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Sprint Unlimited Preview: NASCARís Kickoff to 2014

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

The 2014 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 segments (to be determined by a fan vote) with a 10-minute pit stop break in between each segment. The criteria to make the 2014 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:

ē Pole winners from the 2013 season
ē Past Sprint Unlimited winners, who attempted at least one race in 2013

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. Here is a list of the last 11 year's winners of the Sprint Unlimited. This should give us a good idea of the specialists for this race.

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

This race is completely different than NASCAR's normal format, so 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 eight years or eight exhibition races at Daytona International Speedway.

Tony Stewart4.48531453572102.5
Jamie McMurray8.8620153034797.9
Kevin Harvick8.1626127738495.2
Dale Earnhardt Jr.11.6692238746091.2
Jimmie Johnson8.9854212246487.7
Kyle Busch9.9613205436584.0
Carl Edwards13.4744235442280.2
Denny Hamlin9.6773252043879.0
Jeff Gordon11.5706142036374.9
Matt Kenseth11.5651132735774.5
Kurt Busch12.064118934774.2
Marcos Ambrose7.02404114173.6
Ryan Newman13.8484291827466.7
Mark Martin12.753312128666.0
Joey Logano14.84078119961.6
Brad Keselowski4.036403655.9

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 2014 and take the big purse in this Saturday night spectacle.

Sprint Unlimited Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick has won three of the last five Unlimited races, and that's not by accident. He won last season's exhibition in dominant fashion, leading 40 of the 75 laps and out-battling Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth to take the win. Now with his move to Stewart-Haas Racing, we look for the star driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet to hit the ground running in 2014. Harvick is all business when the engines fire up for the first time each season under the lights in Daytona. This weekend will be no different. The veteran driver is going to serve notice that he's going to be a force to be reckoned with this season.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star won this event in 2012. Busch was an opportunist when he won that Sprint Unlimited. This time around could be much different. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota showed so-so speed at Daytona during Pre-season Thunder testing, so we can't hang our hats on that performance. It's a good bet Busch and his other JGR teammates were sandbagging a bit during that test to protect their true horsepower. Busch has led 54 laps in the Sprint Unlimited in the last eight seasons, and that places him among the Top 3 in the series in laps led in this event. When the lights turn on at Daytona, Busch typically goes for broke.

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 has showed the last two seasons, it wouldn't be at all shocking to see the NASCAR icon celebrating in victory lane this Saturday night at Daytona.

Matt Kenseth -
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver will take on his second Sprint Unlimited in a Toyota. Kenseth has been one of the more successful super speedway drivers in the last couple years, and he upped that level of performance when he stepped into the No. 20 Toyota last year. The veteran has won two of the last eight restrictor-plate events, and led over 500 laps in those races. 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.

Jimmie Johnson -
The 2005 Sprint Unlimited winner is looking to make a statement after his sixth Sprint Cup Series championship in 2013. Johnson doesn't boast the impressive stats on super speedways that some other drivers do, but he started to rewrite his resume on these large ovals last year. The defending champion claimed two victories and three Top 5s in the four superspeedway races of last year. It was by far his best season on the restrictor-plate tracks. Johnson should keep that momentum rolling as we return to Daytona to kick off another season. Look for the No. 48 team to be up front early and often in this exhibition race.

Kurt Busch -
The move to Stewart Haas Racing will not only be beneficial for Kevin Harvick, but equally as well for Busch. The 2011 winner of this exhibition event will look to rediscover that magic to win with his new No. 41 Chevrolet team. Busch has not been overly impressive the last couple seasons on the super speedways, but the move to SHR should reverse that course. The veteran driver has a career 50 percent Top 10 rate at Daytona and Talladega, and that's among the best in the Sprint Cup Series. Busch has the skill and experience to win this race as he showed in 2011, now it's up to his new team to give him the car to pull it off.

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. The only thing that dampens our enthusiasm for Stewart in this race is that it will be his first time behind the wheel in six months due to the broken leg and recovery. He won't be at 100 percent.

Jamie McMurray -
If there's a sleeper in the field to follow, it has to be McMurray and the No. 1 Ganassi Racing team. The veteran driver is a proven restrictor-plate racer with four career wins between Daytona and Talladega. Last year he captured the late-season win at Talladega and finished an impressive seventh in the Daytona summer race. McMurray carries that momentum into the new season. He's never won the Sprint Unlimited, but as you can see in the driver loop stat chart above, he brings a lofty 97.9 Sprint Unlimited driver rating into this race. McMurray is always racing within reach of the lead in this exhibition event, and all it would take is a break to fall his way to grab the victory.
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