NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2013 Sprint Unlimited at Daytona

Editor’s Note: In 2013, Thinkin’ Out Loud will be written by Mike Neff for a majority of races, with a potpourri of Frontstretch writers filling in — even the legendary racing writer who penned the name! Matt McLaughlin will pop up a handful of times, including after this Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Key Moment — On lap 16, Tony Stewart attempted to change lanes and make a move on race leader Matt Kenseth. While he wasn’t cleared by his spotter, Stewart chose to shift down low which resulted in his left rear corner making contact with the right front of Marcos Ambrose. Stewart’s car got out of shape, made contact with the apron and sent a shower of sparks over several cars that were pursuing him. Jimmie Johnson checked up in the high line, which caused Denny Hamlin to make contact with the five-time champ, turning him down in front of the oncoming pack and ultimately taking out 1/3 of the field. The accident eliminated defending champion Kyle Busch, two-time Unlimited champion Jeff Gordon, 2006 winner Hamlin and 1999 winner Mark Martin. Just like that, the field was reduced by 1/3, many contenders sat idle in the garage and the drafting – along with the racing – became a shell of its former self.

In a Nutshell — Post-wreck, passing in the draft became borderline impossible. With that knowledge in hand, Kevin Harvick started the last segment on the outside of the front row since he had the choice and simply didn’t make a mistake over the final 20 laps. Unlike recent years, where the tandem was able to make up ground on a pack, the key last night was having the line with the most cars. Harvick led the “top groove” for the entire final segment and only surrendered the lead to Kenseth at the start/finish line one time for a brief moment. On the final lap, he threw a block on Greg Biffle that sealed the deal and tied him for second on the all-time Unlimited winners’ list with three.

Dramatic Moment — Heading down the back straight on the final lap, Biffle had a run on the top as Harvick was blocking Joey Logano on the bottom. Harvick drove back up in front of Biffle, clearing him by inches, stopping his run and sealing the deal. With some camera angles, it looked like the two even made contact but the demolition derby-style wreck we saw last fall at Talladega was avoided.

What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

The format for the Sprint Unlimited was in flux from the announcement until the middle of the race as fans voted on three different aspects. But while Sprint should be applauded for involving the fans on such an intimate level, they really needed to stop the voting the day before. Having NASCAR officials climbing the pit boxes, letting crew chiefs know how many tires they’re going to change 10 laps before their pit stop will happen is ridiculous.

You can put those “lame duck” driver conversations to bed for Harvick, at least for the next couple of weeks. Harvick pointed out that he and his team are all about winning; his status with the organization has nothing to do with how hard the team works now to accomplish that. Things could turn south as the end of the season, especially if they begin to struggle but, for now, a win to start the season will most certainly make it easier for them to all get along for the next few months.

Fortunately, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. did not qualify on the front row or the TMZ frenzy around the young lovebirds of NASCAR would have been more unbearable than “Harbowl 2013.” Still, the attention that Patrick and Stenhouse are receiving for their personal lives is annoying at best, pull your hair out at worst. Brad Keselowski probably had the best assessment of the situation I’ve seen during Speedweeks. “While they’re dating,” he said, “Nothing is going to be all that exciting. When they break up, assuming they will, it will get really interesting.”

Kyle Larson continues to make his mark on NASCAR at a rapid pace. Larson ran the ARCA race before the Sprint Unlimited and completed the entire event, crossing the line in second place. He ran in USAC at New Smyrna on Sunday and is competing in Late Models, Modifieds and K&N cars during the UNOH Battle at the Beach on Monday and Tuesday. Kerry Tharp, Senior Director of Competition Communications, has confirmed to Frontstretch that Larson has been approved to run the Nationwide race next Saturday. Bubba Wallace has also been approved to run the Camping World Truck Series race on Friday, setting these rookies up for what should be eye-opening performances.

Danica Patrick laid down the fastest time in qualifying for this year’s 55th running of the Great American Race. She beat Gordon by .033 seconds to become the 11th consecutive different polesitter for the Daytona 500. This accomplishment is also the first time in history that a woman has secured a pole position for a Cup Series race. No truth to the rumor that Patrick was mistakenly given the restrictor plate that was assigned to Dale Earnhardt Jr.… (Best finish for her in Cup to date: 17th at Phoenix last November. So for those thinking she’s going to win the Daytona 500… hope you’re enjoyin’ whatever you’ve been smokin’.)

Stewart-Haas Racing was the bigger push behind Danica’s record-setting run; they had all three of their cars register inside the top five during Sunday qualifying. I noticed Stewart go out of his way, time and again to thank sponsor Mobil 1 during interviews and sources tell me there’s a reason why. Garage insiders think SHR has mastered something with the engine lubricant to earn a little extra horsepower out of their Hendrick Motorsports engines. (Who also ran extremely well, by the way).

Feel-good story for the 500: Michael Waltrip is driving a car for Swan Racing with the No. 26 on the side of it. The car is a tribute to the victims of the Newtown massacre, hoping to raise money for a fund that helps the community heal. It is a bit morbid, though, that number 26 is in honor of the 20 children and six adults who lost their lives on that tragic day.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Kyle Busch and Gordon obviously have fast cars for Daytona this year, as evidenced by practice and qualifying. But neither of them had an opportunity to show what they had thanks to being eliminated in the big wreck early on.

