6 Lessons Learned from the Sprint Unlimited
Man, it feels good to actually be recapping racing once again.
This NASCAR offseason has certainly been an interesting one, with new cars, new events and even new relationships ("Stenica," "SparkleHouse" or whatever else you want to call Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s romantic two-car tandem). But in the end, whether you're a writer, a racer or just a fan, two months of gossiping and speculation can't replace the thrill of covering the races themselves.
We're still just under a week away from the Daytona 500 and the official start of the Sprint Cup season, but we got a taste of what to expect with Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited. Returning to the polesitter-centric format of years past, the 19-car event was a welcome return to action, it and foreshadowed good things to come this season.
Here are the six greatest takeaways from the first 75 laps of the year.
The Racing Just Looks Better
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Everything about Saturday night's race suggested that this year's racing will be more aesthetically pleasing than the past few years of Car of Tomorrow competition.
Not only are the Gen-Six body styles a smash hit, but the two-car tandem draft that flourished in the COT era seems to be a thing of the past, a welcome sight to most.
Don't Call Kevin Harvick a "Lame Duck"
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While the term might be accurate thanks to Harvick's impending move to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, the longest-tenured driver at Richard Childress Racing sure didn't drive like he was worried about a performance drop-off this year.
With 40 laps spent in front of the field, as well as a perfectly executed late-race block on Greg Biffle to preserve the victory, he was as dominant as could be. Expect the momentum to carry through the early stages of the season.
Changing Teams Won't Impact Matt Kenseth's Strength at Superspeedways
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Mark it down—even though the two-time Daytona 500 winner didn't take the victory in his race debut with Joe Gibbs Racing, he still showed the same speed that enabled him to develop into a threat at every Daytona race with Roush Fenway Racing.
Kenseth led a total of 26 laps on Saturday night on the way to a fifth-place finish, and he should be recognized as a contender to take back-to-back 500 wins.
The Start-and-Park Epidemic Has Spread to All-Star Races
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Frank Stoddard's FAS Lane Racing had a guaranteed entry into the Sprint Unlimited one way or another, with both Terry Labonte and Ken Schrader a part of the team. The team elected to replace Schrader with Labonte before the race, but the two-time Cup champion still retired two laps into the race with a vibration to collect $31,499.
In a race that was already short on cars, FAS Lane's move to take the money and run may be the highest-profile case of a start-and-park yet, and proof that it's time to crack down on the practice.
Fan Voting Is Predictable, Except for When It Isn't
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Leaving much of the Sprint Unlimited up to a fan vote was an interesting PR move and a great way to draw fan engagement, but some votes are always a given.
The choices to make drivers take four tires after the first segment and not to eliminate drivers after the second one seemed like foregone conclusions before voting ever started.
The only real surprise was when fans voting at the track elected to make the final segment 20 laps instead of 10, a move that backfired when Kevin Harvick led 19 of them.
Drivers Up Front Tend to Stay Up Front
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Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth combined to lead 66 of the race's 75 laps, a high number given the amount of lead changes we saw at restrictor-plate tracks during the COT era. As such, next week's Daytona 500 could be reminiscent of the 2000 version of the race, when three drivers—Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin and Johnny Benson—combined to lead 193 of 200 laps.
At the end of the day, Martin came home fifth, Benson finished 12th and Jarrett scored the third Daytona 500 victory of his career, making him the last driver to win the Great American Race from the pole position.
That's a stat that should make any Danica Patrick fan smile heading into Sunday.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.