Who’s in the headline – After being involved in an early caution Denny Hamlin played pit strategy to get to the front of the pack and stretched his fuel to the end of a green-white-checkered finish to take his third Sprint Unlimited victory. The vast majority of cars had damage during the evening but Hamlin’s was on the right side of his car and had little impact on his ability to race. His win was his second Unlimited victory in three years.
Sunday saw qualifying for the Dayton 500 with the top two positions for the race being locked in. When the single car qualifying wrapped up it was Chase Elliott who laid down the fastest lap in the second and final round of qualifying. He bested Matt Kenseth who will start outside row one. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fastest in the first round of qualifying but only mustered the third-fastest lap in the final round.
What happened – The 75-lap exhibition Unlimited started with Jimmie Johnson on pole, but Brad Keselowski was the class of the field as the race began. After leading the first 10 laps he surrendered the point to Jamie McMurray, who charged from 24th place starting position to the lead. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. blew a right rear tire while trailing far behind the field with Hamlin. The ensuing spin saw Stenhouse bounce the nose of his car off of Hamlin’s right side and cave in the sheet metal on the passenger door area of the No. 11.
After the caution, Hamlin pitted under green before the competition caution on lap 25. As a result, he assumed the lead when the rest of the field pitted for the caution. From then until the checkered flag, it was Hamlin and Keselowski taking turns leading the race. Hamlin faced five caution flags for three major wrecks, a minor wreck and fluid on the track, but was never further from the lead than second.
As for qualifying for the 500, Elliott admitted to making mistakes on his first round effort that saw him third fastest in that round. Elliott was seven tenths of a second faster than Kenseth during the final round to claim the pole. Earnhardt Jr. was the final car on the track but he came up .15 of a second slower than Elliott and .08 slower than Kenseth. Of the cars that have to qualify into the 500, Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto were the fastest two of the eight cars not locked into the race. They are guaranteed to start the 500 due to being the two quickest of the must qualify cars.
Why you should care – Hamlin’s win in the Unlimited is relatively meaningless for the 500. Only three drivers have ever won the pre-season exhibition race and gone on to win the 500. The race was enough to knock the rust off for the fans, as well as the drivers, but that was the extent of it. The teams have had the same aero package for four years now and the ability to pass for the lead has gone down precipitously over that span. It takes a major push from behind for a car to completely clear the lead car, which only happened three or four times Saturday night.
While the teams might like the fact they have the same package every year, it is time to do something because Brian France’s desire for pack racing has been achieved, but no one is able to go to the front without major assistance. The 500 better be different or the fans will be asleep.
What your friends are talking about – Forget about the racing, the fans are talking about more and more off track garbage than the on-track product. Since this is the first edition of Thinkin’ since the close of 2015, let’s review:
We all know Michael Waltrip Racing shut down at the end of the season. Rob Kauffman lost a bunch of money during his partnership with Waltrip, and unlike every other owner in the history of the sport, was surprised that it happened. Due to his astonishment at this fact, he pushed to start up the Race Team Alliance and then negotiated a charter system with NASCAR to somehow give owners supposed value for their ownership. The end result is Kauffman received two of the charters for his now defunct team, and he’s going to make a few million dollars by selling them to teams that want guaranteed starting spots in the races for all of 2016.
In the fallout from the charter system, the fans are in an uproar over the fact that the Wood Brothers did not receive one of them to assure they will start every race this season. Even though the Woods cherry picked their schedules to only go for the big money races for the majority of their existence and are now basically just a shell corporation for a third Team Penske car, people act like it is atrocious. The system is designed to reward those people who unwaveringly supported NASCAR every weekend over the last three years. Like it or not, the Woods didn’t do that, so they don’t get one. With that said, it doesn’t matter. For most, if not all of the races after Daytona, there will only be 40 cars at the track, so they’ll make every race anyway.
Now that someone did their best to totally screw up what a catch is in the NFL, they have now moved over to screw up NASCAR even more.
Buried in the announcement of the charter system was another addition to the rule book: an overtime line. After the fiasco at Talladega last year with restarts not actually being restarts, they have now decided there is going to be a line on the track that the leader must pass before a restart of a GWC finish is actually a restart. Look forward to some kind of passing rhombus in the not too distant future once NASCAR decides hockey is cool too.
Speaking of crazy rules, the Trucks will have a 20-minute caution clock this season. If they have 20 minutes of green flag racing, they will throw a caution. While it is obvious that it is simply to eliminate bogus debris cautions, NASCAR wouldn’t admit to it. Before you get your panties in a bunch, there were only three times during the entire 2015 season where the yellow would have actually flown for this rule. It isn’t worth losing sleep over.
