Sprint Unlimited Story Lines

Dale Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is looking to answer some questions in tonight's Sprint Unlimited. (Photo: Getty Images)


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - While many will focus on Tony Stewart in his first NASCAR race since August or drivers with new rides or even if Danica Patrick can win and prove Richard Petty wrong, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be focused on something else.

The racing.

Earnhardt, who finished second in last year’s Daytona 500, was a bit concerned by what he saw after Friday’s first practice for tonight’s Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.

“You can get some pretty good runs, but as a sport we’ve got to figure out why the outside line can drag the bottom down so easily,’’ he said. “There’s something going on the way these cars are side-drafting over the last 13, 14 months that really hurts that bottom groove. That’s why we saw the Daytona 500 we saw last year, which we’d like to get away from that.’’

Understand that Friday’s practice didn’t even feature half the number of cars that will compete in next week’s Daytona 500 and that Friday was the first time teams had been on the track there since last month’s testing. Things will change throughout the week.

Maybe even Earnhardt’s feelings about the racing. Maybe not.

That’s just among the story lines in the Sprint Unlimited.

Smoke's Return
Stewart is back. This race is his first since he severely broke his right leg in a sprint car crash Aug. 5 in Iowa. Stewart ran a total of 50 laps in Friday night’s two practice sessions and said he felt good.

Stewart admits he’s got a long way to go on his recovery. He says his leg is about 65 percent healed and won’t be fully healed for a year because of the significant injuries. Tonight’s race is 75 laps, so it’s Stewart’s first test of how well he’ll feel after a long run.

A Full House
Stewart-Haas Racing will have all four of its drivers in the Sprint Unlimited to go along with Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick's debut with the team. Read More

Surprise Winner
Looking for someone who hasn’t won this event to win? Try Jamie McMurray. Since 2002, only four active drivers - Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Stewart and Earnhardt - have more wins at restrictor-plate tracks than McMurray, who has four such wins, including a victory at Talladega Superspeedway last season.

The last three times he finished this race he placed second, third and second.

“There are some pluses to being in the Unlimited race,’’ McMurray said. “I watched it last year and if you’re a driver in this series, you want to race anytime there is some fun on the track.’’

A Bad Sign?
Four of the last six winners of this race failed to go on and finish in the top 10 in points. The only driver to do so during that time was Kevin Harvick, who finished third in the points after his wins in this event in 2010 and ’13. The last driver to win this race and the championship was Stewart in 2002.

Also, only five times has the winner of this race gone on to win the Daytona 500. The last to do so was Dale Jarrett in 2000.

Brad Keselowski isn’t worried about those numbers.

“I think any win here is significant,’’ he said. “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."

Richard Childress Racing
The RCR cars were fast in Saturday’s single-car practice sessions. Only one RCR car is in this race but that’s all it takes to win. Could Ryan Newman do it in his first race with the team?

Denny Hamlin wants to forget last year (other than his win at Homestead-Miami Speedway) and what better way to do that than by winning this race to open the season?

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