Preview, Prediction of the 2015 Sprint Unlimited

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistFebruary 10, 2015

Preview, Prediction of the 2015 Sprint Unlimited

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The so-called exhibition races that we see every year in NASCAR are some of the most exciting events there are.

    Teams don’t have to worry about points, so they can let it all hang out in races such as the Sprint All-Star Race, the Budweiser Duels and this Saturday’s first competition of the year on the race track, the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.

    There’s more than enough incentive to do well in a race that only has 25 drivers instead of the typical 43-driver field we see in the 36 points-paying races each season. There’s a big first prize for winning, and there’s momentum that a team can build upon for the subsequent Duels and, of course, the season-opening Daytona 500.

    It may only be 75 laps in length (barring a green-white-checkered finish), but the Sprint Unlimited will not only be a good warm-up for the 500, it’s also a good test to see what works for each team and what needs more work.

Sprint Unlimited Format

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    Denny Hamlin is the defending winner of the Sprint Unlimited, having won the 2014 event.
    Denny Hamlin is the defending winner of the Sprint Unlimited, having won the 2014 event.Associated Press

    The Sprint Unlimited, set to take the green flag at 8:15 p.m. EST on Saturday, Feb. 14, is essentially two races in one.

    The first is a 25-lap sprint, with a mandatory competition caution after Lap 25. That caution period will last 10 minutes.

    The second race is a 50-lap main event, so to speak. There will more than likely be at least one pit stop for teams in that segment; perhaps more if there are crashes or debris cautions.

    There have been some changes in this year’s format, including fans being paired with each crew chief to take part in a random drawing to select starting and pit-road positions. That will occur Friday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. EST.

    A total of 25 drivers will make up the field in the non-points race, including all 2014 pole winners, former Sprint Unlimited race winners and past Daytona 500 pole winners who competed in the Sprint Cup Series full-time last season.

    Last but not least, all 16 drivers who made last year’s expanded Chase for the Sprint Cup will also be part of the Sprint Unlimited field.

    Several drivers who were eligible for the Unlimited have chosen not to take part in the race. Those drivers and their replacements are:

    AJ Allmendinger (replaced by Clint Bowyer), Brian Scott (Paul Menard), Brian Vickers (Casey Mears) and David Gilliland (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.).

    The total purse for the race is $1 million, with $200,000 going to the winner.

    Click here for the complete entry list.

By the Numbers: Daytona International Speedway

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    Kyle Busch owns the record for closest finish in the Sprint Unlimited.
    Kyle Busch owns the record for closest finish in the Sprint Unlimited.J Pat Carter/Associated Press

    The tri-oval shaped Daytona International Speedway is 2.5 miles around. It is one of only two tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit that requires restrictor plates on motors (the other track is Talladega Superspeedway).

    DIS is in the midst of the largest rebuilding process of any track in NASCAR history, the $400 million Daytona Rising. The rebuilding will be about 40 percent complete for Speedweeks and will be fully completed by the 2016 Daytona 500.

    Track facts

    Banking: 31 degrees (18 degrees on frontstretch at start-finish line)
    Length of turns: 3,000 feet
    Frontstretch: 3,800 feet
    Backstretch: 3,000 feet
    Pit road: 1,600 feet long, 60 feet wide
    Total facility size: 480 acres (infield 180 acres, including 29-acre Lake Lloyd)


    Key Numbers

    * The closest margin of victory is .013 seconds, with Kyle Busch beating Tony Stewart to the finish line in 2012. If you don't think drivers don't get up for this race, there's your proof that they do.

    * Can you guess which starting position has led to the most victories? Starting on the outside pole (second position) has led to a high of five wins in the Unlimited's overall history.

    * The all-time winner of the Sprint Unlimited is the late Dale Earnhardt, with six wins during his career. Even though he's been gone from us for 14 years, it's still heartwarming to recall some of The Intimidator's significant achievements in his Hall of Fame career.

    * With one last start in the Sprint Unlimited set before he retires at season's end, Jeff Gordon will extend his current record of consecutive starts to 23 once the green flag falls in Saturday night's race.

    * Since the Sprint Unlimited began in 1979, the greatest number of lead changes occurred in 2011 with 28.

    * The fastest Sprint Unlimited was in 1987, when Bill Elliott had an average field-best speed of 197.802 mph. By comparison, the slowest average winning speed was 124.095 mph in 2013 by Kyle Busch.

