Sprint Unlimited

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Drivers mull ways to make Unlimited, All-Star Race more ‘prestigious’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — How can NASCAR make the Sprint All-Star Race and the Sprint Unlimited more prestigious and interesting for fans?

Drivers mulled that during Thursday night’s Sprint Cup Drivers Council meeting, Denny Hamlin said.

The answer could be limiting the field for both races.

“Trying to make it as prestigious as it probably used to be,’’ Hamlin said Friday of the goal for both races. “It expanded over the last few years, the Unlimited especially, and even our All-Star event. It’s over half the field, not really that prestigious. We’d like to get some of that back. If you tighten up how you get in, maybe these guys will keep that in the back of their mind when going for a pole and they’ll go for it.

“You can tighten it up by making it a certain way to get in. The fan vote and all that stuff is cool, but it’s also gimmicky and gets a lot of people in versus making it the true race winners or pole winners.’’

The Sprint Unlimited, held the week before the Daytona 500, and Sprint All-Star Race, run the weekend before the Coca-Cola 600, will have new names next year with the series getting a new title sponsor.

That provides a good chance for NASCAR to consider changes to both events, which have lost prestige.

This year’s Sprint Unlimited had 25 cars. The exhibition race was open to 2015 pole winners, former event winners, former Daytona 500 winners and all 16 drivers who competed in the previous year’s Chase. Any remaining open spots were filled based on driver points from the previous year.

The Sprint All-Star Race had 20 cars. It is open to drivers who have won a race in the current or preceding year, past series champions, and past All-Star winners. The field also had three cars from the Sprint Showdown advance along with two fan vote winners.

Could Sprint Unlimited win be start of something special for Hamlin, new crew chief?

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The Sprint Unlimited introduced NASCAR fans to Denny Hamlin in 2006. Saturday night, he introduced his new crew chief in victory lane.

While Hamlin began running Sprint Cup races late in 2005, to many fans he was just another Virginia driver until winning this non-points event at Daytona International Speedway to open the 2006 season. Hamlin went on to finish third in the points that season and seemed poised to capture a championship.

As the 2016 season begins, Hamlin still seeks that first Cup crown.

“I thought I would have had one within the first three years of my Cup career,’’ Hamlin said last month. “It’s always been right there in front of me.”

Yet misfortune and mistakes have kept him from winning a title, leaving him with a heartbreaking runner-up finish in 2010 and another third-place result in 2014.

Hamlin thinks he might have the right combination now with new crew chief Mike Wheeler, a long-time engineer at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Wheeler, though, is more than a crew chief. He’s a confidant and friend to Hamlin, who always wanted to work with Wheeler in Cup after doing so in the Xfinity Series. With Wheeler ready to be a Cup crew chief, Hamlin knew the time was right to be paired with him after having worked with Mike Ford, Darian Grubb and Dave Rogers through the years.

“This is my last crew chief,’’ Hamlin said last month. “There’s no doubt this is the one I’m going to be working with for the rest of my career.’’

Wheeler was on vacation with his wife when Hamlin made those comments.

“I was pleasantly surprised when I saw those comments,’’ Wheeler said. “Did it surprise me? No, it’s very cool. But we’ve grown up together. We’ve been through some battles together. We’ve had long talks and had a lot of good times together, and I think one thing we can say is all the time you just keep working together, and it’s something that you just can’t make.

“It either happens or it doesn’t happen, and I’ve known for years that we just clicked and we can talk and I can pass ideas by him, and whether it sticks or not, he’d always listen. He’d always give me the feedback.’’

As Wheeler talked, Hamlin seated beside him after their win Saturday night, nodded.

“He’s been through crew chief changes,’’ Wheeler said of Hamlin. “They’re hard. They’re hard with teams. They’re hard for people. But I think in the long run, I know we can work together for the long haul and be successful.’’

They got off to a good start Saturday night.

Drivers fine with new overtime procedure even with race ending under caution

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – NASCAR’s new overtime procedure ended with a wreck and the Sprint Unlimited finishing under caution.

That’s similar to what happened five times last season, including in last year’s Daytona 500

So did the new green-white-checkered format work?

