The Frontstretch: Thinkin' Out Loud – Sprint Unlimited by Mike Neff -- Monday February 17, 2014

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Thinkin' Out Loud – Sprint Unlimited

Mike Neff · Monday February 17, 2014


Key Moment – On lap 71, the field came to the final restart of the race, and Denny Hamlin was in the seventh position, the last row on the grid, with only four laps until the checkered. In three laps, he swept to the lead and confirmed that he was the best among the 18 cars to take the green for the event.

In a Nutshell – Denny Hamlin won the first two segments of the race and, even though he was at the back of the pack late in the event, was still the car to beat. Hamlin grabbed the lead for good on lap 74 and held off a charge by Brad Keselowski to claim his second Sprint Unlimited victory.

Dramatic Moment – On lap 36, the big one broke out in the tri-oval. Seven of the 18 competitors in the race were eliminated in that one event. Most notable, at least in the Twitterverse, was Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. plowing into Danica Patrick to end both of their days.

What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler

Tony Stewart is coming off of a serious leg injury. Like any athlete, there is always some anxiety for them until they are able to give that part a strenuous test. Stewart’s moment came on lap 36 Saturday night when he was caught up in the big one. Waking up Sunday morning without any appreciable pain has to leave Smoke feeling much more confident about his repaired appendage.

Whether you think the story is old news or new news, the Stenhouse/Patrick attention just won’t go away. There will be a myriad of discussions about Ricky ending Danica’s night and a multitude of jokes about dating strife and Danica’s night ended by a Framily Feud. In the end, drivers are going to wreck into each other and just because it was the two of them it isn’t news. Enjoy the Tweets about it though.

Richard Childress was speaking with media after the pole winner’s press conference and told them that Kevin Harvick will be a title contender this season. After watching the effort that they put in for a top-5 finish on Saturday, there is no doubt that the team has the mettle it will take to make a run at the Cup.

Daytona International Speedway is dumping $400,000,000 into upgrading the front straight seating to expand their capacity to 200,000 people. They better hope that the fans buy a bunch of tickets once the project is finished because, at least on Saturday night, the amount of fans would have barely filled tracks at Volusia County or New Smyrna. The attendance for the Sprint Unlimited looked more like a standalone Truck race than the kick off event for the Cup season. We’ll all just have to wait and see what the attendance looks like the rest of Speedweeks, but the early numbers look like an auspicious start.

Denny Hamlin had a dominant car on Saturday night. But will the competitive racing at Daytona bring people to the track?

Speaking of qualifying for the Great American Race, Austin Dillon has fired the first shot in the return of the No. 3 to the Cup series. He put it on the pole for the Daytona 500 on Sunday afternoon. Similar to last year when Patrick claimed the top starting spot, there is little doubt that the tin foil hat crowd will be out in force charging that the deal is rigged. Whether it is or isn’t, the fact of the matter is, qualifying for Daytona is second in the pantheon of meaningless events, similar to qualifying at Talladega. It is a great, feel-good story to have the iconic number back in the series and at the front of the starting lineup. Now if he walks away with the race there may be a few more questions raised. The sanctioning body is trying very hard to be as transparent as possible, so let’s hope that there won’t be any cloud hanging over the first win for the No. 3 since 2000.

Next Friday we will see the “knock-out” qualifying procedure for the first time in 2014 when the Trucks and Nationwide cars run their time trial sessions. It’s such a big change that the folks in the Media Center are going to have to follow new procedures due to the fact that they won’t have the access that they are used to having when the cars paraded down the pit lane before single car runs. If the sessions are anything like the Talladega practice for the Cup Series last year, when rain threatened the speedway, it should be some exciting action.

