The Sprint Cup schedule has a total of thirty-six points paying races plus a couple of non-points races in the Sprint Unlimited and the Sprint All-Star Race but make no mistake this Sunday’s Daytona 500 is “THE” race on the entire schedule. Sprint Cup racing is the only major sport that opens the season with its biggest race and unlike the stick and ball sports that contests their biggest games at the end of their seasons, the season opening Daytona 500 works for NASCAR’ premier series.
What makes the races so big is that it basically takes an entire week to take place as qualifying started on Sunday with the two front row spots up for grabs but it will not be until after the two Budweiser Duel 150 qualifying races that takes place on Thursday when the remaining spots in the 43-car field will be filled. This long process is especially tough on teams that are not guaranteed a spot on the starting grid because of where they ended in the final 2014 points standings.
This year’s qualifying should produce the fastest qualifying speeds since NASCAR mandated the use of restrictor plates that were introduced to keep the speeds being posted under the magical 200 MPH barrier. Daytona has always used the one car at a time format to qualify but beginning this year, the field will be divided into two groups on the track at a time that allows the drivers to draft off each of each other which should push the speeds back in the neighborhood of 200 MPH.
Forty-nine teams were listed to attempt to qualify for the 43 starting positions in the 500 and because of the race’s unique qualifying format, six drivers will have to make it into the race by either their qualifying speed or their finishing position in one of the two Budweiser Dual qualifying races. Of the six drivers having to drive their way into the race, veteran Carl Edwards may have the most pressure.
This will be Edwards’ first race in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota after spending the last 11 years driving for Roush-Fenway Racing. Since Edwards was hired to drive for a new Gibbs team this season, he does not have any points from 2014 to fall back on if he doesn’t drive his way into the starting lineup.
It was no secret when Edwards announced last season that he was leaving Roush that the move was made in order to give him a better chance of winning a championship. That championship dream could take a real hit if he isn’t able to take the green flag on Sunday as he would then be playing catch up in the points for a birth in the Chase. However, he could still drive his way into the Chase by posting a win as the rules state that in order for a winning driver to qualify for the Chase he has to attempt to qualify for each race on the schedule.
PIT NOTES: NASCAR announced that it will no longer be regulating minimum air pressure requirements this season. In previous seasons, NASCAR has mandated the air pressure in the right front tire and in some cases the left-front tire. Crew chiefs like to start a race with low air pressure because the pressure will increase as the tire heats up on the track. Goodyear will continue as they have in previous seasons to give the crew chiefs their recommendations on air pressure plus information about the durability of the tire but it will be up to each crew chief to come up with the strategy that they feel gives them the best chance to win.
Matt Kenseth wasted very little time in breaking the slump that saw him go winless last season. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver took the checkered flag Saturday night in a crash filled Sprint Unlimited to claim the first trip to a victory lane this season. He will enter this week with a ton of momentum but a win in the Unlimited doesn’t automatically bring the title along with it. Only seven times has the winner of the Unlimited gone on to win the championship with Dale Earnhardt Sr. accomplishing the feat four times.
Event: Daytona 500
Track: Daytona International Speedway (2.5 mile tri-oval, 31o degrees of banking in the turns)
Date: February 22, 1:00 p.m.
Defending Champion: Dale Earnhardt Jr.