“I thought it was fine,’’ said Martin Truex Jr., who was collected in the last-lap accident. “Like anything else, we’re going to have to wait for the fans’ reaction because we didn’t end under green. I’m sure that there are going to be some people unhappy with it already.’’

NASCAR altered its green-white-checkered policy before this season. Once the race goes to overtime, the field must reach a point on the backstretch under green to make that attempt count. If there is a caution before that point on the restart lap, then another attempt is made. The process continues until the leader reaches that point under green.

Saturday night, the field reached that point under green and then a six-car car crash occurred on the final lap.

“I think the concept is good,’’ said Matt Kenseth, who was involved in that last-lap crash. “Tonight is hard to say. We still wrecked. Typically we don’t wreck until the second lap at a superspeedway anyway. I think the concept is certainly good and it will avoid things like we had at Talladega last year.’’

Last fall during the Chase, Jimmie Johnson spun as the field headed for its lone attempt at a green-white-checkered finish. NASCAR ruled that because the green flag hadn’t been waved and the field had not crossed the start/finish line, the attempt didn’t count and made the one attempt after that. After the field took the green, Kevin Harvick made contact with Trevor Bayne, helping trigger an 11-car crash caused the race to end under caution.

Involved in Saturday night’s last-lap crash were: Truex, Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Greg Biffle, Danica Patrick and Brad Keselowski.

“The procedure, it really wasn’t any different,’’ Patrick said compared to the old format. “We took the white and the accident happened. Nothing different happened if we were in the old  situation. I don’t think it will end up making a humongous difference. The likelihood of having a lot of accidents in the first corner are not super high. I don’t think we’ll notice a huge difference.’’

What drivers said after the Sprint Unlimited

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The first Sprint Cup race of the year, albeit an exhibition race, is in the books with Denny Hamlin‘s win in the Sprint Unlimited. It was a messy affair with seven cautions for 25 laps and a majority of the 25-car field involved in incidents in some form during the 79-lap race.

Sprint Cup drivers will be back on the track Sunday for pole qualifying for the Daytona 500, but some drivers shared what they learned from the first race of 2016.

Joey Logano (2nd): (On track being filled with debris) “I think it’s a huge concern. It looked like a landfill on the front straightaway. My dad was in the garbage company. I know all about it. It looked just like it. It was tough. You know, when you’re the leader you’re the first one to (get debris on the grill), and there’s no way to get it off unless you give up the lead. And the same thing happened to Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) last year in this race. He got hot and he had to pit early. You know, the back straightaway is clean, so it’s all coming from the grandstands.

Paul Menard (3rd): “If you had room, you could really get a run and shoot a gap, but a lot of times you were just bogged-in and you just couldn’t go anywhere. Kyle (Larson) was really good at making an extra lane in the middle, and I kind of followed him for a little bit.”

Kyle Larson (4th): “I learned that I had a lot of luck in this race. I missed probably three or four really close wrecks. Hopefully, I didn’t use up all my luck before next Sunday. But I’m happy with a solid finish there. I felt like we ran towards the front of the pack most of the race and it was nice to get familiar with how Chad (Johnston) talks on the radio and get familiar with my spotter again … I was glad I was able to miss some wrecks. It normally feels like I’m in every one of them here.”

Brad Keselowski (9th):  “The Unlimited is always that way. You hope if you run up front you can avoid most of it. I didn’t get tore up until I fell back to fifth or sixth. I needed to stay in the top two or three but couldn’t pull it off. It is a very high aggression level race, and I think that is a good thing.”

Greg Biffle (10th): “These (cars) are getting harder and harder to pass. They are all the same speed. We are two- and three-wide and you can’t really do anything. The car drove good though. I was pretty happy with it. We kind of got in the wrong lane and I don’t know what happened to (Ryan Newman). I guess he thought he had a flat. We wrecked getting in down there and that took our chances away.”

Danica Patrick (11th): “The car felt really stable, as stable as I’ve had on a speedway in a long time. It felt pretty fast. It was really just a matter of, on these speedways having experience and being around for a long time pays off because it’s not really what’s in front of you that’s important, it’s what is behind you. I can do everything I can to follow a big line, but if nobody is behind me it really doesn’t matter. If I pull out to pass and nobody follows me it doesn’t really matter.”