Keelan Harvick lost his shoe before the race when he was in his dad’s car. Unfortunately for him, dad won which means he’s probably going to have to sacrifice that shoe for the remainder of his life.

Kurt Busch tore up a car on Friday in practice and then lost another one in the Sprint Unlimited. Busch went through a pile of cars while he was driving for Phoenix Racing last year, including three in 2012 Speedweeks and is not starting this season off much better.

Kenseth had the fastest car in the race, it seemed as he could jump to the front of the draft with ease. But in the second and final segments, his competitors sensed the advantage and shuffled him so far off the lead it was impossible for the No. 20 car to work its way up. It didn’t help both Joe Gibbs Racing teammates were sitting in the garage after that wreck, as Kenseth had to use former JGR employer Logano (talk about a mismatch made in heaven — aren’t you glad those tandems are gone?) just to push his way up to fifth.

Earnhardt Jr. appeared to be able to work the draft at will during the race’s middle segment. But when push came to shove, the No. 88 shoved its way backward with what appeared to be a malfunctioning engine in the closing laps. Apparently down a cylinder, it was all he could do to draft behind teammate Kasey Kahne and hold onto eighth place.

After qualifying Sunday, Tony Stewart made a comment that his team put in a ton of time once they had all of the requisite parts to put their cars together — perhaps more OT than any other team on the circuit. That means the guys with wives spent a lot of time away from them, the guys with girlfriends spent a lot of time away from them and the guys with wives and girlfriends spent a lot of time away from both.

Brian Keselowski has busted his butt to get a car to Daytona and try and make the 500. But all that effort, at least for now seems to be for naught. The car didn’t start when his number came up for qualifying; then, when he did get it running, he was 1.4 seconds slower than anyone else on the grid.

Terry Labonte’s career has devolved to a point where he is start-and-parking in non-points races now. Why?

The Seven Come for Eleven Award for Fine Fortune

Harvick works for an organization that realizes that the sport is about racing and not about petty politics. If his team was filled with whiny little peeps who cared about themselves instead of the big prize, his car would suck and he’d be moving on by the end of July. Last year, Brad Keselowski won a championship for a manufacturer that was leaving the sport. Maybe this year, Harvick can win a title as he’s leaving his team.

Logano timed out his final move of the Unlimited knowing that he would most likely not win but he’d be able to finish quite a bit higher than he was running. Sometimes, you have to make the most of what you’re dealt, and Logano threw a Hail Mary on the final lap to jump from seventh to third. In next Sunday’s race, he just might make the move to win if he’s willing to take that chance again.

Hendrick Motorsports, and their satellite team of Stewart-Haas Racing, laid a beatdown on the field in qualifying. SHR has three teams in the top five, with Hendrick adding two more in the top six. The 500 can take some dramatic swings that can ruin a team’s day or make their season; but for qualifying day, it is SHR and Hendrick.

John Wes Townley has seldom been mentioned in the same breath as winners in stock car racing. “DUI,” “wreck,” and “rich kid” have been the more well-known labels. But Saturday, he was able to score the win in ARCA’s Lucas Oil 200. Townley is trying to reestablish his racing career and that victory has scored some brownie points for him in that direction.

Worth Noting

  • Harvick ties Dale Jarrett and Stewart as three-time winners of the Unlimited. Dale Earnhardt is still the all-time winningest driver in the event with six victories.
  • Harvick has now made it to Victory Lane as much in 2013 as he did all of last season (once, Phoenix in November).
  • The top 10 in the Unlimited included five Chevys, three Fords and two Toyotas.
  • Patrick’s pole speed is the third-fastest in restrictor plate history at Daytona and the fastest since 1990 (Ken Schrader).
  • Patrick is the first rookie to win the pole for the 500 since Johnson in 2002.
  • This will be the fourth time that Gordon starts on the front row for the Daytona 500.
  • Chevrolet has half of the top 10 in qualifying for the Daytona 500. There are three Toyotas and two Fords.
  • 45 cars attempted to make the field on Sunday, the smallest amount here since 2004. Heck, there used to be a time when there were almost that many in a qualifying race.

What’s the Points?

There is no point. The Unlimited is a non-points race to start off the racing year and they don’t pay points for qualifying so…

Overall Rating (From one to six beers, with one being a stinker and a six-pack being the race of the year) — Try as you might to say there can be an exciting race with just two cars who put on a good show; in plate racing, the more the merrier. The 19-car starting field for the Sprint Unlimited didn’t bode well for an ultra-competitive event; unfortunately, it did nothing to exceed expectations. Harvick noted in his post-race press conference that a line with eight cars would outrun a line with four every time. All he had to do was side draft cars on the bottom line and he was able to stay in front. Add to that the tentative nature of the drivers who were unsure what to expect with the new cars, plus the fact they couldn’t really make anything happen, and you ended up with a mostly single-file parade that provided a limited amount of entertainment for the fans. On the plus side, there was a race with cars on the track, at speed after three months off so we’ll give them two cans of lukewarm Pabst to start off the season. Here’s hoping the Great American Race will provide a lot more excitement next Sunday.

Next Up — The Budweiser Duels will take place on Thursday to set the starting lineup for the Daytona 500. Sunday, February 24th will then be the 55th running of the Great American Race. Note that the Budweiser Duels will be televised on SPEED, as they happen while the Daytona 500 will be live on FOX.

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