2015-02-11 / Sports

Getting back on track

Steve Mickey


Steve Mickey Steve Mickey This coming Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, the rather short NASCAR winter comes to an end as the 2015 season will kick off with the running of the Sprint Unlimited. It doesn’t count as one of the 36 pointspaying races that make up the Sprint Cup schedule, but with its unique format it is one of the most anticipated races of the entire racing season.

The event has been known by many names since its beginning as the Busch Clash in 1979. The race began as a 20-lap shootout and over the years has seen several different formats with this year’s edition consisting of 75 laps that will be split into two segments. A competition caution lap at lap 25 will be used to separate the race into the two segments.

Even though it’s a very short race and it doesn’t pay out any of those precious Sprint Cup points, the race does have a large purse. Buddy Baker won the first-ever Sprint Unlimited (Busch Clash) in 1979 and he took home a check worth $50,000. In the years since Baker took that first checkered flag, both the purse and the winner’s share have continued to grow. Last year Denny Hamlin won the race and was given a check for $201,139 out of the million dollar-plus purse.

The unique format and winner’s purse makes it a one-of-akind event, but maybe what sets it apart even more from the rest of the Sprint Cup schedule is how a driver becomes eligible to participate in the event. This eligibility requirement for a driver, like every other aspect of the event, has changed over the years. It originally began as a race for the pole winners from the year before, but over the years the requirements have changed in order to increase the size of the field.

This Saturday’s race lineup will feature a minimum of 25 Sprint Cup drivers that competed full time in the Sprint Cup Series in 2014. For the first time all 16 Chase drivers from last season will gain automatic entry into the race as well as all of the Coors Light Pole winners from last season. Former Sprint Unlimited race winners and Daytona 500 pole winners will also gain automatic entry, with the remaining spots being filled by drivers highest in the 2014 Sprint Cup Series driver championship points who are not already eligible.

There are three drivers that are eligible for Saturday night’s race but will not be participating. Brian Vickers won a pole last season for Michael Waltrip Racing but will not take part in the race because of an illness that will also see him miss several early races. Brian Scott also won a pole last season but will be driving for Jay Robinson Racing which just recently took over Tommy Baldwin Racing’s #36 team from last season and that team has no plans to field a car in Saturday night’s race. A.J. Allmendinger won a race last season and made the Chase while driving for JTG Daughtery Racing, but that team has decided not to enter a car in the race.

Taking these three drivers’ places will be the next three highest drivers from last season’s final point standings. Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard and Casey Mears will all take the green flag Saturday because of their last season’s points.

Saturday’s event will not only be the kick-off to the new season, but will also kick off Daytona’s annual Speedweeks that is so big that it has its own sponsor in Budweiser. The qualifying format for the 500 is so unique that it actually takes up two days of the week that also includes a couple of qualifying races known as the Budweiser Duel that are used to set the starting lineup for the sport’s most famous race.

Sprint Cup cars don’t have exclusive use of the facility as immediately before the Sprint Unlimited, the ARCA Series starts its season with the Lucas Oil 200. The Camping World Truck Series new season begins with the Nextera Energy Resources 250 on Friday with the Xfinity Series holding its first race of the season on Saturday with the running of the Alert Today Florida 300.

Race Preview

Event: Sprint Unlimited

Track: Daytona International Speedway (2.5 tri-oval, 31 degrees of banking in the turns)

Date: February 14, 8 p.m.

TV: FOX

Radio: MRN

Defending Champion: Denny Hamlin

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