Fuel and Tires

All about auto racing with Gazette staffer Dave von Falkenstein.

Fuel & Tires: Sprint Unlimited race kicks off NASCAR season

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Dave von Falkenstein
Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The NASCAR Sprint Cup season kicks off this weekend with Saturday's Sprint Unlimited race at Daytona International Speedway. The non-points race will feature 25 drivers and will be run as a 75-lap contest with a competition caution coming at lap 25, separating the segments. Think of it as a warm-up for next Sunday's true season-opening Daytona 500.

As was done last year, select fans will be paired with each team's crew chief for a random drawing to determine starting and pit road positions. The drawing will take place Friday afternoon, prior to the first of two practices for the competing teams.

In order to be eligible for the Sprint Unlimited, a driver must have done at least one of the following: won a pole position in 2015; won a past Sprint Unlimited event; won a pole for the Daytona 500; was active in the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Any additional open spots will go to drivers by last year's points until 25 drivers are in the field.

Two drivers who are eligible for this year's race but will not be participating are Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Gordon retired following last season and Stewart is out for at least the first few months of the season due to a back injury. An interim replacement driver for Stewart will be named Friday, but will not participate in the Sprint Unlimited.

Since there are no points involved in this race, picking a winner is not the easiest thing to do. You won't have many drivers playing it safe to get to the finish. There's nearly always a wreck that takes out a large amount of the field and it's basically a sprint race.

Since this race debuted in 1979, only five times has the winner of the Sprint Unlimited gone on to win the Daytona 500. The last time it happened was in 2000, when Dale Jarrett did it for a second time.

It will be interesting to see how reigning series champion Kyle Busch comes out of the gate, having won this race in 2012. Last year's Daytona 500 was one of the eleven races Busch missed due to an injury he suffered in the Xfinity Series race at Daytona.

Three-time race winner Kevin Harvick (2013, 2010, 2009) is going to be looking to continue his championship runner-up season in which he finished outside of the top 20 only five times in 36 races.

One of only two other drivers in the field to win this race more than once is Denny Hamlin (2014, 2006), who will be looking to make it four wins for his Joe Gibbs Racing in the last five years.

Hamlin's teammate, Cambridge native Matt Kenseth, is the defending winner of this race and is probably looking to forget about last season and avoid any confrontations with Joey Logano.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who somewhat surprisingly only has a pair of wins in this race (2008, 2003), is coming off a season that included three wins. One of those wins came at the Pepsi 400, the race at Daytona that is run in July.

The only other former winners of this race in the field are Kurt Busch (2011) and Jimmie Johnson (2005). Busch is coming off his first multiple-win season since 2011 and Johnson won five teams last season, though only finished tenth in the championship standings.

Race coverage starts at 5:30 p.m. Saturday on Fox.

Following Daytona 500 qualifying Sunday (coverage starts at noon on Fox), the two 60-lap Can-Am Duel at Daytona races will take place Thursday (coverage starts at 6 p.m. on Fox Sports 1). The qualifying session on Sunday will set the front row for the race while the duel races will set the rest of the field.

Dave von Falkenstein is a digital content coordinator for The Gazette and an auto racing fan. Follow him on Twitter at @achtungvon or email him at [email protected].

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