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Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2014 Sprint Unlimited at Daytona

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 – 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-five 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 million 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.

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. Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Patrick, or Stenhouse. 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 4 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 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 Keselowski and went for a spin in turn 4. 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 1 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.

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

  • 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.
  • 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 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 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 primetime. 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 p.m. and on MRN radio.

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