This Week in Auto Racing Feb. 14 – 15

Daytona Beach, FL ( – It’s time to race again as
Speedweeks 2015 at Daytona International Speedway begins this weekend with the
Sprint Unlimited and Daytona 500 qualifying.


Sprint Cup Series

The Sprint Unlimited – Daytona International Speedway – Daytona Beach, Fla.

The 2015 Sprint Cup Series season has arrived with Saturday night’s Sprint
Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.

This 75-lap preseason, non-points race will be the first opportunity for
drivers and teams to gather data under race conditions in preparation for next
week’s Daytona 500.

As part of its new rules package for this season, NASCAR banned all private
test sessions as a cost-cutting measure. That included the elimination of
“Preseason Thunder” testing at Daytona, which had been held in the middle of
January in past years.

With the exception of a one-day Goodyear tire test at Las Vegas last month,
involving just four drivers (A.J. Allmendinger, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and
Brad Keselowski), there has been no on-track activity since the Nov. 16
season-ending race at Homestead. Kevin Harvick won that race and claimed his
first Sprint Cup championship.

“Being in the Sprint Unlimited is even more important now since there is no
testing,” said Greg Biffle, who drives the No. 16 Ford for Roush Fenway
Racing. “It’s a great opportunity to get on the track and see what you’ve
got, a warmup to how the following week will go.”

Biffle is one of 25 drivers scheduled to compete in the Sprint Unlimited,
making it one of the biggest fields for this event. In the past, the field was
made up of pole winners from the previous season and former Sprint Unlimited
race winners. This year, NASCAR has added past Daytona 500 pole winners who
competed full time in 2014 and any one of the 16 Chase drivers from last year
that had not already been eligible for this event. Clint Bowyer, Casey Mears,
Paul Menard and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. gained eligibility due to driver points
from last year.

Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson, both rookies in Sprint Cup this past season,
are expected to make their first starts in this race. Dillon won the pole for
last year’s Daytona 500.

“I think it’s cool to know that I won the pole last year for the Daytona 500,
and one of the rewards is to always be able to race in this prestigious race,”
Dillon said. “It will be my first Sprint Unlimited, and I can’t wait. I’ve
watched so many of them growing up.”

Denny Hamlin is the defending winner of the Sprint Unlimited. Hamlin is now in
his 10th full season as driver of the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. He
won this event for the first time in his 2006 rookie season.

“Our team had a lot of success in Daytona last year and on restrictor-plate
tracks as a whole, so hopefully we can continue that this year,” Hamlin said.
“JGR always builds great speedway cars, and it’s up to us (No. 11 team) to
work together, remain patient and try to stay clean to have a chance at the
end. It would be great to kick off another season in victory lane at Daytona.”

The Sprint Unlimited will be split into two segments, with a competition
caution at lap 25 separating the segments.

Daytona 500 Qualifying – Daytona International Speedway – Daytona Beach, Fla.

For the first time in the 57-year history of the Daytona 500, NASCAR will use
its group qualifying format to set the front row positions for the race and
determine the starting lineups for the Budweiser Duel twin-qualifying events.

Previously, the front row for the Daytona 500 was determined by single-car
runs in time trials. Each driver was allowed two laps in his or her qualifying

Sunday’s Daytona 500 qualifying will consist of three rounds, with the first
round divided into two groups based on a random draw. Drivers drawing an odd
number will be in the first group and those with an even number in the second
group. The first round is five minutes for each group, and the 24 fastest cars
from that segment will advance into the second round.

Following a 10-minute break, the second round will be five minutes with the
fastest 12 drivers advancing to the third and final segment. A seven-minute
break will precede the third, which will last five minutes. The top-two
finishers in qualifying will make up the front row for the Daytona 500, which
is scheduled for Feb. 22.

Starting positions 3-43 for the Daytona 500 will be determine in next
Thursday’s Budweiser Duel, which for the second year in a row will take place
at nighttime.

Last year, NASCAR used a new knockout-style qualifying format for Sprint Cup,
which began with the second race of the season, held at Phoenix the weekend
after the Daytona 500.

When the series ran its most recent restrictor-plate race in October at
Talladega, the group qualifying format was used for the first time. In a
chaotic and confusing qualifying session for that race, Chase drivers Kyle
Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano had to take a
provisional (owner points) position in the starting field. Ricky Stenhouse
Jr., the 2013 rookie of the year in the series, failed to qualify.

So it’s no surprise that drivers and teams are concerned about group
qualifying for the Daytona 500.

“Yeah, I am worried about qualifying,” said Stewart-Haas Racing driver Danica
Patrick, who won the Daytona 500 pole two years ago. “It didn’t go well at
Talladega (qualifying 27th), and I don’t see how it’s going to go any
different here at Daytona, especially since at Talladega (competitors) saw how
little time we had left in the five-minute session, and they waited even
longer (before getting on the track).

“You would have thought they would have just gotten a big group and just
hauled butt and all been faster than most of us in the first group, but they
didn’t. I don’t have any reason to think it’s going to be a lot different
other than maybe people will be a lot more encouraged to work together and to
stick with the plan. Other than that, luck of the draw.”

Some drivers, like Hamlin, feel the Daytona 500 has now become a series of

“It’s a bunch of races. It really is,” he said. “Now that single-car
qualifying is gone, you’re probably going to see more wrecks in practice
because people are going to be trying that strategy of running a fast lap and
seeing what it takes to run that fast lap, so you’re going to have guys
running caution speed and real speed all on the same track in a green
condition. I don’t know. Somebody is going to make a mistake for sure.”

Forty-eight teams are currently on the entry list for the Daytona 500. Two
practice sessions for qualifying — each session two hours in length — are
scheduled for Saturday.