Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2015 Sprint Unlimited at Daytona

Who’s In The Headline – Matt Kenseth added another notch to his Daytona belt. The two-time 500 champ wrestled the lead away from Martin Truex Jr. on lap 56 and took control of NASCAR’s season-opening exhibition race, the Sprint Unlimited. Kenseth did his best rolling chicane maneuvers over the final 19 circuits of the event, successfully stifling any attempted sieges on his lead. (Try saying that one three times fast.) Racing comfortably to the checkered flag, he stayed ahead of Truex by .219 seconds (about a car length or so) to take his first career Sprint Unlimited/Busch Clash/Bud Shootout triumph. Carl Edwards, hot on Truex’s heels landed a podium finish in his first run as the pilot of Joe Gibbs Racing’s new fourth team while Casey Mears and Kyle Larson rounded out the top five.

What Happened? – In a throwback to the golden days of yore, or at least last year’s Daytona 500, the action was intense and bordering on insane for the vast majority of the race. Drivers were two and three-wide for almost all 58 laps that were run in anger under the green flag. While the front handful did stretch out single file a couple of times, it didn’t last long; if anything, it was a moment to catch your breath after holding it for laps on end. As a result, the stress-inducing aggression and close proximity of racing led to a caution-filled event; a full half of the field was taken out by a “Big One” and two small ones, the plate wrecks even NASCAR novices know are coming.

Why Should You Care? – The one fact that rang true for most everyone who commented after the race was that it is very difficult to pass the leader under this rules package. As a result, those running lower than fifth at any point during the 500 are probably going to take some very risky chances to try and move forward. Expect one or more large wrecks, similar to Saturday night that will eliminate a large number of competitors from any chance of victory.

“Water Cooler” Talk Amongst Friends

Some of them love restrictor plate racing and some of them hate it. (That goes for drivers as well as fans). But after Saturday night and Sunday, they are all talking about it. Racing was intense from the drop of the green at Daytona. There was three-wide action just about every lap, an intensity the drivers can’t avoid. The total carnage that ensued, ones that saw teams lose racecars worth six figures is going to generate a buzz. Now, it is up to fans to decide if that is the type of buzz that they want to see.

Most people go to Florida in the winter time to enjoy the warmth of the bright sunshine. It’s a brief respite during the doldrums of winter, a cold that grips most of the rest of the country and drives people to fits of depression. With that said, it is only natural that we hold the Sprint Unlimited race at night. The temperature at race time was a balmy 54 degrees with winds that felt like they were blowing 30-40 mph. People were walking around pit lane dressed like they were in attendance for the Iditarod, not the Sprint Unlimited. Sadly, the sport draws far more money from television revenue than at track attendance so this event, whatever it is called going forward, will most likely continue to take place in very cold conditions unless someone with racing sense takes control. Maybe a new title sponsor will fix things?

Sunday’s qualifying format leaves a lot to be desired. When knockout qualifying was announced for 2014, Daytona was excluded because of the uniqueness of the race and its format to set the starting lineup. Unfortunately, that thinking went out the window this year with disastrous results. Even with the session time limits reduced to five minutes, we still saw cars sit on pit lane for four of them before making a dash to the line. The end result was something between a gold rush and a group of clowns in a parade, a point openly reinforced by pointed criticism from Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman and others.

Fixing it? Now that’s the tough call. Single-car qualifying is what is best for the teams but it isn’t going to turn the knob on television sets. That is what this sport is all about these days and it will take some data analysis to try and determine if the expense justifies the reward.

Who’s Mad

The most obvious answer is Kevin Harvick. Last year’s champion bounced off of the third turn wall late in the event thanks to Joey Logano bump drafting him hard into the corner. Harvick, who bailed out of his car on pit lane after the checkered flag went searching for Logano after slamming into the side of the No. 22 Ford. A verbal confrontation ensued, one where heated words seamed to come from Harvick’s mouth more than Logano’s. In the end, this incident isn’t the first failure to see eye-to-eye on something between these two kids. It is probably going to take a major donnybrook between their teams before this one is hashed out in the NASCAR hauler this year. On the plus side, it will have the potential for another ratings-boosting black eye for the sport, as the mainstream media runs more video of an all-out melee in the garage or on pit road.

Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Paul Menard, Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle are all mad at Bobby Allison for tearing down the catchfence at Talladega in 1987, causing NASCAR to implement restrictor plates that ended up contributing to their vehicles being destroyed Saturday night.

Bowyer is doubly mad after his Daytona 500 car was destroyed in qualifying on Sunday, the victim of an incident where Reed Sorenson slid up in front of him. Bowyer pulled no punches afterwards, claiming, “It ain’t [Sorenson’s] fault. It’s NASCAR’s fault for putting us out in the middle of this crap for nothing.”

Monday Morning Smiles

Casey Mears came home in fourth place Saturday night with all of the fenders intact on his car and a $38,000 check in his company’s bank account. For a small team like Germain Racing to make it through an event where half of the field was eliminated and also post a top-five result is a great start to the season. Now, if they can build on that momentum next weekend the year could start off well down the road to shocking the world.

