Can you feel that? Daytona Fever is in the air once again as the NASCAR world gears up for the 2014 edition of Speedweeks. To say that a lot has changed since I left you all back in November would be an understatement. We have a new points system, new cars, new rules, and a invigorated Sprint Cup Series garage that is peppered with new faces in new places. I know I just used the word “new” five times in that last sentence, but you better get used to it, because that word is going to be all you hear for the next two and a half weeks.
As for what is happening on the track this weekend, many Cup drivers are gearing up for the Sprint Unlimited, which, as I’m sure you all know, is a 75-lap dash for cash comprised of the pole winners from last season. What should we expect out of the season’s first event? I break that down and more below.
1. Will the aero package tweaks make a difference?
I know what you are all thinking right now. Seriously, I can read your minds. All of you are concerned that Speedweeks is going to be a rehash of last year’s edition, when all of the races around Daytona’s high banks amounted to conga-lines around the top side of the racetrack.
Here’s the great news: the same thing is not going to happen again this year. Due to months of engineering coupled with an awful lot of learning on behalf of the drivers, the superspeedway races of 2013 started off abysmally, and then slowly improved throughout the year, with each being better than the last. The Fall Talladega race at Talladega was an incredibly competitive affair; and perhaps the best plate race since the Gen-4 era up until a very complex series of late race intra-pack events led to the cars finishing in another conga-line.
In an effort to prevent another one of those conga-lines from forming, NASCAR added an extra half-inch of spoiler to the superspeedway aero package in order to give the cars more suck-up and stability in the draft. A half-inch may not seem like much, but it ought to be the little extra boost that the aero package needed to get the pack racing back to where it needs to be in terms of competition. Considering that the drivers now have a full year of Gen-6 pack racing under their belt, coupled with some help on the aero side, there is reason to believe that the Sprint Unlimited will be far more competitive than any plate race from last year.
2. What is the winning strategy going to be?
Get up front and stay there. The Gen-6 superspeedway package is much different than any plate package that existed during the COT era. Staying towards the front of the pack and ensuring that your car is handling well were the two biggest keys to success on plate tracks last season, and that is not expected to change this year.
Unlike the Gen-5 plate packages that allowed the drivers to rely on super-drafts and tandem-pushes to make passes, the Gen-6 package requires a skilled drafter and calculating strategy to make up ground on the track, which in essence means that plate racing is back to how it was in the mid-2000s (that is a good thing by the way).
Passing is expected to be much easier on Saturday night due to the new spoiler, but make no mistake, the Gen-6 car does not handle particularly well on plate tracks, and passing is still nowhere near as easy as it was in the Gen 5 era. Throw in the fact that this race is only 75 laps long, and you have a recipe for urgency throughout the race. Every driver knows that passing will be possible (unlike last year), it just takes a lot more time than it did in the past.
As such, don’t expect guys to be dilly-dallying or riding around in the back. If a driver wants a shot to win this race, he or she will have to get to the front as quickly as possible and play good defense to reach checkers first. As the Fall Talladega race showed last year, waiting is no longer an option. You either fight for position all race long, or you get left out in the cold. It’s that simple.
3. Will Tony Stewart be himself again?
He’s back! After a nearly 7-month absence from competitive auto racing, Tony Stewart finally makes his return to the racetrack this Saturday night. Of course, his return will not be without concerns. Stewart has gone on record as saying that the leg he broke in August still has not fully healed yet, leaving some to question whether it is wise for Stewart to be returning despite not having a totally clean bill of health.
Daytona is of course one of the most dangerous tracks in all of auto racing, so one has to ask: will Stewart be his traditionally aggressive self on Saturday night? My guess is no. Stewart’s objective for the Sprint Unlimited will more than likely be to simply get re-accustomed to driving the race car in competitive conditions in hopes of jacking up his confidence to 100% for the real prize, the Daytona 500.
So, to all of the loyal Smoke fans reading this column, I urge you not to be alarmed if your boy is not quite up to speed on Saturday night. Mr. Stewart is still not fully out of the woods health-wise just yet, and he won’t be liable to risk anything in a race that amounts to little more than bragging rights and extra cash.
4. Who is best positioned to win the race?
The Sprint Unlimited is a notoriously difficult race to prognosticate. Plate races in general are tough to predict, but when you factor in the detail that we have no knowledge as to who has speed right now, predicting a winner gets even tougher.
With that in mind, we will have to rely solely on past driver performance in plate races to choose our winner. If you take a look at which drivers delivered the best in-race performances in plate races last year, three names come to mind: Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Those three drivers combined to lead 473 laps across the four points-paying plate races last year. Can’t really argue with those numbers. As for a dark horse, check out Ricky Stenhouse Jr. He quietly posted the third highest points total in 2013 plate races, and seemed to have a feel for the aero-package that some other drivers did not possess. He could make some serious noise on Saturday night.
Again, plate races are very driver-intensive. Johnson, Kenseth, and Earnhardt Jr. have consistently shown that have the best feel for the Gen 6 cars in the draft, so in my opinion, it only makes sense to proclaim that your winner on Saturday night will emerge from that group.
Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2014 Sprint Unlimited:
Dale Jr. will kick off a strong Speedweeks with a victory in the Sprint Unlimited.
1. 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2. 48-Jimmie Johnson
3. 20-Matt Kenseth
4. 17-Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
5. 18-Kyle Busch
6. 4-Kevin Harvick
7. 22-Joey Logano
8. 2-Brad Keselowski
9. 11-Denny Hamlin
10. 10-Danica Patrick
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