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NASCAR Sprint Unlimited preview: 2016 season opens with annual exhibition

Although not an official race, the Sprint Unlimited provides a glimpse of what to expect in next week’s Daytona 500.

Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

Just as baseball has spring training, the NFL preseason games, NASCAR begins its season Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway with an exhibition allowing drivers and teams to re-acclimate under real-time conditions.

NASCAR's version comes in the form of the Sprint Unlimited, a 75-lap race divided into two segments featuring a condensed 25-driver field that have earned entry via various criteria. The action that ensues will be near identical to how the Daytona 500, the official season-opener held Feb. 21, plays out.

Because of the draft, drivers will run in tight packs, the positioning order will shuffle near-continuously and almost inevitably, a multi-car crash will occur severely damaging a sizeable number of cars. That's racing at Daytona, whether points are awarded or not.

"Just go out there and try to win," Martin Truex Jr. said Friday. "Everybody's been kind of ready to go here for a few weeks and we're pretty antsy. It will be a fun race and we can get there and knock the rust off and get the pit crew involved and get them going in preparation for next week.

"It gives us a really good sense of who's strong, who's not, possibly who you can work well with and really just gives you a good sense on kind of where you stand with your racecar against the competition and it gives you a direction to work on throughout next week in practice and leading up to the 500."

This year's edition of the Sprint Unlimited carries a decidedly different feel, with two mainstays mere spectators, not participants.

Having concluded his career with a third-place finish in the 2015 championship, Jeff Gordon has transitioned to the Fox broadcast booth serving as an analyst alongside Mike Joy (play-by-play) and three-time Cup champion and NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip. That trio will call the race Saturday night (8:15 p.m. ET).

As Gordon watched the No. 24 car he drove for 23 years pull onto the track with new driver Chase Elliott (not eligible to compete in the Unlimited) for Saturday morning practice, he admitted to having mixed feelings.

"When the 24 rolled out, it sent a little chill up my spine," Gordon said.

While Gordon's decision not to race was voluntary, Tony Stewart's choice came by way of a Jan. 31 all-terrain vehicle accident resulting in a fractured vertebrate. The timetable for when he returns is undetermined, but an injury of this magnitude means it will likely be months before he resumes driving. And already set to retire at the end of the year, this means Stewart will miss what was supposed to be his final Sprint Unlimited start.

Brian Vickers will occupy Stewart's seat in the No. 14 Chevrolet both Saturday night and in the Daytona 500. Having missed all but two races last season due to a recurrence of blood clots, for Vickers the Unlimited presents an ideal opportunity to find his form.

"It's nice to be able to take something negative on my side and be able to do something positive for somebody else with it," Stewart said Friday on the Periscope social media app. "I think he'll do a good job."

Said Vickers: "It's unfortunate that this is the car I'm in because it means that's Tony is not here and I have a tremendous amount of respect for Tony. I can understand what he's going through, unfortunately."

Although minus Gordon and Stewart, the Unlimited isn't devoid of star power with nearly every name of note racing.

Through a blind draw, Jimmie Johnson starts on the pole alongside Brad Keselowski, with Kevin Harvick (22nd), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (23rd) and Logano (25th), the defending Daytona 500 winner, comprising the rear of the field.

"This has been a long off-season for us," Joey Logano said Friday at Daytona. "I didn't sleep much last night (Thursday) because I was excited to come down here and get in a race car because I love what I do. ... To get to run an extra race or two throughout the year, heck yeah, I am in."