AJ Allmendinger, David Gilliland and Brian Scott, along with their teams, are in a great mood after they chose not to compete on Saturday night. They made the decision that the return on investment was not worth the risk of destroyed equipment. Well, with everyone below third place receiving less than $40,000, paired with 13 teams stuffing mangled racecars in their haulers it would seem like they made the right decision.

Jeff Gordon is sitting on the pole for the Daytona 500 in his final full season running the Cup series. The endless stories that will be written this week about that fact will be enough to drive some people to drink. However, it is a great story, one that reaches Cinderella status if he’s able to ride that momentum to a victory in the race.

When the checkered flag flew:

  • Kenseth won the 3rd Annual Sprint Unlimited. It is his first victory in this race in his career.
  • The win is Kenseth’s second career top five in the race and his fifth top-10 result.
  • Truex Jr.’s second-place finish was his first career top five in this event and his second career top 10. Truex led one lap all season last year; Saturday night, he led 28.
  • Edwards’ podium finish was his first career top five in this race and third top 10.
  • Larson scored a top five in his first-ever run in the event.
  • Gordon’s qualifying run is his 78th career pole, third on the all-time list behind Richard Petty‘s 123 and David Pearson‘s 113. It is Gordon’s fourth pole in 45 career races at Daytona.

Rating From The Cooler (1-6 Beers) – Love or hate plate racing, the Unlimited offered wide open excitement from the drop of the green flag until the checkered was waved. Drivers moving from the back to the front, sweeping from the top of the track to the bottom and back to the top all while inches clear of their competition gives the fans plenty to cheer about. While people deny it, they like to see crashes and half of the field was torn up. So, with that in mind I give five frosty cans of Budweiser for the start of the 2015 season. I’m sure the fans in attendance would agree.

As for the qualifying fiasco on Sunday, it was a horrendous way to start setting the field for the biggest race of the NASCAR season. Watching racecars sit stationary for four of the five minutes of the final session to determine the pole for the Daytona 500 is an abomination. While fixing it is going to be a challenge, something has to be done. I’ll do my part and hand out one moldy can of Hop ‘n’ Gator for the qualifying of the Great American Race.

Where do you point your DVR for next week – Thursday night at 7:00 p.m ET, the Duel qualifying races will be shown on FOX Sports 1. The races will also be broadcast on MRN and their affiliates. Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET the Daytona 500 rolls off on FOX with coverage on MRN as well.

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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I PVRed the event and watched it at night so I wouldn’t have to endure the racing between commercials. I set for an extra half hour and almost ran out of time. I watched it with the sound muted so I wouldn’t have to listen to the clowns. It was done in under an hour.

Watching Truex take the lead (coming out of another commercial break) was unexpected and he stayed up front. When he got shuffled back I thought he was done but he got back with the leader again. He should be a contender on Sunday if he’s lucky.

When I went to the 500 in 1977 it was the coldest it had ever been and it snowed in Jacksonville. The ink in my pen froze at New Smyrna at night. If you want to see real racing go to New Smyrna or watch the Outlaws or big-block modifieds.

I wonder what Brian charged to have a Toyota Camry as the pace car? Sometimes I think he could sell ice cubes to an Eskimo outside an igloo.

Qualifying was an absolute joke. I PVRed it and couldn’t believe what was happening. What’s wrong with single car qualifying? It’s the way it always was and is a better indication of what the cars are capable of. Sometimes change isn’t good but Emperor Brian will never be convinced of that.


Group quals on a plate track just doesn’t work. Boring as it may be, single cars qualifying at those tracks is the only fair way to do it. Forget the dog and pony show, give us real racing.


Personally I never found single car qualifying to be boring – yeah maybe at the plate tracks because it takes a full lap to come up to speed, it seemed a little long, but this silliness with groups of cars trying to game each other on when to even roll off for qualifying is just a joke. I was so annoyed with it that I had turned it off and didn’t find out Gordon was on the pole until I got a phone call from a friend about it. Very happy for him but the i still think group qualifying is stupid and not a good way to define the car that should start from the pole – at any track.

I get that NASCAR wants to gets all the ratings it can but it seems to me that running a race at night this time of the year – even in Florida just doesn’t make sense.

The last time we were in Daytona for the 500, it was cold and windy. I had started out in Phila with a winter coat on and was happy that I had my heavy gear because it NEVER really warmed up.


So is the real problem group qualifying? Or the teams trying to game the system?


IMO the real problem is NASCAR trying to make everything “exciting” in accordance with the tv demands.

I used to WATCH qualifying at every track. I haven’t done that since NASCAR went to group qualifying because I don’t find it interesting. When it was against the clock, I knew what was going on right away. Now it all feels like it takes an algorithm to sort it out and somehow I feel like it is not fair.


