Brace yourselves race fans, NASCAR is almost back.
While the official start of the Sprint Cup season won't happen until the Daytona 500 on Feb. 23, the lead up to the biggest event for NASCAR is nearly as exciting as the race itself.
For every driver jockeying for position in the first race of the season, events like pole qualifying and the Budweiser Duels will be crucial. But for fans, the Sprint Unlimited race provides excitement before the season begins.
With Jimmie Johnson once again atop the Sprint Cup throne heading into the 2014 season, drivers like Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick will be looking to avenge coming up just short last season.
The field looks better than ever this season with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kyle Busch hoping to have another strong season and win their first championship. Meanwhile, rookie Austin Dillon will be making his long-awaited premiere on the biggest stage in NASCAR.
Before any driver fires up his or her engine, here is a look at the upcoming schedule and a breakdown of what to look for in the biggest events.
|Fri., Feb. 14, 5 p.m.||Sprint Unlimited practice||FS1|
|Fri., Feb. 14, 6:30 p.m.||Final Sprint Unlimited practice||FS1|
|Sat., Feb. 15, 10:30 a.m.||Sprint Cup practice||FS1|
|Sat., Feb. 15, 1:30 p.m.||Sprint Cup practice||FS1|
|Sat., Feb. 15, 8 p.m.||Sprint Unlimited||FS1|
|Sun., Feb. 16, 1:05 p.m.||Pole qualifying||Fox|
|Wed., Feb. 19, 4 p.m.||Sprint Cup practice||FS1|
|Wed., Feb. 19, 6:30 p.m.||Sprint Cup practice||FS1|
|Thurs., Feb. 20, 7 p.m.||Budweiser Duels||FS1|
|Fri., Feb. 21, 11:30 a.m.||Sprint Cup practice||FS1|
|Fri., Feb. 21, 2:30 p.m.||Sprint Cup practice||FS1|
|Sat., Feb. 22, 10:30 a.m.||Sprint Cup final practice||FS1|
|Sun., Feb. 23, 1 p.m.||Daytona 500||Fox|
Breaking Down Speedweeks and the Daytona 500
Sprint Cup Qualifying
Predicting who will come out on top in qualifying for the Daytona 500 is difficult because of the fact that every driver has been off for months. But looking to the past is sometimes the best predictor of the future.
In the last three seasons, three different racing teams have come away with the pole position. Last year, it was Danica Patrick and Stewart-Haas Racing who surprised the field. In 2012, Carl Edwards stole the pole for Roush Fenway. Back in 2011, Earnhardt, Jr. raced his way to the pole before finishing 24th.
One driver that has been strong in recent years is Kenseth. The Joe Gibbs Racing member won the race and a Duel back in 2012 and led the most laps last year before coming up short.
With momentum on his side and hoping for revenge this season after finishing second in points, Kenseth has a good shot at starting out from the top position in the Daytona 500.
There are a number of ways to go with the Budweiser Duels, especially with such a deep field. But with great track records in recent years and the wins to prove they belong at the top, the two favorites in these races for me are Kyle Busch and Harvick—if they are in different races, of course.
The two winners from last year came up just short like everyone else against Johnson in the point standings, and the Joe Gibbs Racing tandem look primed to start the year off strong.
As for Busch, the driver has voiced his opinion about the changes and his displeasure with the new Chase format, according to Marty Smith of ESPN:
Kyle Busch: "I'm super-frustrated with how our conversation (w NASCAR re Chase) went. If I get fined for (saying so), we'll see."— Marty Smith (@MartySmithESPN) January 30, 2014
What's the best way to stick it to NASCAR? Start winning now and get to the top as soon as possible. While winning one of the Duels won't earn him any points, it will put Busch in prime position to pull out the Daytona 500.
As for Harvick, his consistency on super speedways is something that can't be overlooked. After winning both the Sprint Unlimited last year and one of the Duels, look for him to continue that success this year.
Who will win the Daytona 500?
The usual suspects will be favored to win this race. Names like Johnson, Harvick and Busch—Kyle or Kurt, honestly—will be at the top of the leaderboard, which makes picking the overall winner a tough decision.
But don't count out Junior in this race. With a little extra motivation to get the job done this year after finding out that crew chief Steve Letarte will be retiring after this season, he should still be a contender.
Letarte sounded confident when talking about their odds at winning this season, according to Kenny Bruce of NASCAR.com:
I think what makes this situation unique compared to any driver situation I can remember is I'm not going to crew chief for another organization. I'm not working on being a broadcaster in 2014, I’m working on filling a trophy case. And to do that we have to win.
After posting 10 top-five finishes last season and in 2012, Earnhardt, Jr. looks primed to have his best season in 2014. The 2004 winner and three-time runner-up could get the year started off right with a huge win on NASCAR's biggest stage 10 years after his first time in Daytona's winner circle.
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