Speedweeks got underway at Daytona International Speedway last Saturday night with the running of the Sprint Unlimited nonpoints race. The race was the first ever for NASCAR’s new Generation 6 racer that, as we saw, actually does look like what you can go to the dealership and buy. Even though the race was being billed as the first chance for the drivers and teams to try and figure out what they have with the new car, it appeared there were still plenty of questions left to be answered once the checkered flag waved for Kevin Harvick.
One thing that was apparent is there will no longer be the twocar tandems that have dominated restrictor plate racing for the last couple of years. Saturday’s race saw very little bump drafting, instead it seemed that the cars were doing their pushing by just drawing up close to the car in front of them. Tony Stewart described it as a large ball of air being between the cars that would push the lead car forward, but at times would also tend to slow the car doing the pushing.
You just got the feeling that the entire race was a feeling out process for everybody that took the green flag and as the final laps came of the board, the field still hadn’t figured out exactly what it had with the new car. There will be several practice sessions this week and the Budweiser Duel 150-mile qualifying races on Thursday to get a better feel on what the drivers will have when the green flag waves on Sunday for the Daytona 500.
Saturday night didn’t have a monopoly for firsts at Daytona, Sunday proved to be the day that would provide ‘the’ storyline of the week as Stewart Haas Racing’s Danica Patrick became the first woman ever to sit on a pole for a Sprint Cup race. Her qualifying lap of 196.434 miles per hour was the second fastest restrictor plate qualifying lap in history, second to only Ken Schrader’s lap of 196.515 mph set in 1990. In all 22 drivers topped the 195 mph mark, and it had been since Jeff Gordon in 1999 that a driver topped the 195 mph mark.
The pole run for Patrick didn’t come as a total surprise as she posted the fastest time in practice for qualifying on Saturday. Her teammates at SHR, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart, backed up Patrick’s run by posting the fourth and fifth fastest times. Jeff Gordon grabbed the second spot followed by Trevor Bayne.
Patrick and Gordon are the only two drivers that are locked into their starting positions for next Sunday’s 500 as the rest of the field will lock down their starting positions after the conclusion of Thursday’s two qualifying races. There are only 45 drivers attempting to qualify for the 43 starting spots so much of the anxiety of just who will make the race is missing when compared to other years when 10 or more drivers faced missing the race, depending on the outcome of the qualifying races.
There will be several different agendas for drivers as the green flag waves to begin the two qualifying races. Besides Patrick and Gordon, the next four qualifiers are guaranteed starting spots as well as a total of seven other drivers who are already guaranteed starting spots because of the provisional system that is being used by NASCAR. Even though these drivers are locked into the 500, they want to start as close to the front as they can, but they want to be sure that they get out of Thursday’s races with their cars intact. The same can’t be said for the rest of the field as they will have to do whatever it takes to make the field for the biggest race of the season. It’s a recipe for two great races leading up to NASCAR’s own Super Bowl, the Daytona 500!
Race Preview Event: Daytona 500 Track: Daytona International Speedway (2.5 mile tri-oval, 31 degrees of banking in the turns) Date: Feb. 24, 1:20 pm TV: FOX Radio: MRN Defending Champion: Matt Kenseth