Know its not your cup of tea, but watch, or even google an event in F1 where they have been using knock out qualifying for years. It adds excitement, and you know real time, even to segments of a lap, who is doing what in relation to everyone else.
But maybe it is the announcers and presentation that make the differance.

Capt Spaulding

I agree with everything you said, except using an “algorithm” to determine starting position………No way could the Waltrip’s and Larry Mac understand that…..although they could talk about it so long as it was sponsored by someone.


I thought the Sprint Unlimited had some great racing and was enjoyable to watch. I think Sprint has messed up by letting too many cars into the race because it is supposed to be a bonus race for drivers who won at least one pole during the last season. It has been expanded to include just about every well sponsored car and that has made the racing a little more like the full blown Daytona and Talladega restrictor plate crap shoots. As for the qualifying, I don’t know how you can run the knockout format when all the drivers know that they will have to suck up to a car ahead of them to get a decent qualifying lap. Watching Kenseth weaving his group through a bunch of cars who were trying to hold them up by driving about 10-15mph slower was exciting and way too dangerous to be seen in a qualifying lap. We could have just as easily seen a 10 car pile up. If they are going to continue with the knockout format, they are going to have to at least force the drivers to drive at racing speed until the session is over. They could also force them to leave the pits within one minute of the beginning of the session and run them in 12 or 13 car groups to give everyone more room on the track. The knockout deal works well on all the other tracks on the circuit. Maybe they could just run single file and send them out every 15 seconds for only two green flag laps and send another group out as soon as they hit pit row coming back in. If they want to try again they can just get in line again until the 30 minute session is over with. At least there would only be drafting in the unlikely event that a car can get to within a couple of hundred yards of the car in front of them on the track in two laps. We do qualifying in a similar way at our local track in order to speed up the sessions and leave more time for the racing.


i don’t know, just felt like it was the same thing picking up from november. drivers po’d at others, lots of carnage. felt like wwe was taking over the reigns. well almost with the bozo’s in the hollywood hotel.

i read about qualifying. i guess na$car wants a major news event with this pack qualifying at plate tracks. i thought the cars were to be slower this year but i guess not. gordon won pole with 200+ mph. of course i know the draft helped.

so where are the conspiracy theorists with gordon winning the pole on his last daytona 500.

just think folks, after daytona they’re here in atlanta on feb 28-march 1. historically we have crappy weather here during this time of year. i mean, this week we have days forecasted with lows in teens and 30’s for highs. they’re trying their best to give away tickets to the race to put butts in the stands. guess ams will be out of a race in a year or two.

wonder if kurt busch’s new girlfriend has had a security clearance and psych eval done. see where judge in delaware said today that he has to stay away from ms. driscoll.

welcome back racing. see much didn’t change in the off season. still wwe and peyton place mixed with some racing.

Capt Spaulding

No offense Janice, but we “conspiracy theorists,” were out after Saturday nite…some of us even called it immediately after Gordon announced this being has last season. Check the previous comment posts, we got you covered.


oh they were out there – saw more than a few tweets about how convenient it was for NASCAR’s publicity machine that Gordon won the Daytona pole for his last try at it. Someone’s crew chief was complaining that the “clock” was fixed for the qualifying round — beats the heck out of me. I had already turned it off before the final round was run because I was so disgusted.

Whatever, IMO, let’s face it the year before it was Danica, then Austin Dillon last year with the 3 coming back on track, if NASCAR wants Gordon to have the pole this year, heck its no different from those things.

What I really want is for him to win the 500 and the stupid chase trophy. People can say whatever they want, I don’t really care.


Janice, us tin foil hat folks who follow the business side of Nascar predicted this the moment he announced his retirement. We also predicted Danica’s pole when she was being hyped for her anatomy and we knew the 3 car with the Dillon boy would get the pole. the return of the 3 was the big news last year. No offense to any of them, it’s Nascars misguided way of wanting international attention for the what THEY feel is the biggest race of the year. Look out for next year. See who dominates there preseason news (in a promoting/positive way) and that is your pole sitter, it isn’t hard to figure out.

Glen H.

Two things:

1. 54 is pretty balmy right now for those of us living in the northern climes. That’s shorts and t-shirt weather when you’re used to 0 – 10 degrees for a high.

2. Harvick’s really brave with his helmet on or when he pushes people from behind. Not so much without the helmet or when he’s face-to-face with someone.


I’m happy that Gordon got the pole, but group qualifying on plate tracks is dumb. It was not entertaining watching cars sit on pit road for 3 minutes at the start of each session. The politics of the draft make it impossible in my opinion to do this unless you go to full heat races. Either do that or go back to single car for plate tracks.

Man Kurt Busch did not get good news. I bet you see Driscoll at every Cup race just to screw with Kurt.


You know I hadn’t thought about that with Kurt and Driscoll. Since they both have a “right” to be there – him for racing and her for whatever foundation it is that she works for (or is it the CIA as an assassin?). Could be interesting. Might be more fun to watch than the racing.


One of them ought to realize now that they should be a little more selective of the people they associate with.

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