Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2016 Sprint Unlimited at Daytona

Who’s in the headline – After being involved in an early caution Denny Hamlin played pit strategy to get to the front of the pack and stretched his fuel to the end of a green-white-checkered finish to take his third Sprint Unlimited victory. The vast majority of cars had damage during the evening but Hamlin’s was on the right side of his car and had little impact on his ability to race. His win was his second Unlimited victory in three years.

Sunday saw qualifying for the Dayton 500 with the top two positions for the race being locked in. When the single car qualifying wrapped up it was Chase Elliott who laid down the fastest lap in the second and final round of qualifying. He bested Matt Kenseth who will start outside row one. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fastest in the first round of qualifying but only mustered the third-fastest lap in the final round.

2016 Daytona Unlimited CUP Ricky Stenhouse Jr car Matthew T. Thacker NKP
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. was one of many drivers to be involved in a caution on Saturday night. (Credit: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

What happened – The 75-lap exhibition Unlimited started with Jimmie Johnson on pole, but Brad Keselowski was the class of the field as the race began. After leading the first 10 laps he surrendered the point to Jamie McMurray, who charged from 24th place starting position to the lead. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. blew a right rear tire while trailing far behind the field with Hamlin. The ensuing spin saw Stenhouse bounce the nose of his car off of Hamlin’s right side and cave in the sheet metal on the passenger door area of the No. 11.

After the caution, Hamlin pitted under green before the competition caution on lap 25. As a result, he assumed the lead when the rest of the field pitted for the caution. From then until the checkered flag, it was Hamlin and Keselowski taking turns leading the race. Hamlin faced five caution flags for three major wrecks, a minor wreck and fluid on the track, but was never further from the lead than second.

As for qualifying for the 500, Elliott admitted to making mistakes on his first round effort that saw him third fastest in that round. Elliott was seven tenths of a second faster than Kenseth during the final round to claim the pole. Earnhardt Jr. was the final car on the track but he came up .15 of a second slower than Elliott and .08 slower than Kenseth. Of the cars that have to qualify into the 500, Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto were the fastest two of the eight cars not locked into the race. They are guaranteed to start the 500 due to being the two quickest of the must qualify cars.

Why you should care – Hamlin’s win in the Unlimited is relatively meaningless for the 500. Only three drivers have ever won the pre-season exhibition race and gone on to win the 500. The race was enough to knock the rust off for the fans, as well as the drivers, but that was the extent of it. The teams have had the same aero package for four years now and the ability to pass for the lead has gone down precipitously over that span. It takes a major push from behind for a car to completely clear the lead car, which only happened three or four times Saturday night.

While the teams might like the fact they have the same package every year, it is time to do something because Brian France’s desire for pack racing has been achieved, but no one is able to go to the front without major assistance. The 500 better be different or the fans will be asleep.

What your friends are talking about – Forget about the racing, the fans are talking about more and more off track garbage than the on-track product. Since this is the first edition of Thinkin’ since the close of 2015, let’s review:

We all know Michael Waltrip Racing shut down at the end of the season. Rob Kauffman lost a bunch of money during his partnership with Waltrip, and unlike every other owner in the history of the sport, was surprised that it happened. Due to his astonishment at this fact, he pushed to start up the Race Team Alliance and then negotiated a charter system with NASCAR to somehow give owners supposed value for their ownership. The end result is Kauffman received two of the charters for his now defunct team, and he’s going to make a few million dollars by selling them to teams that want guaranteed starting spots in the races for all of 2016.

In the fallout from the charter system, the fans are in an uproar over the fact that the Wood Brothers did not receive one of them to assure they will start every race this season. Even though the Woods cherry picked their schedules to only go for the big money races for the majority of their existence and are now basically just a shell corporation for a third Team Penske car, people act like it is atrocious. The system is designed to reward those people who unwaveringly supported NASCAR every weekend over the last three years. Like it or not, the Woods didn’t do that, so they don’t get one. With that said, it doesn’t matter. For most, if not all of the races after Daytona, there will only be 40 cars at the track, so they’ll make every race anyway.

Now that someone did their best to totally screw up what a catch is in the NFL, they have now moved over to screw up NASCAR even more.

Buried in the announcement of the charter system was another addition to the rule book: an overtime line. After the fiasco at Talladega last year with restarts not actually being restarts, they have now decided there is going to be a line on the track that the leader must pass before a restart of a GWC finish is actually a restart. Look forward to some kind of passing rhombus in the not too distant future once NASCAR decides hockey is cool too.

