We did it! We’re back! We made it through the offseason, and damn, this one seemed extra long, no? It did for me at least, but I’m also a racing-obsessed lunatic. No matter, as the Sprint Unlimited, the glitzy exhibition race at Daytona that kicks off every NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, is finally upon us, and with it brings a list of talking points that doesn’t involve best-of lists or sponsor announcements. Indeed, we have a real, actual race to talk about for the first time in months, and this one figures to be a thrilling one.
Twenty-five cars, $200,000 on the line and four burning questions. Let’s begin, shall we?
- Can this edition of the Unlimited match last year’s in terms of excitement?
Historically, the Sprint Unlimited (neé Shootout) usually ends up being one of the three or four most exciting races of the season from an on-track racing standpoint. The superspeedway aero package introduced before the 2014 season ended up being something of a success, as every superspeedway race in 2014 was blindingly competitive and featured a great deal of passing.
That aero package is making a return for tomorrow night’s race and figures to put on an exciting show given the fact that the teams have had many months now to science out and improve upon the already rock-solid platform that this package offers. Much like last year’s races at Daytona, expect side-drafting to be the story of the night, as the reduced field in tomorrow night’s race (25 vs. a traditional 43) will offer more track space for drivers to utilize and create speed off of the air bubble that the Gen-6 car generates on superspeedway tracks. This should mean lots of passing and a high number of hair-raising moments as drivers test the limits of what the still-improving aero platform is capable of in a non-points-paying race.
My guess is that we will see more lead changes in the race than this event has seen in six years. This is the first time since 2010 (!!!) that the teams will be going into the race with the same basic aero package as the year prior, which should ultimately make for a competitive night of racing.
- What kind of Daytona will we see tonight?
One of the more under-the-radar stories entering this year’s edition of Speedweeks is the status of Daytona’s track surface. If you recall, Daytona was repaved in late 2010, and ever since then, handling issues and tire wear (both of which were always big factors at Daytona prior to the repave) have been mostly nonexistent at the facility.
However, over the past year and a half or so, Daytona has begun to show some signs of returning to its former self, so to speak. Harsh winters and dry, sandy summers have already taken a toll on the race track, and the once smooth as glass surface now reportedly is a bit rougher and bumpier. The track surface is still nowhere even close to what it was prior to the repave, but for the first time in at least half a decade, it is possible that Daytona’s continually aging surface could bring meaningful handling issues and tire wear into a Cup race at the facility. I say “meaningful” because handling issues have in fact been cropping up at Daytona now for the past year and a half due to the aero package being used in Cup, but this could be the first race in a while when said handling issues actually have a visibly noteworthy effect on the race.
All told, I think this is something that should definitely bear watching tonight and throughout the rest of Speedweeks, as although temperatures figure to be very cold (which will lead to increased grip), the surface may in fact be worn-in enough to start yielding handling problems. We’ll just have to wait and see.
- Will Jeff Gordon make any noise in the first race of his farewell season?
Jeff Gordon has made it abundantly clear over the past half-decade or so that he has grown to dislike restrictor plate racing recently. It makes sense when you think about it; the man has seemingly been caught up in more Big Ones in recent years than any other driver I can think of save for maybe Ryan Newman. But of course, anyone who follows my writing with regularity knows my stance on this: drivers who dislike plate racing tend not to put forth their best effort on such tracks (*COUGH RYAN NEWMAN COUGH*), which usually results in said drivers being mid-pack during points of the race when a Big One is most likely to strike. It’s a vicious feedback loop, but it’s also oddly fair in a twisted sort of way: the drivers who dislike/disrespect plate racing the most tend to be the ones who get bitten by it the worst.
So, where am I going with all of this? Considering the fact that this is presumably Gordon’s last Speedweeks ever, I think it will be interesting to see what kind of superspeedway racer shows up in the No. 24 machine in all of the races at Daytona this month. Will it be the jaded, timid, conservative superspeedway-Jeff Gordon that has shown up to plate races over the past five years? Or will we see the superspeedway-Jeff Gordon of old, the one who was an absolute shark in the draft and a constant threat for wins? Whichever one shows up on tomorrow night will probably be the one who shows up to the 500 the week after, and if the jaded one shows up, I can promise you that Gordon’s last Daytona 500 will be largely forgettable. However, if Gordon comes out tomorrow night swinging for the fences, it could be the start of what may end up being a massive, massive story once Speedweeks concludes, as a victory in the 500 by Gordon would be a transcendent story for the ages.
- Will Danica Patrick finally show something?
I probably shouldn’t even have to say this, but I’ll say it anyway: it’s put up or shut up time for Danica Patrick. We’re now entering year three of the Danica to NASCAR experiment, and so far, she doesn’t have much to show for it. That was understandable throughout the first two years of her Cup tenure as she continued her adjustment to Cup cars, but now in her third full year, results are the expectation, not a fun surprise. Danicamania has slowed to a screeching halt, and if she doesn’t rekindle the hype by delivering some results soon, the hype may never come back.
Enter the Sprint Unlimited, a 75-lap no-holds-barred shootout with a field that is a half the size of a traditional race lineup. It’s a fresh start for all drivers participating in the event and the first opportunity to demonstrate performance during the new season. This is Danica’s best chance to make a mark and silence some critics before the wave of Daytona 500 media attention grows too large to stave off; the field is short, the race is being held at one of her best race tracks and she has proven to be a competent superspeedway racer. She needs to make some noise tomorrow night, because if Ms. Patrick comes out of the box stumbling once again, all it will do is provide more ammunition to critics who think it’s time to give the whole NASCAR experiment up.
I think she’ll be an intriguing driver to watch tomorrow night. On paper, she has all the tools necessary to get it done. A good run would go a long way in getting her season started on the right foot.
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