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Sprint Unlimited Preview

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It seems like an eternity since we last saw some NASCAR Racing, but it's only been two months, and a lot of stuff has happened during that span making this a completely different season from anything we have seen. The main change that will be the storyline for the first few months of the season is how the new Generation-6 car handles on all the differing type of tracks.

We've seen change before with the Car of Tomorrow, but NASCAR gradually brought that car in slowly to certain tracks before unleashing it all at once on a season. Every driver on the track for the next two weeks will all have a major learning curve to figure out how far they can push their cars in the draft and whoever figures it first will have a major edge in next week's Daytona 500.

For a lucky few, they'll get to test out the new Gen-6 car in competitive racing action Saturday night at Daytona for the Sprint Unlimited, a 75-lap non-points race that used to be known as the Bud Shootout. Drivers who sat on the pole last season or won previous Bud Shootouts are eligible to participate. Twenty-two drivers are eligible, but the top two finishers in points last season -- Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer -- aren't among them.

While it would have been nice to see Keselowski and Bowyer racing, it's still going to fun watching all the other well known drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon mixing it up.

We got to see the teams test the new car in Daytona last month and I came away highly impressed with all the Joe Gibbs cars. Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and new teammate Matt Kenseth will be a formidable group to contend with this week and in two weeks for the Daytona 500. Busch won this race last season and Hamlin won as a rookie in 2006. All Kenseth has done over his career is win two Daytona 500's, including last season. Kenseth's the new guy and adapting to that role.

"I've never been in this position, but the first time you walk in a team's shop that has a driver who's leaving and you're coming in to drive that guy's car, there's always that anxiety," Kenseth told USA Today. "Oh man, that guy, they really loved him. I hope they accept me and like me. You want to fit in and be one of the guys. ... I feel like the rookie. I've got my ears and eyes wide open, although it doesn't take me long to voice my opinions."

Joey Logano was a likeable kid in the Gibbs organization, but as Kyle Busch points out, Kenseth's experience makes him invaluable to the team.

"Matt's a huge addition to the team," said Busch. "That was one of the reasons that JGR looked at him, just having that leadership value. He's the new guy, but he's the old guy on the totem pole in experience."

By looking at the odds, it's obvious the guys at the LVH Super Book were also impressed with the JGR crew. Busch and Kenseth are co-favorites at 8-to-1 with Hamlin at 10-to-1.

Kevin Harvick is a two-time winner of the Shootout, winning in 2009 and 2010, and is always a candidate to run well in restrictor-plate races. Harvick tested well in January and should be battling the leaders on the final lap.

Tony Stewart has won the Shootout three times in his career, the last being in 2007.

When the COT came out, the Hendrick organization was way ahead of the game and dominated right out of the gate which gives the team confidence heading into Daytona.

"I don't think anybody is better than Hendrick Motorsports when it comes to adapting to new cars and being prepared," Gordon said. "I feel very confident in the team - and our organization - to come out strong and remain strong throughout the year."

"The Sprint Unlimited also gives us a great opportunity for the drivers to understand what we're dealing with for the Budweiser Duels (qualifying races on Thursday) as well as the Daytona 500. I think the racing at Daytona will be extremely exciting, and the new car will push us to explore all options to see what might work in the draft - especially what might work with only two or three laps-to-go."

"If a driver can find an advantage in the draft, you can be sure it will be exploited in the final laps of the Daytona 500," said Gordon.

Gordon last won the Shootout when it was called the Busch Clash in 1997, but he does lead all drivers with 12 restrictor-plate wins over his career. It's important to note that those plate wins have come in all type of cars with all kinds of different rules and templates meaning that Gordon may be the most prepared for the unknown this week just because of experience.

Johnson has one Shootout win over his career (2005), while Earnhardt, Jr. is a two-time winner, the last coming in 2008.

While I was most impressed with the Gibbs Toyota's during the pre-season testing -- followed by the Waltrip Toyota's, I still got the feeling that the Fords were going to once again be dangerous in the plate races this season. Greg Biffle was fastest in one of those sessions while testing in drafting situations. We can expect Biffle and Edwards to be up there running near the front as well.

For Biffle, simply getting additional track time participating in Saturday's race will be a big deal.

"It's been a big advantage every year for the guys that are in the Sprint Unlimited, for the little bit of extra track time, but this year it is even more important because of the Gen 6 car, Biffle said earlier this week. "So on top of that, the fans having a choice how the race is formatted, is unprecedented. It's going to be fun to see what the fans decide; there are a few options and we are prepared for all the scenarios."

The fans get to vote and decide the starting order, but none of that really matters to the overall equation. If this were a road race, it would be a big deal, but within the first three laps, they'll be shuffled and within reach of each other regardless of where they started.

The best value on the board looks to be Mark Martin at 25-to-1 in his MWR Toyota. Martin won the 1999 Shootout, but should have a car good enough to possibly get him the win. The odds make him even more attractive.

"Saturday night is going to be fun," said Martin. "Not only will the fans vote on some of the race rules, but this is the very first time we will race the Gen-6 car. We really don't know what to expect. Based on all the wild stuff we saw in just a few laps of drafting at the test, I can guarantee it's going to be exciting."

It will be exciting and we're glad to have you all back. Now let's go racing!

Top-5 Finish Prediction

1) #20 Matt Kenseth (8/1)
2) #55 Mark Martin (25/1)
3) #11 Denny Hamlin (8/1)
4) #29 Kevin Harvick (8/1)
5) #16 Greg Biffle (12/1)

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