With the 2013 NASCAR season taking the green flag tonight with the running of the non-points Sprint Unlimited, here are some storylines, notes and drivers to keep an eye on:
Expect the unexpected
The Sprint Unlimited will be the first time NASCAR's new Gen 6 car has competed in race conditions and what to expect is anyone's guess.
And based off of testing here in January along with two rounds of practice Friday, the consensus is that the tandem racing -- which dominated plate races for the last couple of years -- will all but vanish completely.
Furthermore, because the bumpers on the new cars don't all perfectly align thanks to the brand-specific models of each manufacturer, don't expect to see a return to the days when bump drafting was the way to the front. After all, this was the reason last month there was a multi-car wreck triggered by Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- driving a Chevy -- who was trying to push Marcos Ambrose in a Ford.
Using tonight to get ready for the 500
Baseball has spring training while NASCAR offers the Sprint Unlimited, a race that doesn't count for anything but does gives teams an opportunity to work out the kinks before the season officially starts next week.
Because of the variables of the new car, there figures to be a distinct advantage for the 19 drivers and teams competing in the Unlimited over those who are merely spectators. One such driver who feels this way is series champion Brad Keselowski, who will be sitting on the sidelines tonight after not winning a pole last year.
"I think it limits some of your ability to win the 500," Keselowski said during Thursday during NASCAR Media Day. "Not all of it, but some of it."
Recent history, however, suggests that performing well in the Unlimited doesn't necessarily translate to success in the 500.
Last year in this race, Kyle Busch pulled off a spectacular win after nearly wrecking not once but twice. However, Busch struggled in the 500 and finished a rather pedestrian 17th. And not since Dale Jarrett in 2000 has a driver swept both the Unlimited and the 500.
Regardless of what unfolds, the Unlimited will go a long way to dictating how drivers and teams prepare for -- and race -- in the Daytona 500.
- Kevin Harvick, Terry Labonte and Kurt Busch are the only drivers in tonight's field who did not score a pole in 2012. All three made the race because they are former winners, and each is looking to become the third driver in history to win the Unlimited without having won a pole in the previous season.
- Since the race's inception in 1979, Chevrolet has dominated winning 19 of 34 races. Ford is next best with seven victories.
- After a multi-car incident in Friday's first practice, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin and Kurt Busch all were forced to backup cars for tonight's event.
1) Kevin Harvick
With all the uncertainty it's hard to peg one favorite. However, Harvick is usually strong in plate races and won this race in 2009 and '10. In addition, RCR has consistently placed its cars near the top of the speed charts throughout practice.
2) Dale Earnhardt Jr.
No matter what format is used, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has always excelled in NASCAR's annual non-points affair. There is no reason to think he won't do so again tonight and be in contention for his third Unlimited victory.
3) Matt Kenseth
A year ago, Kenseth was at his best in plate races having posted two victories and a pair of third-place finishes. And in his first start with Joe Gibbs Racing, look for Kenseth to make an impression with his new team in a race he has yet to win.