Gentleman Start Your Engines: The 2009 Sprint Cup Season Has Officially Begun

Samuel Sica@@SicatheKidAnalyst IFebruary 8, 2009

It was a wonderful thing to finally hear the roar of the engines Friday night as the Sprint Cup cars took to the track on the high banks of Daytona for Bud Shootout practice. This was the first time that any of the drivers got to practice at Daytona since NASCAR did away with preseason testing this off-season to try and save teams money due to the economic crisis.

The 2009 season started off with a bang in the Bud Shootout, which was a race for drivers and owners of the top six in each car manufacturer’s standings. The race included a record setting field of 28 drivers and also set a record for most cautions and most leaders in the annual preseason race.

The race all came down to a green-white-checkered situation where Jamie McMurray was eventually overaken by Kevin Harvick on a last-lap pass going into turn three.

Harvick had just taken the lead away from McMurray before a big crash involving Denny Hamlin, Casey Mears, Kyle Busch, Brian Vickers, and three-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

This accident froze the field, which meant Harvick earned the victory since he was leading at the time the caution came out.

The top-five finishers were: Harvick, McMurray, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and A.J. Allmendinger.

If the Bud Shootout is a preview for what is to come later on this week in Speedweeks, then we are in for a heck of a show for Thursday's Duel races and the Daytona 500.

Saturday night’s Bud Shootout was just a race for bragging rights and extra cash, but Sunday is much more important to the drivers and teams as they try to qualify for the top two positions in the Daytona 500.

Many cars proved to be fast in qualifying trim, but two drivers just had a little more speed than everyone else Sunday afternoon. Mark Martin ran an early lap of 47.919 seconds (187.817 mph), which put him atop of the chart for most of the session.

Martin was challenged on numerous occasions, but no one could break through and top his number.

Eventually though, Martin Truex Jr. put down a fantastic lap of 47.872 seconds (188 mph), putting him as the provisional pole sitter.

Truex stayed at the top of the charts after one of the favorites for the pole, Bill Elliott, could not quite muster enough to take the position away. Elliott, who had the best time in both practice sessions Saturday, qualified in the fifth position, earning himself a spot in the Daytona 500 field.

Elliott, driving for the Wood Brothers team, was not in the top 35 in owner’s points and had to either have one of the top three qualifying times Sunday or race his way into the field in one of the two Duel races that sets the Daytona 500 field.

The three drivers that were outside of the top 35 in owner points that qualified for the Daytona 500 were Elliott, Travis Kvapil and Tony Stewart.

Stewart, qualifying for the race on time, meant that a spot was available for a past champion if they were not already qualified. This allowed Terry Labonte, the 1996 Cup champion, an automatic spot into the Daytona 500 field.

After Sunday’s qualifying session, we now know who will be starting on the front row and who will have to race their way into the field in Thursday's Duel races. 

Truex will start on the pole for the second time in his career and Martin will start along side for the first time in the Daytona 500.

We also know that four more drivers were added to the 35 drivers who were already locked into the field due to being in the top 35 in owner points from last season. That only leaves two more questions before the field is set for the Daytona 500.

Who will fill the last four available positions in the field and where will everyone else start for the race?

My predictions for who will race their way into the Daytona 500 in the Duel races are: Regan Smith, A.J. Allmendinger, Joe Nemecheck, and Mike Wallace. These are just four of the 17 drivers that are competing for the four remaining positions in the field.

If my predictions are correct, then Brad Keselowski, Kirk Shelmerdine, Scott Riggs, Geoff Bodine, Derrike Cope, Carl Long, Kelly Bires, Jeremy Mayfield, Tony Raines, Mike Garvey, Norm Benning, Mike Skinner, and Boris Said would all end up missing the show.

My prediction for the Daytona 500 is for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to once again visit Victory Lane for the second time in the 500 and start his season off on the right foot.