DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The 2014 Sprint Cup season officially takes the green flag Saturday night with its annual Sprint Unlimited exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway.
With an invitation-only field, a contrived format split into multiple segments and other variances, the Sprint Unlimited is vastly different than any other event in NASCAR's top division. Here's a look at the particulars of Saturday's season-opening race.
Working out the kinks
After months of testing and laps of practice around an empty track, the Sprint Unlimited gives drivers an opportunity to readjust to live conditions. The same goes for the guys who service the cars, as this will be the first time since mid-November that pit stops mean something. And with an abundance of shuffling drivers and crew chiefs this past offseason, this is a prime chance to get better acquainted and work on the lines of communication.
Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing), Kurt Busch (SHR), and Ryan Newman (Richard Childress Racing) are those making debuts with new teams.
Smoke has risen
The story of Speedweeks thus far is Tony Stewart, who is back following a sixth-month absence after breaking his right leg in an August sprint car crash. Stewart returned competitively Friday, taking part in both practice sessions, and felt no soreness afterward, which was his biggest concern.
But the Sprint Unlimited will present a different kind of challenge for Stewart, who says he is only 65 percent healed. How will his leg hold up over a prolonged distance, and what about if he's swept up in one the wrecks that frequently mar plate racing?
Have to be there at the end
With its condensed length -- 75 laps, 187.5 miles -- and because no points are awarded, the aggressiveness should be ratcheted up more so than a regular season race where the stakes are significantly greater. As is the case in any restrictor-plate race, the key is avoiding the inevitable "Big One" and putting oneself in a position to challenge in the closing laps. That, of course, is far easier said than done.
A win is nice but it doesn't assure anything
A common misnomer is that a Sprint Unlimited victory gives a driver an edge in next week's Daytona 500. While that's true to some extent, however not since Dale Jarrett in 2000 has someone won the exhibition opener and then gone on to win the Great American Race. A year ago, Harvick won the Sprint Unlimited and entered the 500 as the prohibitive favorite, but then crashed out just 47 laps in. He finished 42nd.
1) Kevin Harvick
As evident by his three Sprint Unlimited victories, Harvick is an ace when it comes to navigating the Daytona high-banks. In his first start behind the wheel of the No. 4 car, don't be surprised if he goes back-to-back.
2) Kyle Busch
Busch's luck -- and sometimes his decision-making -- hasn't always been the best in plate races. But this is a race and a format which rewards those who aren't afraid to be aggressive; a description that certainly applies to Busch.
3) Tony Stewart
Can Stewart win in his first race back? There's no reason to think he can't considering he looked like his usual formidable self in practice.