Sprint Unlimited Preview: The 2016 Season Revs Up

Sprint Unlimited Preview: The 2016 Season Revs Up

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The 2016 NASCAR season will kick off with the annual exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway, the Sprint Unlimited. 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 one million dollar purse that is paid to the field, and around $200,000 of that to the winner of this event, 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 event that equates to 187.5 miles of racing on the famed Daytona International Speedway. The 75 laps are split into two segments by a competition caution at lap 25, with a 10-minute pit stop break in between each segment. The criteria to make the 2016 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 in 2015
Sprint Unlimited winners who raced full-time in 2015
Daytona 500

The 2016 NASCAR season will kick off with the annual exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway, the Sprint Unlimited. 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 one million dollar purse that is paid to the field, and around $200,000 of that to the winner of this event, 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 event that equates to 187.5 miles of racing on the famed Daytona International Speedway. The 75 laps are split into two segments by a competition caution at lap 25, with a 10-minute pit stop break in between each segment. The criteria to make the 2016 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 in 2015
Sprint Unlimited winners who raced full-time in 2015
Daytona 500 pole winners who raced full-time in 2015
Last season's 16 Chase participants
2015 Sprint Cup points rankings for any remaining spots in the minimum 25-driver Unlimited field

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 race is just 75 laps, it trends towards drivers who unload a fast car right off the hauler and don't have to make many, if any, adjustments to it. As you can see in the table below, it's been won from the front row three of the last six years. Here is a list of the last 13 year's winners of the Sprint Unlimited. This should give us a good idea of the specialists for this race.

WINNERSEASONLAPS LEDSTARTING POS
Dale Earnhardt Jr.20031319
Dale Jarrett2004115
Jimmie Johnson20051617
Denny Hamlin20061615
Tony Stewart20071114
Dale Earnhardt Jr.2008477
Kevin Harvick2009127
Kevin Harvick2010212
Kurt Busch2011317
Kyle Busch201232
Kevin Harvick20134017
Denny Hamlin2014271
Matt Kenseth20152116

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 win the first race of 2016 and take the big purse in this Saturday night spectacle.

Sprint Unlimited Contenders - Those in the hunt for the win

Dale Earnhardt Jr. - The Hendrick Motorsports star is a four-time winner at Daytona and two-time winner of this exhibition event, so Earnhardt knows what it takes to win this shootout. In this race one year ago, he led 13 laps before finally finishing a dissatisfying ninth at the end of the night. You could say he and the No. 88 team will be on a mission this Saturday night to make up for that and to assert their super speedway dominance before the season begins. Considering that Earnhardt has won two of the last four points-paying events at Daytona, he has to be seen as the top contender to win this event.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick is a three-time winner of the Sprint Unlimited and as recently as the 2013 season. He always seems to be in the mix for the victory when it comes down to crunch time in this exhibition race. Amazingly, Harvick hasn't won the Sprint Unlimited since joining Stewart Haas Racing, and considering how strong the No. 4 team has been that's almost unbelievable. We should see a hungry driver this weekend. One that is not only hungry to win this race and the nice purse that goes with it, but a driver that is hungry to prove he's the top dog to beat in the 2016 season.

Kyle Busch -
The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion is a one-time winner of this preseason exhibition race. Busch won from the front row in 2012 in thrilling fashion. His record otherwise has been rather up-and-down in this exciting race. Busch's "go for it" attitude tends to get him more in trouble than serve him in this race. However, this year we should see a more reserved Busch enter the Sprint Unlimited. He now carries the title of Sprint Cup Series champion, and the maturity that comes with it. Without a doubt the soaring Joe Gibbs Racing team will give him a fast car, and Busch will know exactly what to do with it.

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing star will be making his eighth start in the Sprint Unlimited when the engines fire up on Saturday night. It's hard to believe that the 25-year-old has been racing that long in NASCAR's top division. After some growing pains early-on in this exhibition race, it looks like the driver of the No. 22 Ford is inching closer to winning his first mega-payout and trophy in this race. Third-, fourth- and sixth-place finishes each of the last three years have shown that he's in the lead pack and racing among the leaders in the closing laps. Logano won the Daytona 500 last season, and now that this monkey is off his back he can go out and win this season-starting exhibition race.

Denny Hamlin -
One of the less heralded drivers of the restrictor-plate tracks in 2015 was easily Hamlin and his No. 11 Toyota team. They captured two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes in the four events between Daytona and Talladega. Hamlin's most impressive outing was his 10 laps led and third-place finish in the Summer Daytona race. The Joe Gibbs Racing team had good speed on these large ovals last season, and this veteran driver has a knack for this style of racing. Hamlin is a two-time winner in the Sprint Unlimited and cannot be taken lightly in this thrilling exhibition race.

Jimmie Johnson -
The six-time champion won this event in 2005, but it's been tough plowing ever since. Johnson's last four entries into the Sprint Unlimited have ended prematurely with crashes. Odds dictate that this type of luck can't go on forever. Johnson and the No. 48 team are too skilled and too fast to continue crashing out of this exhibition event. He owns five-combined victories between Daytona and Talladega and that did not happen by accident. Johnson's second- and fifth-place finishes at Daytona last season command a ton of respect, so he's a good sleeper candidate to win this season-opening exhibition.

Carl Edwards -
Edwards has never won the Sprint Unlimited, but he's finally with a team (Joe Gibbs Racing) that can reverse that fortune. Last season in his debut with JGR in the No. 19 Toyota, Edwards raced to a career-best finish in this exhibition event with an impressive third-place finish. In his last start on a restrictor-plate race track, the veteran driver wheeled his way to a strong fifth-place finish at Talladega last October. The notebook from that outing should be fresh and handy for the Sprint Unlimited. Edwards is a good sleeper pick to win this 75-lap race.

Matt Kenseth -
The defending champion of this event is Kenseth. Last year he led 21 laps in a strong performance and held off Martin Truex Jr. to capture his first-career win in the Sprint Unlimited. Kenseth's luck on the super speedways otherwise was not as good in 2015. He'll look to shake that off and put the No. 20 Toyota back out front this Saturday night. With the clean start that a new season provides, this Joe Gibbs Racing star should be eagerly anticipating the Sprint Unlimited and the opportunity to impress everyone.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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