Saturday night's Sprint Cup Series preseason race at Daytona International Speedway will be more than just a preview of the Feb. 24 Daytona 500.
The Sprint Unlimited -- formerly known as the Budweiser Shootout -- will mark the competition debut of the new Generation-6 car in Sprint Cup. This non- points event will also have a different format than the past, as race fans are determining the competition elements of it.
Even though Sprint Cup teams have tested the Gen-6 at Charlotte Motor Speedway twice and Daytona once during the offseason, there are still some unknowns about the new car.
NASCAR officials expect speeds to reach up to or over 200 mph, and they are optimistic that pack racing will be the dominant form of competition at Daytona. However, bump drafting could be a major concern if drivers opt to do it. Each of the three auto manufacturers in NASCAR's top series -- Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota -- have designs on the new cars that are different from the most recent ones used in the sport from 2007-12. Drivers noticed a significant difference in the designs while bump drafting during testing at Daytona.
A multi-car wreck occurred during the second day of testing at Daytona when Marcos Ambrose spun around in a pack of 18 cars after Dale Earnhardt Jr. was attempting to bump draft Ambrose on the backstretch. Twelve of the 18 cars riding in the pack at the time were involved in the accident.
One year ago, NASCAR made some modifications to the cars and implemented new rules which helped bring back the big drafts and reduce the number of two-car tandems at restrictor-plate tracks (Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway). Drivers, teams and NASCAR were all pleased with the return of pack racing.
"We're still drafting, just not lining up pushing each other," three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart said. "I never liked the pushing deal anyway. There's no other form of racing where you do that, so I don't know why it's been so embraced here, because to me, it's not really racing.
"It's having two cars line up, and one guy pushes the other guy. I don't know where that really fits into auto racing. I don't think it's a bad thing if the bumpers don't line up. I never was a fan of cars pushing each other in the first place, and if they don't, if we can't do it at Daytona, it's not going to hurt my feelings."
For the first time in the history of the preseason race at Daytona, fans are deciding the format.
In a fan vote that closed on Wednesday at 11:59 p.m. ET, the three segments for this scheduled 75-lap race were set at 30 laps, 25 and 20. The other two options for the segment lengths included: 40 laps, 20 and 15 or 35 laps, 30 and 10.
Fans still have an opportunity to vote on two other elements of the race. They have until the green flag drops for the start of the event to vote for the type of pit stop each team must make following the first segment (30 laps). The options include: no pit stop, two-tire change or four-tire change. Fans also have until the start of the second segment to vote for the number of cars that will be eliminated after the 25 laps are completed in that stint. The choices are: none, two, four or six.
Votes for the remaining two categories can be cast on NASCAR's new mobile app, NASCAR Mobile '13, or at NASCAR.com/SprintUnlimited.
Furthermore, fans in attendance at Daytona on race day will be able to determine the starting lineup. They will have three choices when voting: number of career wins (most to least), 2012 final Sprint Cup driver point standings or order in which drivers won their first pole position last season, beginning with the Daytona 500 and ending with last November's race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Nineteen drivers are entered in The Sprint Unlimited. There are 22 drivers eligible for the race. Those qualified are the pole winners from last season or past champions of the preseason event at Daytona. A.J. Allmendinger, Bill Elliott and Ken Schrader have eligibility but are not on the entry list.
Kyle Busch won last year's race. Busch bounced back from two near wrecks and then beat Stewart to the finish line by 0.013 seconds, making it the closest margin in the history of this event.
"I think anytime we ever go down to Daytona, whether it's with the new car or whether it's with a different rules package or what have you, we always look at that Sprint Unlimited race as a race to watch to see exactly what's going to happen and what characteristics you have in your race car and things," Busch said. "It's a learning experience for everybody, whether you're in the race or whether you're out of the race and not in it."
Stewart has won the preseason race at Daytona three times (2001, '02 and '07). How does he feel about his chances of winning it for a fourth time?
"I think they're good," Stewart said. "It's a fun race anyway, and to get the fans involved and make them more a part of the actual format and everything, I like it."
Dale Earnhardt holds the record for most wins in this race with six (1980, '86, '88, '91, '93 and '95).
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Saturday, Feb. 16. Race: The Sprint Unlimited. Site: Daytona International Speedway. Track: 2.5-mile tri-oval. Start time: 8:10 p.m.(ET). Laps: 75. Miles: 187.5. 2011 Winner: Kyle Busch. Television: FOX. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.