Since this is the first Thinkin’ column of the year, let’s briefly touch on the Chase system. Is it a season long champion? Heck no. Is it an ideal scenario? Hardly. Is it better than what we had before? It would seem that way from this seat. While the “Winner Take All” final race is a sketchy proposition, the bottom line is that the four drivers involved had to earn it. If they didn’t win their way there or accumulate a large point cushion to qualify, they never would have had the shot to begin with. At least in this system, a driver who has a bad race can rebound and stay alive by winning a race. There are going to be four races with Richmond-type attention instead of one, and the scenarios could take some amazing twists and turns as the deal unfolds. While it will never replace a season long championship, the new version seems to be a more exciting alternative than the 10 race arrangement.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Take your pick of the drivers who were caught up in the big one. Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick, or Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. All of them were caught up in a wreck far too early in the event.

Jimmie Johnson was coming to the caution for the end of segment one when he ended up BEING the caution. A spin out of turn four and a hard, driver side impact, ended his night far earlier than he had hoped for. Typical for Johnson, it is usually checkers or wreckers at Daytona for him.

Kyle Busch may have been capable of giving Denny Hamlin a run for his money in the Sprint Unlimited but, during a lane change while trying to get to the front, he dropped onto the nose of Brad Keselowski and went for a spin in turn four. He kept it off of the wall and didn’t kill the splitter but it hurt the car enough that he had to settle for a third-place finish.

The “Seven Come for Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. probably belongs in the Hindenburg category after he hooked off of the front bumper of Marcos Ambrose’s car into the wall heading into turn one and ended his night, but his fine fortune allowed him to be in that position to begin with. Earnhardt was deep in the field when the melee on the front straight commenced that took out over a third of the field. Earnhardt went to the apron and avoided the carnage, setting himself up for a run at the win.

Kevin Harvick flattened the side of his car as he worked his way through the big wreck and spent the rest of the night making pit stops and working over the car to keep it in the race and trying to make it competitive. When the final restart happened, Harvick moved forward and was on the verge of grabbing the top spot before ultimately settling for a fifth-place finish.

Jamie McMurray started the race strong and was leading until he had a piece of debris get on his grill. He dropped back to try and get the trash off but, in the end had to come to the pit lane to clear the grill opening. The end result was McMurray lost a lap right before the end of the first segment. He fortunately was the only car a lap down so he received the lucky dog. He went on to miss big wreck and rode that wave of luck to come home in sixth place at the end of the night.

Worth Noting

Denny Hamlin’s victory in the Sprint Unlimited was his second of his career. He also won the race, then the Bud Shootout, when he was a rookie in 2006.

Nine drivers now have multiple wins in the various iterations of the Sprint Unlimited.

Austin Dillon’s Daytona 500 pole is his first in his Cup career. He has 12 Cup starts with two of them being at Daytona International Speedway.

This is the fourth time the No. 3 car has started on the pole for the Daytona 500.

Buddy Baker, Ricky Rudd, Dale Earnhardt and Austin Dillon are the four drivers who have put the car up front.

What’s the Points

Nobody cares, yet. The Sprint Unlimited is not a points race so we’re all still even at this point in time. The only point at this juncture is that Denny Hamlin has won the last two races in the Cup series. He is making a statement for sure that he will be a contender in 2014.

Overall rating (On a scale of 1-6, where 1 is a stinker and six is the finest of brews and a instant classic.)

It is hard to give a high number to a race that only had eight cars running at the end of the event. With that said it was great to see both lines moving and drivers being able to move from the back to the front of the pack. They were able to move from one line to the other and didn’t have to be pushed to advance every time. With that said, we’ll give it four frosty Budweisers and hope that we’ll see even more for the 500.

What’s Next

The tradition of Thursday qualifying races has been moved to prime time. The Duels at Daytona will be on Fox Sports 1 on Thursday night followed by the Daytona 500 on Sunday, live on Fox at 1:00 PM and on MRN radio.

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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
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02/17/2014 12:54 AM

Gotta say, those last 35 laps were the best eight-car race I’ve ever seen.

Bad Wolf
02/17/2014 01:08 AM

Dillon got “The Call”, just like Danica last year.

02/17/2014 07:52 AM

Dillon won me 50 bucks for getting the pole. Brian is so predictable. I can imagine the conversation: “Richard, put Austin Dillon in the 3 and we’ll get you the pole.”

