Sprint Unlimited looms large given unknowns

NASCAR.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Aric Almirola watched the exhibition that opened last year's NASCAR campaign at Daytona International Speedway from atop the pit box of teammate Marcos Ambrose, who was in the race. And he promised himself that the next season, he would have a much better view.

"I vowed to myself that I was not going to watch again if there was any way possible," the Richard Petty Motorsports driver said.

Thanks to his pole for the Cola-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Almirola is in the field for Saturday night's The Sprint Unlimited, which kicks off Budweiser Speedweeks at Daytona. He couldn't have picked a more important season to be in the event, given that the 75-lap exhibition marks the competitive debut of the Genereation-6 Sprint Cup cars that are being rolled out for this year.

The short, non-points race is limited to pole winners from 2012 and past champions of the event. It also stands as a valuable learning experience, given that cars got in so little drafting during the three-day Preseason Thunder test held here last month. The lone drafting session was a brief one, and resulted in a crash that damaged roughly a dozen cars -- and with some car parts still at a premium, left teams hesitant to test in a pack from that point on.

Saturday night, they won't have a choice. The Sprint Unlimited shapes up as a major shakedown for the Daytona 500, even though the 19 teams participating still don't yet know all the rules. Fans voting on the type of pit stop required after the first segment (four-tire, two-tire or none at all) and the number of cars eliminated after the second segment (two, four, six, or none) won't be determined until the green flag. But fan voting on the segment distances has concluded, and the choice announced Thursday was 30, 25, and 20 laps.

That final, 20-lap segment was chosen over shorter distances of 10 and 15 laps. "I like the idea of it being a longer segment," said Ambrose, who won two poles last year. "It allows teams to really gear up for that last segment. But you don't know whether you're going to be a part of that last segment, either, because they have that elimination thing going on. You just don't want to be one of those guys knocked out before the end of the race."

"You give the drivers a gas pedal and a brake pedal and a steering wheel, we don't care what it is -- we're going," added Greg Biffle, who won three poles last season. "We're going to have fun no matter what. That will be a longer (final) segment. I like that, though. I think that will be good. A restrictor-plate race, I don't think you want a five-lap shootout. It's going to be strategic, getting position and whatnot."

Even so, some expected a shorter closing distance. "I was really surprised," Almirola said. "I thought it was going to be the 10-lap segment. I think the first half of that, I think people will be cautions. And I think the last 10 laps will be very exciting. If I had to guess, I'd say we'd have a big wreck, and we're going to have a green-white-checked finish anyway."

The drafting crash in testing certainly doesn't dissuade such opinions. Almirola was one of several drivers caught up in that accident, which began when Dale Earnhardt Jr. inadvertently spun Ambrose trying to bump-draft, and led the No. 43 and several other teams to pack up and head home a day early. That's essentially the only drafting experience most Sprint Cup drivers have had in the new car to this point -- which makes everyone curious about Saturday night.

"It's going to be extremely interesting," said Mark Martin, who won four poles last season. "There won't be a competitor who will miss a second of that race, or the practices either, because we've had so little time with the cars in a pack."

Two practices for the event will be conducted Friday, the first beginning at 5 p.m. local time. Martin believes the smaller field in The Sprint Unlimited will allow the participating drivers an opportunity to get more comfortable in their surroundings, particularly given how little practice they've had thus far in a pack. A test last year at Talladega and the Daytona test are the only times the Generation-6 car has been on a plate track to this point.

"What we do is, we exploit everything that is possible with these things from speed, to how they react in the draft, to how you race," Martin said. "? We haven't had an opportunity to explore those areas yet, so it's going to be interesting. The racing could be spectacular, too. It's going to be anticipated. There's a lot of anticipation from the fans as well as the competitors."

Almirola agreed. "The new car, there are a lot of limitations that we're still unsure of," he said. "We don't know the limits of how hard we can push, if we can push, how long we can. ? It's uncharted territory, so to speak. I think a lot of us just don't know what to expect, so that Sprint Unlimited is a great way to find out."

Biffle has some idea of what to expect -- and in his view, it looks a lot like the drafting practice in testing. "These cars don't have a lot of downforce in the restrictor-plate configuration," he said. "And I think The Sprint Unlimited and the 150s and the 500 are going to look similar."

Next week's 150-mile qualifying races will set the majority of the starting field for the Daytona 500, by which time drivers hope to have lingering uncertainties about the car pared down to a minimum. Toward that end, with unknowns flittering about Daytona like seagulls, the season-opening exhibition race offers a welcome opportunity to push the limits with only pride and a trophy on the line.

"There's preseason football, this is preseason racing to me," said Joey Logano, who won two poles last season. "We're going to go out there and learn as much as we can as a team, and I think it's going to help us a lot when we get to the 500."

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