On the other hand, you can lose sleep over the addition of the Chase to Trucks and Xfinity. After both of those series had championships come down to the wire for several years in a row, the suits in Daytona have decided to further bastardize the sport by implementing the Chase in the two support series. Their logic is to prepare the younger drivers in the sport for the pressures of the Chase at the Cup level. This just in, if you make the title about running the best all season, like it is everywhere in racing besides NASCAR national series, then they will all know how to race for a title. Fortunately, only eight drivers make the Chase in Trucks, so that should preclude Jennifer Jo Cobb and Norm Benning from being in the title hunt for the Truck trophy.
Tony Stewart is out of the car for anywhere from two to six months due to a burst fracture in his back. The SHR organization has put Brian Vickers in the car for Speedweeks. While it is nice to see Vickers driving again, it is scary to think that he is most likely playing Russian Roulette with his life. The susceptibility to clots isn’t going to go away for him and a clot going into his brain could end his life. Keeping our fingers crossed that it doesn’t happen.
Speaking of Stewart, he was injured having fun during the off-season. Owners continue to curtail the extracurricular activity of their drivers thanks to the investment they have in them and their teams. Hopefully this won’t be a further impetus for owners to be even more heavy handed in quelling the fun of their employees.
Who is mad – Anyone not named Hamlin on Saturday night. The racing was a constant pack of cars with little movement in the pack and virtually none at the point. When the checkers flew after the final caution of the night during the GWC finish, all but four cars had been officially involved in cautions. A couple of blown right rears caused wrecks, including a huge one right before the competition caution. Hopefully that was not a tire issue that will rear its head during the 500.
Keselowski can’t be too happy with the people who bring items to the track in plastic bags. Two different times during the event, the 2012 champion had large plastic bags obstruct his radiator opening and ultimately played a role in his failure to be in contention when the race ended.
Fans paid to see a 75-lap race. After seven caution flags flew on Saturday night, they only saw 54 laps of actual racing. Were it not for the GWC, it would have been exactly one-third of the race under caution. When you are dealing with a race less than 100 laps, there is no reason to count caution laps. While the stands were no where close to full, the fans paying for tickets deserve to get their money’s worth. Burning up laps behind the pace car is generally unnecessary anyway but especially when the event only has 75 scheduled laps.
Who is happy – Joe Gibbs is a happy man after Hamlin’s win marked the fourth time in five races and third time in a row that his teams have won the exhibition race. The season is a long and arduous trek but starting it with a win sets a foundation that can lead to another title for the JGR squad.
Stenhouse Jr. has to feel pretty good after he came back to a sixth-place finish Saturday night, when he caused the first caution of the night. He followed that with a fifth-place qualifying effort for the Daytona 500. While his Roush Fenway Racing teammates didn’t look very strong in qualifying, a good run for Stenhouse might be a step in the right direction for a team that has struggled for a couple of years now.
Elliott wrote yet another chapter in the storybook of Daytona qualifying. After Danica Patrick sat on the pole as a rookie and Austin Dillon brought back the No. 3 to lead the field to the line, it is now Elliott with the fairy tale story. The son of 16-time most popular driver Bill Elliott, Chase is filling the abandoned seat of Jeff Gordon for the 2016 season. He is a proven champion after taking the Xfinity title two years ago and has displayed quite a bit of natural talent in his efforts at the national level in NASCAR. It will be hard for him to have much help during the 500 from anyone besides his teammates but his car appears that it will be strong enough to help push given the right circumstances.
When the checkered flag flew:
Hamlin won the pre-season exhibition race for the third time in his career and the second time in the last three years.
This is Hamlin’s sixth career win at Daytona in the NASCAR national series.
The pole position for Chase Elliott is his first in sixth career Cup race.
It is the 10th pole in the Daytona 500 for Hendrick Motorsports.
What is in the cooler
After 79 laps on Saturday night, three leaders and 12 lead changes, the carnage that was the Sprint Unlimited was thankfully over. As exciting as plate racing can be, this was a horrible race to watch. While there were 12 lead changes they were mostly just paper passes with cars side-by-side at the line. Almost 1/3 of the race was under caution. It was far from an auspicious start to the 2016 season. We’ll give it one cold Busch in memory of their return to the sport. We’ll cross our fingers that the 500 is much better.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – The Great American Race will be live on FOX at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 21. It can also be heard on MRN affiliates and SiriusNASCAR Channel 90.