Anyone who didn’t know it was coming forgot last year.

02/17/2014 07:59 AM

bad wolf – thought the same thing when i saw who won the pole yesterday. nascar needs to keep fans interest level up.

princess sparkle pony already complaining about the rules where she’ll have to start at the rear of the field cause of the engine change. she feels “defeated”. poor princess.

oh well….let’s see what craziness happens thursday.

02/17/2014 08:45 AM

well, you can say that I’m wearing a tinfoil hat if you like, but yes, I also thought prior to qualifying that it would be the 3 on the pole, so I wasn’t suprised at all to read about it.

I like Dillon and RCR, but NASCAR is somewhat predictable on these things – they need whatever will get them press and attention from people who are not necessarily race fans.

02/17/2014 09:01 AM

Well a .5 inch of spoiler makes a big difference. Even with 8 cars left they could pass and both lines could move. Looking forward to the Duels and the 500. Maybe for next year they should allow pole winning car owners who lose their drivers to participate to get a bit more of a car count.

Fed Up
02/17/2014 09:15 AM

NA$CAR collects money for the seats for two races, but counts it as one for engine change rules. What a rip off for the Steward, Patrick and LaBonte fans. Leave it to the Beach Bums to find a way to alienate more fans.

Bill B
02/17/2014 09:20 AM

Give me one of those tinfoil hats too. Can anyone think of a better short-term hype boost to create a buzz prior to the 500 than the 3 car being on the pole? I can’t. Just like last year with Danica.

Speaking of Danica, I guess she’ll be on top this week as Ricky tries to make amends.

Jeez, 8 cars left at the end. Kind of funny.

I did notice the lack of fans in the seats. That new chase format is really packing them in and firing up the fanbase.

bud sudz
02/17/2014 09:52 AM

200,000 seats??? Everything that I had read about the Daytona makeover was that they were shrinking capacity (eliminating SuperStretch seating), larger seats, etc. They may have the capacity to add seats in the future, but the number I was seeing was 105,000.

02/17/2014 10:01 AM

In other news, the Cowboy hat is ridiculous.

02/17/2014 10:08 AM

As far as the qualifying is concerned, I too share the belief that something is a bit fishy! There is one way to stop the suspicion. NASCAR should run a contest of sorts, where fans who are attending these restrictor plate races can enter their names in a draw. An independent source would then draw, say, five names, and those people would line up at the spot where the plates are handed out. Person number one would pick the plate for the first car in line, then go to the end of the line. Person number two would pick the plate for the second car in line, then return to the end of the line. They five people would keep rotating until all the plates are handed out. This would do away with the suspicion that the plates are maybe marked so that certain cars, like Danica last year and Dillon this year, get certain plates that might be “slightly different” than the rest of the plates.

Speaking of qualifying, and the fact that Toyotas were so strong the night before, I wonder, with the poor results of the Toyota teams qualifying, if someone at TRD isn’t looking for another job today.

As far as I’m concerned, those races Saturday evening weren’t even worthy of a can of stale, flat New Coke. Remember that garbage? Pack racing with the expected demolition derby, less passing that everyone thinks, and whoever is in front, once they can put some distance on everyone following, they can’t be touched. Add to this, the race was won by one of the biggest whiners in NASCAR! I thought the race stunk! If this is what we have to look forward to on Thursday evening and Sunday, no thanks! See everyone at Phoenix, the first “real” race of the year!

One last point about Saturday night’s “show”. Did anyone else have the uncontrollable urge to yell at Michael Waltrip to SHUT UP!!!

02/17/2014 10:09 AM

i did find it amusing when the pace car caught fire. they can’t blame this on juan pablo!

02/17/2014 10:14 AM

ken – AMEN!!!! michael waltrip is like fingernails on a chalk board. one of the reasons i didn’t watch qualifying on sunday was his mouth!

