The 2016 NASCAR season begins this weekend with the Speedweeks from Daytona International Speedway. Saturday night features the exhibition Sprint Unlimited (formerly the Shootout) and this Sunday is Daytona 500 qualifying.
Twenty-five cars are entered for the Unlimited. The race is open to pole position winners from 2015, past winners of the Unlimited/Shootout, past Daytona 500 pole-sitters, 2015 Chase drivers and any other driver who finished in the top 25 of the championship last season.
Matt Kenseth won last year's race and returns with all three of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates also in the race. Kenseth could become the fifth driver to win the race in consecutive seasons. Neil Bonnett was the first to do it in 1983-84. Ken Schrader did it in 1989-90. Tony Stewart won the 2001-02 races for Joe Gibbs Racing. Kevin Harvick won the 2009-10 races. All four occurrence of back-to-back winners occurred in GM cars. All but Stewart won in Chevrolets. Stewart did it in a Pontiac. Defending champion Kyle Busch won the race in 2012 while Denny Hamlin won in 2006 and 2014. Carl Edwards has never won on a plate circuit.
Martin Truex, Jr. finished second to Kenseth last year. This marks Truex, Jr.'s and Furniture Row Racing's first race as a Toyota team. The team had been a Chevrolet team since it's first race in 2005. The team has formed an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Kevin Harvick leads all active drivers with three victories in the Unlimited/Shootout. His Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick will also compete. Tony Stewart was scheduled to compete in this race but will miss the start of the 2016 season after suffering a fracture vertebra in an off-roading accident during the offseason. Brian Vickers will replace Stewart in the Daytona 500. Vickers has also been allowed to compete in the Unlimited in place of Stewart despite not meeting any of the criteria to make the race.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is a two-time winner of the race but has not won the exhibition since his first race with Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. Jimmie Johnson won the race in 2005. Kasey Kahne will also be in the race. Hendrick Motorsports is third all-time in winners of this race with six but Earnhardt, Jr.'s victory is the teams last. Hendrick is between Joe Gibbs Racing, who has won seven times and Richard Childress Racing, which has eight victories.
Speaking of Richard Childress Racing, all three drivers will be in the race. Ryan Newman and Paul Menard qualify for the race based on making the Chase last year. Austin Dillon qualifies based on his 2014 Daytona 500 pole position. Childress' eight victories have come from two drivers. Dale Earnhardt won the race five times for RCR and Harvick won it three times.
Ford has not won this race since Dale Jarrett won in 2004 for Robert Yates Racing. Team Penske's Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski are both in the race. Penske has won the race twice. Roush Fenway Racing will have both Greg Biffle and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in the race. Roush has only won the race once and that was in 1999 with Mark Martin. Aric Almirola is also in the race by finishing in the top 25 in the championship.
Chip Ganassi Racing has Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson. Ganassi has never won this race. Clint Bowyer will drive for HScott Motorsports. Bowyer is spending one year with the team before the moving to Stewart-Haas Racing to take over for the retiring Tony Stewart. A.J. Allmendinger will drive for JTG Daugherty Racing. Casey Mears rounds out the field for Germain Racing. He qualified just by being in the top 25 of the championship last year.
The following teams are entered for the Daytona 500.
Front Row Motorsports will run three cars including one for the defending Grand National series champion Chris Buescher in the #34 Ford. Landon Cassill will drive the #38 Ford for the team. David Gilliland will drive for Front Row Motorsports. He will not run the Unlimited despite his 2007 Daytona 500 pole position.
Buescher leads the rookie class that also includes Ryan Blaney, Brian Scott and Chase Elliott. Blaney will drive for the Wood Brothers, who return to full-time competition for the first time since 2008. Scott will drive the #44 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford. Scott scored zero victories in the Grand National series after 208 starts. He had four runner-up finishes. Elliott replaces Jeff Gordon in the #24 Chevrolet. Of the four rookies, other Buescher and Elliott will be running in their first Daytona 500.
Past Daytona 500 winners Trevor Bayne and Michael Waltrip are entered for the race. Bayne will drive the #6 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing while Waltrip will be in the #83 BK Racing Toyota. David Ragan, a past winner at Daytona, will be Waltrip's teammate at BK Racing. BK Racing will also run two other cars for Robert Richardson, Jr. and Matt DiBenedetto.
Bobby Labonte is scheduled to return to competition in the #32 Ford for GO FAS Racing. Should he qualify, this would be Labonte's 24th Daytona 500. His best finish was second in 1998 to Dale Earnhardt after starting on pole position. He has three top ten finishes in his previous 23 Daytona 500 starts.
Circle Sport-Levine Family Racing will run two races. Michael McDowell will be in the #59 Chevrolet while Ty Dillon is entered in he #95 Chevrolet. Regan Smith will drive the #7 Chevrolet for Tommy Baldwin Racing. Michael Annett will be Clint Bowyer's teammate at HScott Motorsports. Cole Whitt is entered with Premium Motorsports. Rounding out the entry list are Reed Sorenson, who will drive for Hillman Racing, and Jose Wise, who will drive for The Motorsports Group.
With NASCAR's new charter system, the 36-chartered teams are locked into the Daytona 500 with the remaining eight drivers competing for the final four sports.
The non-chartered drivers are Blaney, Richardson, Jr., Wise, Gilliland, Sorenson, McDowell, DiBenedetto and Whitt.
The top finishing non-chartered driver from each Daytona 500 qualifying race on Thursday night will make the Daytona 500 with the two fastest non-chartered drivers from qualifying getting the final two spots in the race.
The Sprint Unlimited will be Saturday at 8:00 p.m. ET. Daytona 500 qualifying will be at 1:00 p.m. ET on Sunday.