DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – NASCAR’s wreckfest, disguised as something called the Sprint Unlimited, welcomed fans back from their winter hibernation with sparks, three-wide racing and crinkled cars.
Thirteen of the 25 cars returned to the garage battered, bruised and broken before the 75-lap exhibition race ended on a chilly night.
“We had more cars finish this year than we did last year,’’ Jeff Gordon told NASCAR Talk after placing seventh Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.
Eight cars finished last year.
That made surviving almost as good as winning – although victor Matt Kenseth left the happiest.
“We did finish, and everybody is healthy, so we’ll take that,’’ said Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch, who placed eighth.
That’s restrictor-plate racing, where crashes punctuate tight racing and just finishing is seen as a good day. Saturday’s race marked the third time in the last four years that crashes eliminated nearly half the field.
The reasoning is simple – there are no points at stake. If a daring move doesn’t work, so what if one wrecks? The race’s short length also encourages risk-taking.
“I thought it was an intense as any speedway race as we’ve seen in a long time from beginning to end,’’ said Denny Hamlin, who placed 19th after being collected in a crash. “This race last year it got single-file at some point, but this one it just never did. Everyone was just so aggressive trying to keep that track position. I don’t know if (next week’s Daytona) 500 is going to be like this since it is 500 miles, but certainly at the end you’re going to see intense racing like this.’’
Hamlin said it was tough to move through the field because there was so much side drafting and blocking.
Others found a way to the front, though.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. went from 24th to 14th on the first lap, was in the top five by the fourth lap and eventually led.
Earnhardt made his move at the start by jumping to the outside line and found a path to the front.
“It wasn’t that hard,’’ Earnhardt told NASCAR Talk.
Earnhardt also said that aggression in the race was “no more than I’ve seen in other years, no less. You like to be out front where you can get away from all that stuff. We were there for some of the race.’’
He stayed near the front until trash on his front grille forced him to pit. He said the engine never ran the same after that, leading to a ninth-place finish.
Earnhardt’s teammate, Gordon, said the final 10 laps were “literally bumper cars at 190 miles an hour, which is pretty wild and crazy.”
Kyle Larson, who started last and finished fifth, said this wild race proved valuable.
“Everyone raced hard that whole time,’’ he told NASCAR Talk. “It was able to help me learn because I could be more aggressive myself where before I was never really aggressive on superspeedways because I wanted to get to the checkered flag.’’
While he made it, Tony Stewart failed to finish after crashing within the final 10 laps. For him it was a typical restrictor-plate race.
“I just pushed trying to get back in line there,’’ said Stewart, who finished 13th. “I just wasn’t clear. It is kind of what we all have to do. You have to push, especially this close to the end, you have to fight to get into a spot there. I either wasn’t all the way clear, or didn’t get there quick enough. It’s just part of it. You have got to do what everybody else is doing. You have to do the same thing. I have to do what everybody else is doing.”
He ended the night like everyone else, walking away, looking ahead to a week of racing at Daytona, and hoping for better results.