 car. But he was making his maiden voyage in the Daytona exhibition, thanks to a pole he had won at Charlotte the year before. Gordon made the most of it, reaching Victory Lane the first time he was qualified for the event. He passed Ernie Irvan with two laps remaining and won by a comfortable margin. It was a sign of things to come, given that Gordon's first points victory would come later that same season, and the first of four championships would arrive the next year.
3. Rudd goes for a ride
The most infamous crash in the history of the season-opening exhibition came in 1984, in a race where Bonnett went on to win for the second consecutive season. But the day's biggest story involved Ricky Rudd, who was turned sideways exiting Turn 4 and had his Bud Moore Engineering car lift off the ground. What followed next was jarring, with Rudd's vehicle tumbling violently, pirouetting on its hood and then tumbling again before coming to rest in the grass. Rudd emerged badly bruised, and then famously taped his swollen eyes open to compete in the Daytona 500 -- where he finished seventh. A week later at Richmond, he won.
2. Taking the sixth
Dale Earnhardt may have needed 20 tries to win the Daytona 500, but he absolutely dominated the exhibition that kicked off Speedweeks. The Intimidator won the event's second edition in 1980, claimed another in 1986, and collected four more in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995. His complete control of the race was on full display in 1995, when Earnhardt led 18 of 20 laps to win the event for a record sixth time. Although a trio of drivers -- Jarrett, Stewart and Kevin Harvick -- have each won it three times, Earnhardt's record remains.
1. Save, and a beauty
Kyle Busch won by the closest margin of victory ever in 2012, using a slingshot pass on the final lap to prevail by .013 seconds over Stewart. But it was how he got there that was the interesting part. He had to make two epic saves just to keep his car in one piece, and the latter was an all-timer. With two laps remaining in regulation, Gordon got into the back of Busch, whose car fishtailed wildly and threw sparks as the driver fought it back up onto the banking. The ensuing accident left Gordon rolling upside down on his roof, but afterward Busch's saves were all the rage.
"Stab and steer," Busch called it. Earlier in the race he had done the same after changing lanes in front of Jimmie Johnson. He wasn't completely clear, leading Busch's No. 18 car to swerve almost fully left to right before the driver reined it in. "There aren't many people, ever, who could have done that," Stewart said. It all set the stage for the end, where Busch collected his almost-out-of-control car for a second time, and then roared back up through the field to win. Not bad for stab and steer. Or a race with no points on the line.