Daytona Beach, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - It's time to race again as Speedweeks 2015 at Daytona International Speedway begins this weekend with the Sprint Unlimited and Daytona 500 qualifying.
Sprint Cup Series
The Sprint Unlimited - Daytona International Speedway - Daytona Beach, Fla.
The 2015 Sprint Cup Series season has arrived with Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.
This 75-lap preseason, non-points race will be the first opportunity for drivers and teams to gather data under race conditions in preparation for next week's Daytona 500.
As part of its new rules package for this season, NASCAR banned all private test sessions as a cost-cutting measure. That included the elimination of "Preseason Thunder" testing at Daytona, which had been held in the middle of January in past years.
With the exception of a one-day Goodyear tire test at Las Vegas last month, involving just four drivers (A.J. Allmendinger, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski), there has been no on-track activity since the Nov. 16 season-ending race at Homestead. Kevin Harvick won that race and claimed his first Sprint Cup championship.
"Being in the Sprint Unlimited is even more important now since there is no testing," said Greg Biffle, who drives the No. 16 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing. "It's a great opportunity to get on the track and see what you've got, a warmup to how the following week will go."
Biffle is one of 25 drivers scheduled to compete in the Sprint Unlimited, making it one of the biggest fields for this event. In the past, the field was made up of pole winners from the previous season and former Sprint Unlimited race winners. This year, NASCAR has added past Daytona 500 pole winners who competed full time in 2014 and any one of the 16 Chase drivers from last year that had not already been eligible for this event. Clint Bowyer, Casey Mears, Paul Menard and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. gained eligibility due to driver points from last year.
Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson, both rookies in Sprint Cup this past season, are expected to make their first starts in this race. Dillon won the pole for last year's Daytona 500.
"I think it's cool to know that I won the pole last year for the Daytona 500, and one of the rewards is to always be able to race in this prestigious race," Dillon said. "It will be my first Sprint Unlimited, and I can't wait. I've watched so many of them growing up."
Denny Hamlin is the defending winner of the Sprint Unlimited. Hamlin is now in his 10th full season as driver of the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. He won this event for the first time in his 2006 rookie season.
"Our team had a lot of success in Daytona last year and on restrictor-plate tracks as a whole, so hopefully we can continue that this year," Hamlin said. "JGR always builds great speedway cars, and it's up to us (No. 11 team) to work together, remain patient and try to stay clean to have a chance at the end. It would be great to kick off another season in victory lane at Daytona."
The Sprint Unlimited will be split into two segments, with a competition caution at lap 25 separating the segments.
Daytona 500 Qualifying - Daytona International Speedway - Daytona Beach, Fla.
For the first time in the 57-year history of the Daytona 500, NASCAR will use its group qualifying format to set the front row positions for the race and determine the starting lineups for the Budweiser Duel twin-qualifying events.
Previously, the front row for the Daytona 500 was determined by single-car runs in time trials. Each driver was allowed two laps in his or her qualifying attempt.
Sunday's Daytona 500 qualifying will consist of three rounds, with the first round divided into two groups based on a random draw. Drivers drawing an odd number will be in the first group and those with an even number in the second group. The first round is five minutes for each group, and the 24 fastest cars from that segment will advance into the second round.
Following a 10-minute break, the second round will be five minutes with the fastest 12 drivers advancing to the third and final segment. A seven-minute break will precede the third, which will last five minutes. The top-two finishers in qualifying will make up the front row for the Daytona 500, which is scheduled for Feb. 22.
Starting positions 3-43 for the Daytona 500 will be determine in next Thursday's Budweiser Duel, which for the second year in a row will take place at nighttime.
Last year, NASCAR used a new knockout-style qualifying format for Sprint Cup, which began with the second race of the season, held at Phoenix the weekend after the Daytona 500.
When the series ran its most recent restrictor-plate race in October at Talladega, the group qualifying format was used for the first time. In a chaotic and confusing qualifying session for that race, Chase drivers Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano had to take a provisional (owner points) position in the starting field. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the 2013 rookie of the year in the series, failed to qualify.
So it's no surprise that drivers and teams are concerned about group qualifying for the Daytona 500.
"Yeah, I am worried about qualifying," said Stewart-Haas Racing driver Danica Patrick, who won the Daytona 500 pole two years ago. "It didn't go well at Talladega (qualifying 27th), and I don't see how it's going to go any different here at Daytona, especially since at Talladega (competitors) saw how little time we had left in the five-minute session, and they waited even longer (before getting on the track).
"You would have thought they would have just gotten a big group and just hauled butt and all been faster than most of us in the first group, but they didn't. I don't have any reason to think it's going to be a lot different other than maybe people will be a lot more encouraged to work together and to stick with the plan. Other than that, luck of the draw."
Some drivers, like Hamlin, feel the Daytona 500 has now become a series of races.
"It's a bunch of races. It really is," he said. "Now that single-car qualifying is gone, you're probably going to see more wrecks in practice because people are going to be trying that strategy of running a fast lap and seeing what it takes to run that fast lap, so you're going to have guys running caution speed and real speed all on the same track in a green condition. I don't know. Somebody is going to make a mistake for sure."
Forty-eight teams are currently on the entry list for the Daytona 500. Two practice sessions for qualifying -- each session two hours in length -- are scheduled for Saturday.