Carl D.
02/17/2014 10:55 AM

Zetona… Your comment was the first and the best.

Mikey… A cowboy hat at the race track is no more ridiculous than a firesuit at a rodeo.

02/17/2014 10:56 AM

If the unlimited race gives any indication of how the racing will be this year, then I’ll give the criticism a rest for a few races. In other news!!! Surprise! surprise! First time out the #3 car is on the pole. Could nas$car get any more predictable? I never thought I’d be saying this, but listening to Darrell Waltrip is a pleasure compared compared to Mikey. Listening to Mikey is like having teeth pulled. And I wear dentures.

Fed Up
02/17/2014 10:56 AM

With DW under repair, I also thought we would get some relief. Yet here comes FOX with DW, Jr. and DW,Jr.II in the Hollywood Hotel.

02/17/2014 10:58 AM

Ken, LOL, yeah as soon as I heard Mikey yapping away, I muted the tv and turned on the feed for the radio broadcast. I am NOT going to listen to him this year – not at all.

Like you, I wasn’t impressed with the “racing” on Saturday night either. I’m hoping for a sunny day on Sunday – one w/o snow and I’ll find something else to do with my time other than watching a plate race.

Bill B
02/17/2014 11:55 AM

Aww, come on Gina, it’s the Daytona 500. Something might happen (cough, big wreck). I hate the RP races too but I’ll watch. If nothing else, The Daytona 500 marks the beginning of spring in my mind.
We can all pull for Mikey to make the race if only because it means we won’t have to listen to him (too much) on Sunday.

02/17/2014 01:03 PM

bill – you’re right. even here in atlanta i’m sick of winter this year. maybe if we’re lucky mikey will make the race and dw won’t be able to get to daytona.

02/17/2014 01:50 PM

Bill B, I know, I know, it’s the 500, but I really hate RP races and I’ll probably be inside watching because it will probably freakin snow again!

Hmm, yes if Mikey makes the race, I won’t have to listen to him – although his noisy brother will still be there – along with Myers pretending he’s never seen a race car before!

so any bets who the in car reporter will be?

Kevin in SoCal
02/17/2014 02:07 PM

Call me confused on the engine-change rule, as my opinion would be once you qualify, then you are locked into that engine for the rest of the race. Practice is just practice, and it doesnt count. At the very least, those 3 would have to start at the back for the duals, but the 500 too? I dont get it.

02/17/2014 04:25 PM

Concerning the pole run by the 3.You don’t have to provide a difference plate as the driver could still mess it up.

Just look at the man with his hand on the clock.Who runs the timing anyways,yea that’s what I thought.

Time to put my Tinfoil hat on.

02/17/2014 04:30 PM

agree with zetona..

but i think the early race single file parade was a prelude of things to come.

was it just me or did the graphic showing the running order bug the crap out of you?
it seemed to dominate the right side of the screen. I’d much rather have it crawl across the top.

bud sudz
02/18/2014 12:33 AM

Here’s the info Directly from David Newton’s June of 2013 Article:

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Daytona International Speedway will have shrunk by 46,000 seats and eliminated the backstretch grandstands when it completes a three-year, $370 million to $400 million renovation set to begin after the July 6 Sprint Cup race in Daytona Beach, Fla.

It was announced on Tuesday that International Speedway Corporation will undertake the remodel to completely revamp NASCAR’s flagship track.

The project is expected to be completed in time for the 2016 Rolex 24 and Daytona 500.

Seating capacity at DIS, once 162,000 and currently 147,000, will be 101,000 when the project is completed. All of the focus will be on the front grandstands where every seat will be replaced with wider, more comfortable seats.”

Not being overly critical, but there’s a big difference between 200K and 101K, Plus, there’s an even bigger story when ISC is predicting smaller crowds long term!

02/18/2014 08:05 AM

“We’ll all just have to wait and see what the attendance looks like the rest of Speedweeks, but the early numbers look like an auspicious start.”
I believe the word you want to use is inauspicious.


Contact Mike Neff

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