Friday, February 13, 2015

2015 Speedweeks Preview

Another frigid February has led us to Daytona International Speedway for Speedweeks and the start of the NASCAR season. Everything begins this weekend with the exhibition Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night and Daytona 500 Pole Position Qualifying Sunday afternoon.

Twenty-five cars are entered for the Unlimited which features pole winners from 2014, past winners of the Unlimited/Shootout/Clash, past Daytona 500 pole-sitters and last year's Chase drivers. Denny Hamlin looks to join Neil Bonnett, Ken Schrader, Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick as the only drivers to win the event in consecutive years. All three of Hamlin's Joe Gibbs teammates join him in the field. Kyle Busch won the event in 2012 while this will be Matt Kenseth's ninth start in the Daytona exhibition. The Wisconsinite's best finish in the event is 3rd in his 2003 championship winning season. Carl Edwards will make his Joe Gibbs Racing debut on Saturday night. The former Roush driver qualifies based on his 2012 Daytona 500 pole. Edwards has drawn pole position twice for the Unlimited/Shootout.

All four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers are in the 25-car field. Defending Cup champion Kevin Harvick looks for his fourth Unlimited/Shootout victory which would put him second all-time in victories in the event. Dale Earnhardt won the then Busch Clash six times. Tony Stewart is also sitting on three victories in the event and could move into sole possession of second all-time. Kurt Busch is eligible based off his 2011 Shootout victory; Danica Patrick thanks to her 2013 Daytona 500 pole position. 

Jeff Gordon will make what is likely his final Unlimited start on Sunday. He is a two-time winner of the race but last won the race in 1997, the final year it was known as the Busch Clash. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is also a two time winner of the event. Jimmie Johnson won the 2005 Shootout. Kasey Kahne is eligible based off making the Chase last season. 

Brad Keselowski finished second last year as he looks for his first career victory at Daytona. His Penske teammate Joey Logano will also be in the field. Both Ganassi drivers will be in the race. Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson are both fresh off victories in the 24 Hours of Daytona three weeks ago. This will be McMurray's ninth appearance while Larson makes his Unlimited debut. 

The only other drivers making their Unlimited debut is last year's Daytona 500 pole-sitter Austin Dillon. Five drivers have won the Clash/Shootout/Unlimited on their debut. They are Buddy Baker (who won the inaugural event in 1979), Dale Earnhardt (1980), Jeff Gordon (1994), Dale Jarrett (1996) and Denny Hamlin (2006). Ryan Newman joins his Richard Childress Racing teammate in the Unlimited. 

Last year's Chase drivers Greg Biffle and Aric Almirola are in the event. Biffle qualifies by his 2004 Daytona 500 pole-position. Almirola is the most recent winner at Daytona. The Floridian won last year's rain-shortened July race. Martin Truex, Jr. qualifies for the race based off his 2009 Daytona 500 pole position.

Four drivers who were qualified for this year's race are not participating, three of which were pole winners last year. David Gilliland won pole position for last year's Daytona July race but will not be in the Unlimited after Front Row Motorsports pulled the entry due to a lack of sponsorship for the event. Gilliland isn't the only one that had to withdraw due to a lack of sponsorship. A.J. Allmendinger was a Chase competitor last season but JTG Daugherty Racing was not able to come up with the funding for the Watkins Glen winner. Both drivers are entered for the Daytona 500.

Brian Vickers will not be competing after undergoing heart surgery in the offseason. Vickers is scheduled to return to Cup competition at Las Vegas on March 8th. Brian Scott will not make his Unlimited debut despite winning his first career pole position at Talladega last May. Scott does has a ride for the Daytona 500 in the #62 Premium Motorsports Chevrolet. 

Clint Bowyer, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Casey Mears and Paul Menard will replace the four eligible drivers who will not be on the grid for this year's Unlimited. 

Chevrolet has not won this event since 2010. The Bowtie Brigades longest winless streak in this event is five years from 1998-2002. This is the second time the event has fallen on Valentine's Day. The 1983 race was scheduled for February 13th but pushed back a day due to rain. Jamie McMurray is the most recent winner on Valentine's Day. The Missourian won the 2010 Daytona 500 on Valentine's Day.

Along with the 25 cars entered for the Unlimited, another 25 cars are entered for the 57th Daytona 500. Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip will substitute for the recovering Vickers. Waltrip will attempt to make his 28th Daytona 500. Another former Daytona 500 winner on the entry list is Trevor Bayne. The Tennessean will be in his first Cup championship-eligible season after running 58 races over the last five seasons for the Wood Brothers.

Ryan Blaney is one of four drivers looking to make their Daytona 500 debut as the son of former World of Outlaws champion Dave Blaney replaces Bayne in the Wood Brothers' famed #21 Ford. Jeb Burton is another second-generation driver who could make his Daytona 500 debut. The son of 2002 Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton will drive the #26 Toyota for BK Racing. Former 24 Hours of Daytona class winner Justin Marks is attempting to make his Great American Race debut in the #29 RAB Racing Toyota. Ty Dillon will drive for his grandfather Richard Childress as he attempts to make his first Daytona 500 in the #33 Chevrolet.

Chevrolet engines are in half of the cars on the entry list. The remaining Chevrolet drivers are four-time Truck series champion Ron Hornaday, Jr. (#30 The Motorsports Group), Alex Bowman (#7 Tommy Baldwin Racing), Landon Cassill (#40 Hillman-Circle Sport LLC), Reed Sorenson (#44 Team Xtreme Racing), Michael Annett (#46 HScott Motorsports), Justin Allgaier (#51 HScott Motorsports) and Joe Nemechek (#87 NEMCO Motorsports).

Former Cup champion Bobby Labonte leads the rest of the Ford line-up in the #32 Go FAS Racing Ford. Sam Hornish, Jr. could join A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti as the only drivers to win both the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500. The 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner drives the #9 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports. Both Andretti and Foyt won driving a Ford Motor Company brand. Andretti won in a blue oval while Foyt won in a Mercury driving for the Wood Brothers. Joining Gilliland at Front Row Motorsports are David Ragan and Cole Whitt. Michael McDowell and Jose Wise round out the entry list for Ford in the #95 Levine Family Racing and #98 Phil Parsons Racing entries.

Mike Wallace is teammates to Brian Scott at Premium Motorsports but the 10-time Daytona 500 starter will be in the #66 Toyota. Wallace's last Daytona 500 start was in 2007 and finished fourth. The final two Toyotas on the entry list belong to BK Racing. J.J. Yeley will be in the #23 Toyota and Johnny Sauter is in the #83 Toyota.

Nine former Daytona 500 winners are on the entry list. Jeb Burton is the lone Rookie of the Year candidate entered for this year's race.

The Sprint Unlimited takes place on Saturday night at 8:00 p.m. ET on FOX. Daytona 500 Pole Position Qualifying will take places at 1:30 p.m. ET Sunday and can also be seen on FOX. This will be the first time Daytona 500 qualifying will use the knockout format.