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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Here are five things to know about what's going on at Daytona International Speedway in advance of the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 23:
STEWART RETURNS: Three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart is back. Stewart returned to a race car Friday for the first time since breaking two bones in his right leg in a sprint-car crash in August. Stewart, whose leg is only 65-percent healed, had a noticeable limp as he walked through the garage. Stewart logged a combined 50 laps — more than any other driver — during two practice sessions for the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race Saturday night. "It felt good," Stewart said between sessions. "The great thing is there is zero percentage of pain in the car. That was nice. We will see what it feels like at 9 o'clock tonight, but so far, so good. That is better than I was hoping for, honestly. I thought we would have some kind of ache, pain of some kind that would bother us. It was like putting on an old pair of shoes again."
SPEED THRILLS: Denny Hamlin posted the fastest lap in practice for the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race, which kicks off the NASCAR season Saturday night. Hamlin, who won the 2013 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, reached 199.867 mph on the famed, 2½-mile track. Jamie McMurray was second, followed by Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. All of those top speeds came in the second session, which was run after sunset. Dale Earnhardt Jr. topped the first practice at 198.421 mph, just ahead of Kyle and Kurt Busch.
LATE ARRIVALS: Sprint Cup drivers Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr., who missed media day because a winter storm blanketed North Carolina with snow and ice, arrived Thursday evening and had an interesting travel story to share Friday. It took them more than an hour to get to the airport, and when they arrived, the runway was far from ready for takeoff. Newman had to use his pickup to rescue a dump truck, which was helping rid the runway of snow, and then the Richard Childress Racing newcomer broke up ice and slush by driving back and forth on the tarmac. "It was an interesting day to say the least," Truex said. "We had a good time."
GERHART'S GRIPE: Bobby Gerhart took exception with ARCA officials Friday, questioning the accuracy and consistency of the series' pre-qualifying inspections. Gerhart, who has eight ARCA Series victories at Daytona, was one of five drivers whose qualifying times were disallowed following inspection. Gerhart wasn't happy, getting into a heated argument with ARCA officials. "Same old stuff," he said. "They approved the car for competition, cleared it for qualifying and then in post-tech they didn't like what they liked the day before. If it's good one time, how can it not be good the next time?" Gerhart, who has won six of the last nine ARCA races at Daytona and had the dominant car last year before a failed fuel pump ended his race, will have to start near the back of the field in Saturday's opener. Several others also failed inspection.
RISING STARS? Dylan Kwasniewski and Chase Elliott, both 18-year-old drivers who will make their Nationwide Series debuts next week, were among the fastest in ARCA qualifying Friday. Kwasniewski will start from the pole, with Elliott just a few spots back. Both are using the ARCA race to get superspeedway approval. Their early results could be a sign of things to come. Kwasniewski won the K&N Pro Series West in 2012 and then won the K&N Pro Series East last year. Elliott is the son of semi-retired NASCAR star Bill Elliott.