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The Unlimited: Democracy In Action Or Confusing Anarchy

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 15 2014

Practice for Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited got under way on Friday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Tradition, it appears, will never be a problem for the race which is now known as the Sprint Unlimited. That’s because the event – a kind of non-points-paying all-star race which kicks off the Sprint Cup season – won’t sit still long enough to establish a true tradition.

Every year, additions and subtractions to the event’s format, send fans and competitors alike scrambling for details of revamped rules.

For the past couple of years, NASCAR has apparently decided that fans need a bigger say in how the race is to be populated and conducted.

The format for the 2014 race – which is scheduled for 8 p.m.-ish Eastern Time on Saturday – has taken fan participation to, well, choose one:

A: New heights

B: Absurd heights

It starts with the segmentation of the race; that is, the races within the race. The overall race will be 75 laps. Those 75 laps will be split into three segments. The number of laps per segment will be determine by fan voting, conducted via the internet. On the ballot are: 30-35-10; 30-30-15; or 30-25-20.

Voting will be conducted up to two hours before the start of the race.

Also up to fans will be the restart order for the final segment. Here internet jockeys will have the following choices: fastest lap in the first two segments; most laps led in first two segments;  or the order the drivers come off pit road after a mandatory two-tire pit stop.

Drivers won’t know the result of that vote until the second segment ends.

Finally, fans can vote on the starting order for the race. The choices: most career poles; 2013 driver standings; or final practice speeds. The results won’t be announced until 30 minutes before the start of the event.

Twenty drivers are eligible. Among that group are the 17 pole winners from 2013 – Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Marcos Ambrose, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray, Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Three past Sprint Unlimited winners also are eligible — Terry Labonte, Ken Schrader and Tony Stewart, though Martin and Schrader are not expected to participate.

Drivers have differing reactions to the Unlimited – it’s constant changes and its existence.

Some say it is an honor to be a participant. Some say the continual changes confuse even those in the garages.

Almost all say it is an opportunity – to win a Cup race at Daytona International Speedway and to get a jump on the Daytona 500 the following weekend.

“It’s an opportunity to win at Daytona,” Brad Keselowski of Team Penske said. “I think any win here is significant. As a guy that’s sat out this race quite a few times and not had the opportunity to run it, a win in the Unlimited is significant and an opportunity to make sure I don’t ever have to sit it out again, so it’s definitely more than a test session for me. I think any track time here helps you. I was driving in and I saw some rookie Nationwide drivers that are running the ARCA race and I was thinking, ‘They’re probably doing the same thing and get as much track time as possible.’”

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Matt Kenseth, who finished second in the Cup point standings a season ago, said he will used the Unlimited to get ready for the 500.

“I really look forward to the Unlimited this weekend just to kind of knock the rust off of everybody a little bit, get some pit stops in, get some laps on the track, draft a little bit — I think that gives you a really good head start on the week,” Kenseth said.

Denny Hamlin of JGR said, “A lot of drivers talk about they feel like have they forgot how to drive a race car in the last two months, but we’ve done so much off-season testing that I know that’s not true. It is – it’s good for us though that the drivers who are part of the Unlimited to get the race rust off. We only do superspeedway racing four to five times a year so it is an art form of racing that the more you do it the better you’ll become at it. So, I think it is a big advantage for us in the Unlimited being able to get a race under our belts before the 500, which is our biggest race. It’s hard to go into the 500 cold turkey with no race experience the week before.”

Fans appear to have differing opinions as well. Quick reads of comment sections – talk about anarchy – show both love and hate for the constant tinkering.

But for all fans, the Unlimited means the season is under way and how can that be a bad thing?

By the Numbers: Sprint Unlimited

.013 –Margin of victory in seconds by Kyle Busch over Tony Stewart in 2012, the closest margin in Sprint Unlimited history.

.058 –Margin of victory in seconds by Kurt Busch over Jamie McMurray in 2011, the second closest margin in Sprint Unlimited history.

.08 –Margin of victory in seconds by Dale Earnhardt over Sterling Marlin in 1995, the third closest margin in Sprint Unlimited history.

1 – Laps led by Rusty Wallace (1998), Neil Bonnett (1983-84), Dale Earnhardt (1980), Dale Jarrett (2000 and 2004) and Kevin Harvick (2009) in the Sprint Unlimited races they won.

2 – The starting position that has produced the most Sprint Unlimited wins (five).

2.75 – Average finish by Dale Earnhardt, best by any driver with multiple starts.

5 – Drivers who have won the event in their first appearance (Buddy Baker, 1979; Dale Earnhardt, 1980; Jeff Gordon, 1994; Dale Jarrett, 1996; Denny Hamlin, 2006).

6 – Number of Sprint Unlimited wins by Dale Earnhardt, the series leader.

7 – Number of fewest starters in the field for the Sprint Unlimited (1981).

9 – Number of races led, most since race began in 1979 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.)

11 – Number of starts before winning, most since race began in 1979 (Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin).

14 – Number of different leaders in the 2009 event, most since race began in 1979.

20 – Number of wins by Chevrolet in the Sprint Unlimited, leads all manufacturers.

20 – Most consecutive starts in the Sprint Unlimited by Mark Martin (1989-2008) and Jeff Gordon (1994-2013).

27 – Kevin Harvick’s starting position in 2009, the lowest by a race winner in the event’s history.

28 – Number of lead changes in the 2011 event, highest number since race began in 1979.

44 – Laps led by Greg Biffle in 2005, the most by a driver who did not win the event.

47 – Laps led by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2008, the most in a single Sprint Unlimited.

124.095 mph – The slowest average speed of the race for the Sprint Unlimited was last season’s event won by Kyle Busch.

197.802 mph – The fastest average speed of the race for the Sprint Unlimited was in 1987 won by Bill Elliott.

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 15 2014
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