This year's traditional opening event for NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series is more than just a preview of the Daytona 500. "The Sprint Unlimited," which begins at 8 p.m. ET Saturday and will be broadcast live by FOX, marks the racing debut of the much-anticipated Gen-6 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car – Chevrolet SS, Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry.
The renamed shootout returns to its original, 1979 concept – a non-points race for drivers who won a pole position last season along with previous event winners who participated in at least one NASCAR Sprint Cup race in 2012. The 187.5-mile/75-lap race will be run in three segments. How those segments break down will be determined by fans' voting on three choices: 40 laps, 20 laps and 15 laps; 35 laps, 30 laps and 10 laps; and 30 laps, 25 laps and 20 laps.
There are two additional fan votes. The first vote continues through the drop of The Sprint Unlimited's green flag and determines whether a pit stop will be required after the first segment and if so, whether teams will execute two or four tire changes. Finally, fans have through the drop of the green flag on the race's second segment to vote on the number of cars to be eliminated after the race's second segment: zero, two, four or six.
A total of 19 drivers are entered in The Sprint Unlimited: Aric Almirola, Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Mark Martin, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ken Schrader, Tony Stewart and Martin Truex Jr.
Starting positions will be determined by a vote of fans in attendance on race day. They'll have three choices: Number of career wins (most to least); 2012 final NASCAR Sprint Cup driver point standings and order in which drivers won their first Coors Light Pole last season, beginning with last year's Daytona 500.
Kyle Busch is the defending winner of the Sprint Unlimited. Other former winners in this year's field are Kurt Busch, Harvick, Earnhardt, Stewart, Hamlin, Johnson, Martin, Gordon, Schrader, Elliott and Labonte.
"We always look at the [Sprint Unlimited] race as a race to watch to see exactly what's going to happen and what characteristics you have in your racecar," said Busch. "It's a learning experience for everybody."
Saturday's Sprint Unlimited marks the official debut of the Gen-6 race car, which NASCAR, the manufacturers and teams have been working together on for the past few years. Although drivers have tested the new cars on a select few race tracks over the past couple of months, it's the first time the cars will see on-track racing competition.
With the introduction of a new car and rules package there is always going to be a learning curve for the drivers and teams, and that's no different this year.
"We're curious to see how the car is going to race and how it's going to handle and what it's going to react like," Busch added.
Almirola is the only driver making his Sprint Unlimited debut. He drives the Richard Petty Motorsports Ford. Montoya already has one 2013 Speedweeks victory in last month's Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Qualifying sets only Daytona 500 front row
Sunday's Daytona 500 Coors Light Pole qualifying, which also airs live on FOX at 1:00 p.m. ET, is unique in that only the top two positions will be guaranteed. Remaining qualifiers are seeded by qualifying speed into Thursday's Budweiser Duel, two 150-mile races from which the majority of the final starting grid for the Daytona 500 is set.
The front-row qualifiers and the highest 15 finishers in each Duel – excluding the front row from qualifying – will earn a spot in the Daytona 500. The next four fastest Coors Light Pole qualifiers will make up positions 33-36. Six provisional starting positions (37 through 42) will be awarded to the highest eligible car owners in final 2012 standings not otherwise qualified for the race. The 43rd position will be filled by the most recent past champion participating in a 2012 event. Should no past champion be eligible, the final position goes to the next highest owner in 2012 points.
The most recent Daytona 500 pole winner to win the race was Dale Jarrett in 2000, one of two drivers (Bill Elliott is the other) to sweep The Sprint Unlimited, pole and race in the same season.
UNOH Battle At The Beach opens new Speedweeks chapter … In recent seasons, Speedweeks went dark on the Monday and Tuesday following pole qualifying. No longer.
This year's Speedweeks' welcomes the inaugural UNOH Battle at the Beach, staged on a 0.4-mile oval fronting the track's Superstretch grandstand. The event's three races offer competition opportunities for drivers from all of NASCAR's weekly and touring series.
The 150-lap, 60-mile race for NASCAR Whelen All-American drivers will be held at 7 p.m. ET Monday following qualifying races. Two races of similar length for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tours and NASCAR K&N Pro Series begin at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday with lineups also set via qualifying races. SPEED will broadcast all three feature events live.
Winners and champions from the 2012 season in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and West and NASCAR Whelen Modified Tours have earned locked-in spots in their respective features. NASCAR Whelen All-American Series top 10 finishers in the 2012 national standings also own guaranteed starting spots in the Late Model race; and the champions of NASCAR's three international series: NASCAR Toyota, NASCAR Canadian Tire presented by Mobil 1 and Euro-Racecar Series, have secured spots in whichever race they choose to enter.