Sprint Unlimited 8 p.m., WCCB

New twist on Sprint Unlimited puts drivers in the dark

February 16, 2013 

jutter@charlotteobserver.com

Talk about having to deal with a lot of unknowns.

Until hours before the start of Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, drivers will not even know how they line up for the 75-lap, three-segment non-points event which serves as the unofficial start to the 2013 NASCAR season.

That isn’t the only thing they won’t know.

Fan voting will also determine whether – or what – kind of pit stop will take place, and whether any or up to six drivers will be eliminated from competition during the race at Daytona International Speedway.

Throw in the fact drivers had only a handful of practice laps on Friday to prepare in their 2013 model cars – and that included a five-car wreck – the only predictable outcome is there will be a winner.

At least there should be.

From testing in January – which also included a wreck – it became clear bump-drafting in the new cars would be a big question mark this season. The use of bump-drafting has become a defining characteristic of superspeedway racing in recent years.

The wreck in January testing came when Dale Earnhardt Jr. attempted to engage in the practice and triggered a 12-car accident.

Tony Stewart believes drivers will test the limits both Saturday night and in next Thursday’s qualifying races.

“I think having Saturday and Thursday night’s races is good. The logic if you push a guy, it picks the guy up and wrecks him, doesn’t make guys want to do that much if that’s the end result,” Stewart said.

“You’ll see somebody try it. Somebody’s bound to try it again. Just because it didn’t work the first time doesn’t mean somebody else isn’t going to try it.”

In Friday’s first practice, Matt Kenseth came down in front of Kurt Busch exiting Turn 4, which triggered a five-car collision that also collected Carl Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya and Mark Martin.

Martin, Edwards and Busch will use backup cars in Saturday night’s race.

“It is pretty frustrating. The silver lining for us is that last year we came down here and we sat on the pole for the 500, and everything was cool and smooth and our year went terrible,” Edwards said.

“Hopefully, this is all our bad luck.”

Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick have dominated the preseason race. Busch won the past two seasons and Harvick won in 2009 and 2010 in the event previously known as the Budweiser Shootout.

“It’s a very interesting format this year. Sprint has done a good job in coming up with something new and interesting for the fans,” Harvick said. “I think as we go through the night you’ll be able to see some different things happen and it will all be from a fan vote.

“I’m just looking forward to getting on the race track and the information that we’ll gather for the next week in knowing what to expect.”

There’s no question the 19 drivers entered in Saturday night’s race will have some advantage on the rest of the 500 field, if only the track time.

After wrapping up Friday night’s practice session, driver Martin Truex Jr. posted a note on his Twitter account encouraging fans to tune in.

“Ready to go racing. Can’t wait for tomorrow night! It’s going to be wild and unpredictable – don’t miss it!!!”

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