2016 Sprint Unlimited Preview

A new season is about to dawn, but first we must wake up the race fans from their offseason hibernation.

This week, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads down to Daytona International Speedway to kick off the annual ritual of Speedweeks. This consists of 10 days of activity that culminates on Feb. 21 with the 58th running of the Great American Race, the Daytona 500. But before we officially start the season, we need to get back into the racing mindset. To do that, we run the Sprint Unlimited.


 

The race

The Sprint Unlimited is an invitation-only exhibition race held the week before the Daytona 500. It’s a 75-lap event divided into two segments with a competition caution at lap 25 separating the two segments. It consists of 25 drivers that either won a pole last season, are a past winner of the race, have won a pole for the Daytona 500 in the past or were a Chase driver the previous season. If that should fail to fill the 25 minimum, then the remaining spots will go to drivers highest in points not already locked into the event.

The eligible drivers are as follows.

Pole winners

Twelve drivers are eligible for winning a pole in 2015. They are A. J. Allmendinger (Sonoma and Watkins Glen), Kurt Busch (Auto Club, Texas and Pocono), Kyle Busch (Pocono), Carl Edwards (both Loudon races and Indianapolis), Jeff Gordon (Daytona, Las Vegas and both Talladega races), Denny Hamlin (Dover, Bristol and Homestead), Kevin Harvick (Phoenix), Jimmie Johnson (Phoenix), Kasey Kahne (Michigan), Matt Kenseth (Bristol, both Charlotte races and Michigan), Brad Keselowski (Darlington, Kansas and Texas) and Joey Logano (Atlanta, both Martinsville races, Kansas and both Richmond races).

Given that Gordon retired at the end of 2015, he won’t be competing in this race.

Past winners

Two drivers are eligible for being past winners of the Sprint Unlimited. They are Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2003 and 2008) and Tony Stewart (2001, 2002 and 2007).

After sustaining a burst fracture of his L1 vertebra, Stewart will miss the event.

Past Daytona 500 pole winners

Five drivers are eligible for being past Daytona 500 pole winners. They are Greg Biffle (2004), Austin Dillon (2014), David Gilliland (2007), Danica Patrick (2013) and Martin Truex Jr. (2009).

Gilliland is without a ride for the 2016 season and more than likely won’t take part in the race. Bobby Labonte would fit the criteria in this category having won the pole for the Daytona 500 in 1998 and 2002, but he wasn’t listed as an eligible driver.

2015 Chase drivers

Four drivers who weren’t locked in via the above criteria are locked in via being in the 2015 Chase. They are Clint Bowyer, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard and Ryan Newman.

The rest

The final two eligible drivers in the race based on points are Aric Almirola and  Kyle Larson.

With Gordon’s retirement, Stewart’s injury and Gilliland’s lack of a ride, the final three spots will be filled based on championship driver points. The first five provisional drivers are Casey Mears, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Sam Hornish Jr., David Ragan and Trevor Bayne.


The venue

Photo: Tucker White
Photo Credit: Tucker White

Daytona International Speedway is a 2.5 mile (4 km) asphalt superspeedway located in Daytona Beach, Fla. Opened in 1959, Daytona is the centerpiece of the NASCAR empire, and not just because the corporate headquarters is located just across the street from the speedway. It’s home to the Daytona 500, the biggest and most important race in NASCAR and one of the biggest in all of motorsports.

It was built to be a track that would be both a place that favors sight lines and a cathedral of speed. Fifty-eight years later, the dream project of a madman by the name of Bill France Sr. continues to stand tall over the NASCAR landscape. It’s only going to stand out more thanks to the $400 million Daytona Rising project.

I’m not going to go into deep detail about the history and importance of Daytona in this piece because I’m saving it for my Daytona 500 preview, but I will say that this track was built to be the shining example of the NASCAR world and the motorsports world.


So who’ll win?

To win at Daytona and Talladega, you must master the art of the draft. You must use the draft to both keep up with the competition and beat them. No driver has hands down been better at the draft as of late than Dale Earnhardt Jr. at 6/1 (Vegas Insider). Next is Jimmie Johnson at 8/1. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano are 10/1. Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. are 15/1. Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray are 25/1. Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard and Ryan Newman and 30/1. Aric Almirola and Danica Patrick are 50/1. A. J. Allmendinger, Casey Mears and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are 60/1.


Race time and info

The Sprint Unlimited gets under green Saturday night at 8 p.m. on FOX. Longtime NASCAR broadcaster Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip will be joined in the booth by the now retired Jeffrey Michael Gordon.

The radio broadcast will be heard on the Motor Racing Network and Sirius XM (subscription required for the latter). Joe Moore, Jeff Striegle and Rusty Wallace will be in the new tower working the race from the booth. Dave Moody will be working Turns 1 and 2 from the Sunoco spotters stand outside Turn 2. Mike Bagley will be working the backstretch from a stand on the inside of the backstretch down towards Turn 3. Kyle Rickey will be working Turns 3 and 4 from the other Sunoco spotters stand outside Turn 4. Alex Hayden, Winston Kelley and Steve Post will be working pit road.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com

Tucker White
Tucker White
I've followed NASCAR for well over 20 years of my life, both as a fan and now as a member of the media. As of 2023, I'm on my eighth season as a traveling NASCAR beat writer. For all its flaws and dumb moments, NASCAR at its best produces some of the best action you'll ever see in the sport of auto racing. Case in point: Kyle Larson's threading the needle pass at Darlington Raceway on May 9, 2021. On used-up tires, racing on a worn surface and an aero package that put his car on the razor's edge of control, Larson demonstrated why he's a generational talent. Those are the stories I want to capture and break down. In addition to NASCAR, I also follow IndyCar and Formula 1. As a native of Knoxville, Tennessee, and a graduate of the University of Tennessee, I'm a diehard Tennessee Volunteers fan (especially in regards to Tennessee football). If covering NASCAR doesn't kill me, down the road, watching Tennessee football will. I'm also a diehard fan of the Atlanta Braves, and I lived long enough to see them win a World Series for the first time since 1995 (when I was just a year old). I've also sworn my fan allegiance to the Nashville Predators, though that's not paid out as much as the Braves. Furthermore, as a massive sports dork, I follow the NFL on a weekly basis. Though it's more out of an obligation than genuine passion (for sports dorks, following the NFL is basically an unwritten rule). Outside of sports, I'm a major cinema buff and a weeb. My favorite film is "Your Name" and my favorite anime is "Black Lagoon."

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