    Source: RobertsNASCARNotes

Top Storylines to Watch

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    Jeff Gordon will be making his 23rd and likely last start in the Sprint Unlimited this Saturday night.
    Jeff Gordon will be making his 23rd and likely last start in the Sprint Unlimited this Saturday night.Associated Press

    Kevin Harvick to begin the long road toward repeating as champion

    Even though this is a non-points race, will Kevin Harvick try to make a statement by picking up where he left off after last year’s championship?

    Jeff Gordon's fairwell tour begins Saturday

    This will be Jeff Gordon’s 23rd and, most likely, final start of his career in the Sprint Unlimited. He's going to be faced with this same kind of situation in every race this season, be it a points race or not: to try and win every place he goes, knowing he'll likely never have another opportunity to do so.

    What's new in 2015

    How will either drivers on new teams (such as Carl Edwards) or with new crew chiefs (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) fare in their first true test of competition together?

    Smoke's big comeback starts Saturday (hopefully)

    How will Tony Stewart fare? Could this be a precursor to Stewart finally winning the first Daytona 500 of his career? This year will mark Stewart’s 17th start in the 500.

Top Contenders

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    Even though the Sprint Unlimited is a non-points race, it is Carl Edwards' official on-track debut in race competition for his new team, Joe Gibbs Racing.
    Even though the Sprint Unlimited is a non-points race, it is Carl Edwards' official on-track debut in race competition for his new team, Joe Gibbs Racing.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Even though this is a non-points race, there’s a nice paycheck and, perhaps more importantly, bragging rights to go along with winning this race.

    We see four likely top contenders:

    Carl Edwards' debut with Joe Gibbs Racing

    Even though it's a non-points race, Edwards will look to get off on the right foot with his new team. Edwards took perhaps the biggest leap of faith in his career when he left the only organization he's known in NASCAR, Roush Fenway Racing, with the hope that he can win more races and finally capture a Sprint Cup championship with JGR.

    Kyle Busch's championship run begins Saturday:

    Will 2015 finally be the year the younger Busch brother wins that elusive first Sprint Cup title? It would be a great kickoff toward that goal with a win in the Unlimited. Talent-wise, Busch is perhaps the most talented of any driver in the Sprint Cup Series.

    And while he's dominated the Camping World Truck Series and the Xfinity Series in the races he runs there, he needs to find a way to transfer that success to his regular job and finally win that championship that he's been seeking for the last decade.

    Will Kevin Harvick pick up where he left off at the end of 2014?

    One of the biggest things a first-time Sprint Cup champion has to contend with afterward is whether he’ll be a one-and-done champion. In other words, one championship is all he’ll ever win in his Cup career. Harvick is intent on repeating as champion. His journey begins Saturday night.

    How will Dale Earnhardt Jr. fare in his first race with a new crew chief?

    Not only does Junior want to win back-to-back Daytona 500s (and what would be the third of his career), but he also wants to show that he and new crew chief Greg Ives are ready to pick up where Earnhardt left off with now-former crew chief Steve Letarte and go toward that elusive first Cup championship.

Dark-Horse Pick

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    Jim Topper/Associated Press

    We like Tony Stewart. He’s great for NASCAR, is a three-time champion and has really become a great ambassador for the sport.

    But admittedly the last two seasons have not been Stewart-like. He missed the final 15 races of 2013 when he suffered a broken leg in a sprint car race in Iowa.

    Then in 2014, not only was Stewart involved in the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy, he also failed to win at least one race in a season for the first time in his 16-year Sprint Cup career.

    A win in the Sprint Unlimited would be a great way to show not only that Smoke is back, but that he could also finally go on to win the first Daytona 500 of his career—in his 17th start—eight days later on Feb. 22.

And the Winner Is …

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    As much as we like the four top contenders we chose, we’re going with Stewart—the dark horse (perhaps one of the few times in his career that he could be tagged with that label—as the winner of the Sprint Unlimited).

    Stewart has a lot to prove in 2015. He’s 43 years old and doesn’t want to have a third bad season in a row.

    A win in the Sprint Unlimited would go a long way toward enhancing the confidence of Stewart and his team, especially with the Daytona 500 right around the corner.

    Bottom line: Tony Stewart takes the checkered flag in the Sprint Unlimited…and then let’s see if he wins again in the season-opening 500.

    Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski