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Sprint Unlimited Preview: NASCAR's Kickoff to 2013

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

The 2013 NASCAR season kicks off with the annual exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway, the Sprint Unlimited. This event was formerly known as the Bud Shootout, but Sprint picked up sponsorship of the race, thus the name change. Most fantasy racing leagues don't recognize this NASCAR exhibition event in the fantasy racing season, but some do along with many racing pools that form specifically for this race and its unique format. The Sprint Unlimited is a much shorter race than the 500-mile event the following Sunday, the Daytona 500. It more closely matches the heat races that we're familiar with seeing in late model stock racing on dirt tracks all around the country. The field is much smaller, but the stakes are just as high. Thanks to the $1 million purse that is paid to the field, and nearly $200,000 of that to the winner, the competition seen in this exhibition in some ways will be more heated than what we will witness in the Daytona 500 the following week.

The racing consists of a 75-lap sprint that equates to 187.5 miles of racing on the famed Daytona International Speedway. The 75 laps are split into 25- and 50-lap segments with a 10-minute pit stop break in between. The criteria to make the 2013 Sprint Unlimited are based upon the following qualifications, with eligibility based on a driver having competed in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series within the last two seasons:

Pole winners from the 2012 season
Past Sprint Unlimited winners, who attempted at least one race in 2012

This exhibition race tends to crank out repeat winners most seasons. Like any other race at Daytona, any driver with a knack for restrictor-plate racing and ability to make the partnerships on the race track to get to the front will enjoy the most success and compete for the win. Since this event is just 75 laps, it breeds a list of winners who unload a fast car right off the hauler and don't have to make many, if any, adjustments to it. Here is a list of the last 10 year's winners of the Sprint Unlimited. This should give a good idea of the specialists for this race.

WINNERSEASONLAPS LEDSTARTING POSITION
Dale Earnhardt Jr.20031319
Dale Jarrett2004115
Jimmie Johnson20051617
Denny Hamlin20061615
Tony Stewart20071114
Dale Earnhardt Jr.2008477
Kevin Harvick2009127
Kevin Harvick2010212
Kurt Busch2011317
Kyle Busch201232

Since this event is completely different than NASCAR's normal racing format, we have to take the historical statistics in context this week. The stats can be skewed since several teams come to the Sprint Unlimited with "disposable cars" and looking to hit the big payday even at the expense of wrecking the team's car. With a total purse that will exceed a million dollars, the mindset is completely different than any normal points-paying event. However, we can only rely on the loop stats to a certain degree when evaluating our contenders this week. The loop stats in the table below cover the last seven years or seven exhibition races at Daytona International Speedway.

AVGQUALITYFASTESTLAPSLAPS INDRIVER
DRIVERFINISHPASSESLAPSLEDTOP 15RATING
Tony Stewart4.47421348497103.1
Jamie McMurray8.8620153034797.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.12.1571178738895.1
Jimmie Johnson8.1816202244992.3
Kevin Harvick9.354593731092.2
Kyle Busch8.8583195435491.8
Marcos Ambrose 3.0141016684.6
Carl Edwards13.7599135434982.9
Brian Vickers12.04539421382.2
Denny Hamlin8.9739232042380.9
David Gilliland10.51701029579.7
Jeff Gordon10.7673142035278.5
Kurt Busch11.861816933576.1
Jeff Burton12.8337423219273.6
Martin Truex Jr.20.0187579972.6
Mark Martin11.649410127670.7
Casey Mears10.52016010370.5
Greg Biffle12.7570172231369.9
Kasey Kahne12.658811229569.4
Clint Bowyer10.329012416868.2

This exhibition race is unlike any of the normal Sprint Cup Series events, so we'll handle the prognostications a bit different as well. We'll give you our picks for who'll contend for the win in the Sprint Unlimited. These are the drivers who we see as the top threats to take the victory and the big purse in this Saturday night spectacle.

Sprint Unlimited Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kyle Busch -
This event's defending champion will make a strong bid to defend his title this weekend. Busch was an opportunist when he won last year's Bud Shootout. This time around could be much different. The Joe Gibbs Racing star showed good horsepower at Daytona during January testing, so the No. 18 Toyota could be a prime contender to run away with this exhibition event. Busch has led 54 laps in the Sprint Unlimited in the last seven seasons, and that places him among the Top 3 in the series in circuits led in this event. When the lights turn on at Daytona, Busch typically shines.

Tony Stewart -
Smoke is a three-time winner of this event since it went to its current format. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet not only tops the loop stats for the Sprint Unlimited, but he's also had his fair share of success at Daytona. In addition to his three victories in this exhibition race, Stewart has earned three Daytona victories in the Coke Zero 400 held under the lights. You could say that he really takes his level of performance up a few notches when we race in prime time at DIS. Stewart last won this race in 2007, so you know he's hungry to get back into victory lane in the Sprint Unlimited and take home that big payout.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The Hendrick Motorsports star has struggled to find victory lane during the regular season in recent years, but Earnhardt has always shown up well in this exhibition event. He's a two-time winner of the Sprint Unlimited and his loop stats backup the trophies as evidence. Earnhardt has led a series-best 87 laps in this race since it took on its current format. Considering the consistency and chemistry the No. 88 team showed in 2012, it wouldn't be at all shocking to see the NASCAR icon celebrating in victory lane this Saturday night at Daytona.

Matt Kenseth -
The new Joe Gibbs Racing driver will take on his first Sprint Unlimited in a Toyota. Kenseth has been one of the more successful super speedway drivers in the last couple years, and he brings this expertise to his new No. 20 team. The veteran won two of the four restrictor-plate events of 2012, including last year's Daytona 500. Kenseth has never won the Sprint Unlimited, but there's a very good chance that could change this weekend. He is performing as well as he ever has in his NASCAR career on these huge ovals, and that could finally translate in the long-awaited win for Kenseth in this prestigious exhibition event.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick is a two-time champ of this exhibition event. In the recent past he has used smart moves late in these races to push to the front and win. That has been Harvick's tactic of choice recently in restrictor-plate racing in general. The switch to the new Gen-6 car will make this maneuver problematic, so Harvick could be at a disadvantage. The veteran driver's 37 laps led in the last seven Sprint Unlimited events still ranks among the best in the series. Harvick can be very dangerous on these super speedways when he has a fast car, and that's distinct possibility this Saturday night.

Jimmie Johnson -
The 2005 Budweiser Shootout winner is looking to revive his championship winning form in the upcoming season. Johnson doesn't boast the impressive stats on super speedways that some other drivers do, but as we know from his recent career you can't discount the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team any time they show up at the track. The five-time champion and his ace crew chief Chad Knaus will likely be looking to send a message to the competition in this season's Sprint Unlimited, and that message will be "we're back". Johnson has five career Top 5's to go along with his one win in this exhibition event.

Kurt Busch -
Busch has come along way since his 2011 win in this exhibition race. He lost his job at Penske Racing, he's since moved on from his 2012 job with Phoenix Racing and he's now fully engaged in a driving gig for Furniture Row Racing. Since this team is a satellite Richard Childress Racing team, the move is an upgrade for Busch. He's one of the top super speedway drivers in recent history, so he brings that skill to the No. 78 Chevrolet team. He could make a very big splash to start the 2013 campaign in the Sprint Unlimited. The loop stats from this race show that this veteran driver makes a lot of passes and runs a lot of laps up front in this race. Those characteristics make a legit wild card for the win at DIS.

Jeff Gordon -
Considering all the restrictor-plate wins that Gordon has in his resume, it's a bit shocking that the Hendrick Motorsports star has never won the current format of the Sprint Unlimited. We have to go all the way back to 1997, and the Busch Clash to find Gordon's last victory in this event. As a young gun, he also won the 1994 edition of the Busch Clash. The long wait may be over for the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet. Gordon showed as much promise and ability to win in 2012 as we have seen in recent memory. He ended last season with the big win in the season finale at Homestead, and he could very easily kick this campaign off with a win in the Sprint Unlimited. The Hendrick Chevys also performed very well in the pre-season testing at Daytona a few weeks ago. Gordon should race up front and vie for the win under the lights of Daytona International Speedway.

Carl Edwards -
If any Ford driver hopes to upstage what has historically been a Chevrolet or Toyota night in the spotlight, Edwards is likely the best candidate for the upset. The Roush Fenway Racing star has never won the Sprint Unlimited, but he's managed to lead laps, post fast laps and finish well in this season-opening spectacle. Edwards has only missed the opportunity and luck late in these events to cross the stripe first. Considering how the No. 99 Ford team tested at Daytona in mid-January, Edwards may finally have the horsepower to run away with one of these Daytona exhibitions. Look out for this dynamic driver in the Sprint Unlimited. If Edwards can lead laps early, he may be able to lead them late this time around.