Matt Kenseth (12th): “I didn’t do very good on pit road. We’ve got some work to do there to get our pit road speed a little closer and be able to see our stall. Obviously we wrecked. Other than that, I thought our performance was good. I was really happy with the speed of our car.”

Martin Truex Jr. (13th): “It’s just tough when you get in the middle of the pack to do anything, you know? The more you try to make moves – desperation moves – when you’re back there, the more spots you end up losing, so it’s a tough battle. You just really have got to stay patient and almost wait for guys to give you the spot.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (15th): “We learned a lot about our crash repair. When we tore the rocker panel off the car we didn’t have a way to mount the door to the car without the rocker, so we understand a little bit more about how to instant repair our car in situations like this. If we knew that stuff we probably wouldn’t have lost that many laps and might have had a chance to get some of them back and get back on the lead lap.”

Brian Vickers (24th): “It was a hard hit. They are never fun. You blow a right-rear tire, you hit driver-side at 200 (mph), but that is part of racing. That is all the risk we take. I’m fine. I feel fine. I was having fun. I was having a blast actually. It was just so much fun to get out there with those guys and rub fenders again and race hard. It’s such a fun race.”

Denny Hamlin wins third Sprint Unlimited

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A five-car wreck set up the first use of NASCAR’s new “overtime” rule in the Sprint Unlimited and a win by Denny Hamlin in the exhibition race.

But Hamlin didn’t need more than one restart. He led 39 laps and earned his third Sprint Unlimited win – and first since undergoing ACL surgery in the offseason. It was also his first race with new crew chief Mike Wheeler.

“I’m so happy for Mike Wheeler to start one-for-one with a win here at Daytona,” Hamlin told Fox. “This win, first of all couldn’t be possible without my teammates. Matt (Kenseth) sacrificed so much pushing me at the right time.”

Hamlin secured the win with a block on a surging Paul Menard right before most of the remaining cars in the 25-car field wrecked in Turns 1 and 2. Kenseth was involved in the wreck. Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch were also involved in late wrecks. Only four cars weren’t involved in a crash at some point in the race.

“I had in my mind what (Menard) was going to do and when the cars are closing that fast you almost have to anticipate where they’re going to go or else you’re going to get wrecked,” Hamlin said.

The wreck that created the overtime scenario came with three laps left in the scheduled 75-lap event. The crash involved Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Casey Mears, Edwards and Aric Almirola on the backstretch.

There were seven cautions for 25 laps and Hamlin was part of the first one when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made contact with him on Lap 14 while the two were laying back in the field.

HOW HAMLIN WON: Hamlin was in front for the first use of NASCAR’s new overtime rule and kept the field behind him before a caution on the last lap secured the win.

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Hamlin, Joey Logano, Paul Menard and Kyle Larson finished in the top four. Logano, Menard and Larson were among the few cars to not be involved in an accident in some form during the race … Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was involved in an early accident with Hamlin but managed to finish sixth.

 WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Brian Vickers, in his first Sprint Cup race since early 2015, started a multi-car wreck on Lap 22 when a tire went down and he crashed in Turn 1. The No. 14 hit Dale Earnhardt Jr, which sent a burst of blue foam from Earnhardt’s car flying. Vickers then collected Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle … The third caution of the night came when Jimmie Johnson spun on the backstretch on Lap 45. Johnson slid through grass and received significant damage to this front end. He finished 22nd … On Lap 56, Kasey Kahne, the last Hendrick Motorsports driver eligible to win, was turned by Jamie McMurray on the backstretch. The No. 5 then slammed AJ Allmendinger into the outside wall, bringing out the caution. Kahne would later bring out a debris caution with nine laps left in the scheduled distance.

NOTABLE: Hamlin is the fifth driver to win three or more Sprint Unlimited races … Jimmie Johnson has failed to finish the last five Sprint Unlimited races … There were only three separate leaders in the race: Hamlin, Keselowski and McMurray.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “We’ve got such a young team of crew chiefs and engineers; they all look like a bunch of high school kids.” Denny Hamlin after winning with rookie crew chief Mike Wheeler.

NEXT: Pole qualifying for the 58th Daytona 500, Sunday at 1:15 p.m. ET on Fox