Thunder Is in the Forecast as the 2014 NASCAR Season Kicks off in Florida

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Thunder Is in the Forecast as the 2014 NASCAR Season Kicks off in Florida
Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Drafting during last year's Preseason Thunder

They call it Preseason Thunder, and it’s NASCAR’s version of spring training.

The five-day glorified autograph session beginning on Thursday (1/9) at the Daytona International Speedway also marks the unofficial start of the 2014 NASCAR season, and it throws the green flag on the hype for next month’s Daytona 500.

It's also an excuse for diehard NASCAR fans from around the country to escape the harsh winter weather and make the pilgrimage to Florida to sit in the grandstands, drink beer and enjoy the beautiful Florida weather as they watch Sprint Cup cars make laps around the legendary 2.5-mile high-banked race track.

Fans can watch at no cost from a section of the Oldfield Grandstands on the Speedway's front stretch. Activity begins at 9 a.m. and 1 to 5 p.m. each day, weather permitting. Each session includes a lunch break from noon until 1 p.m.

The Gen 6 Sprint Cup car introduced last season is essentially unchanged for 2014, so while some may want to call these two days on the track a test session, for most teams attending this year’s Preseason Thunder, it is little more than an opportunity to wipe off the dust that may have accumulated during the shortest offseason of any major league sport—and get back to the serious business of racing.

"Preseason Thunder at Daytona offers teams an opportunity to prepare for one of the most important race weekends of the season," according to Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition, in an official media release. "Races at Daytona International Speedway are unique to NASCAR competition, and Preseason Thunder will not only give all three of our national series an opportunity to test, but will allow us to settle upon a rules package that will benefit our teams and provide the best on-track action for our fans."

Penske Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing are among the organizations participating in the two days of Sprint Cup action.

Opting out of the two-day event for various reasons are Furniture Row Racing, Phil Parsons Racing, JTG Daugherty Racing and Front Row Motorsports.

While much of the planned activity at the track is designed to give fans an opportunity to meet their favorite driver and see cars on the track, it's also a time for the media to conduct interviews. This means that veteran driver Tony Stewart, recovering from a serious non-NASCAR racing accident, will have his chance to once again offer snarky comments during a press conference scheduled for Thursday morning.

For Dale Earnhardt Jr., it will mark the start of questions about whether or not 2014 will be his year to win a championship. And for his teammate and defending champion Jimmie Johnson, it will be all about his quest for a record-tying seventh championship.

And of course, last year's Daytona 500 pole winner Danica Patrick will be there and so will Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year candidate Austin Dillon, making his Cup debut in the No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.

If you can’t make it to Florida, Fox Sports 1 will have 12 hours of mind-numbing coverage of Sprint Cup and Nationwide cars along with Camping World Trucks running single-car laps as well as the fan-favorite pack racing at more than 200 miles per hour.

Boys and girls, it's time to go racing!

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