Speaking of crazy rules, the Trucks will have a 20-minute caution clock this season. If they have 20 minutes of green flag racing, they will throw a caution. While it is obvious that it is simply to eliminate bogus debris cautions, NASCAR wouldn’t admit to it. Before you get your panties in a bunch, there were only three times during the entire 2015 season where the yellow would have actually flown for this rule. It isn’t worth losing sleep over.

On the other hand, you can lose sleep over the addition of the Chase to Trucks and Xfinity. After both of those series had championships come down to the wire for several years in a row, the suits in Daytona have decided to further bastardize the sport by implementing the Chase in the two support series. Their logic is to prepare the younger drivers in the sport for the pressures of the Chase at the Cup level. This just in, if you make the title about running the best all season, like it is everywhere in racing besides NASCAR national series, then they will all know how to race for a title. Fortunately, only eight drivers make the Chase in Trucks, so that should preclude Jennifer Jo Cobb and Norm Benning from being in the title hunt for the Truck trophy.

Tony Stewart is out of the car for anywhere from two to six months due to a burst fracture in his back. The SHR organization has put Brian Vickers in the car for Speedweeks. While it is nice to see Vickers driving again, it is scary to think that he is most likely playing Russian Roulette with his life. The susceptibility to clots isn’t going to go away for him and a clot going into his brain could end his life. Keeping our fingers crossed that it doesn’t happen.

Speaking of Stewart, he was injured having fun during the off-season. Owners continue to curtail the extracurricular activity of their drivers thanks to the investment they have in them and their teams. Hopefully this won’t be a further impetus for owners to be even more heavy handed in quelling the fun of their employees.

Who is mad – Anyone not named Hamlin on Saturday night. The racing was a constant pack of cars with little movement in the pack and virtually none at the point. When the checkers flew after the final caution of the night during the GWC finish, all but four cars had been officially involved in cautions. A couple of blown right rears caused wrecks, including a huge one right before the competition caution. Hopefully that was not a tire issue that will rear its head during the 500.

Keselowski can’t be too happy with the people who bring items to the track in plastic bags. Two different times during the event, the 2012 champion had large plastic bags obstruct his radiator opening and ultimately played a role in his failure to be in contention when the race ended.

Fans paid to see a 75-lap race. After seven caution flags flew on Saturday night, they only saw 54 laps of actual racing. Were it not for the GWC, it would have been exactly one-third of the race under caution. When you are dealing with a race less than 100 laps, there is no reason to count caution laps. While the stands were no where close to full, the fans paying for tickets deserve to get their money’s worth. Burning up laps behind the pace car is generally unnecessary anyway but especially when the event only has 75 scheduled laps.

Who is happyJoe Gibbs is a happy man after Hamlin’s win marked the fourth time in five races and third time in a row that his teams have won the exhibition race. The season is a long and arduous trek but starting it with a win sets a foundation that can lead to another title for the JGR squad.

Stenhouse Jr. has to feel pretty good after he came back to a sixth-place finish Saturday night, when he caused the first caution of the night. He followed that with a fifth-place qualifying effort for the Daytona 500. While his Roush Fenway Racing teammates didn’t look very strong in qualifying, a good run for Stenhouse might be a step in the right direction for a team that has struggled for a couple of years now.

Elliott wrote yet another chapter in the storybook of Daytona qualifying. After Danica Patrick sat on the pole as a rookie and Austin Dillon brought back the No. 3 to lead the field to the line, it is now Elliott with the fairy tale story. The son of 16-time most popular driver Bill Elliott, Chase is filling the abandoned seat of Jeff Gordon for the 2016 season. He is a proven champion after taking the Xfinity title two years ago and has displayed quite a bit of natural talent in his efforts at the national level in NASCAR. It will be hard for him to have much help during the 500 from anyone besides his teammates but his car appears that it will be strong enough to help push given the right circumstances.

When the checkered flag flew:

Hamlin won the pre-season exhibition race for the third time in his career and the second time in the last three years.

This is Hamlin’s sixth career win at Daytona in the NASCAR national series.

Hamlin is the fifth driver to win three or more of the exhibition races at Daytona. He joins Dale Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick, Dale Jarrett and Stewart.

The pole position for Chase Elliott is his first in sixth career Cup race.

It is the 10th pole in the Daytona 500 for Hendrick Motorsports.

What is in the cooler

After 79 laps on Saturday night, three leaders and 12 lead changes, the carnage that was the Sprint Unlimited was thankfully over. As exciting as plate racing can be, this was a horrible race to watch. While there were 12 lead changes they were mostly just paper passes with cars side-by-side at the line. Almost 1/3 of the race was under caution. It was far from an auspicious start to the 2016 season. We’ll give it one cold Busch in memory of their return to the sport. We’ll cross our fingers that the 500 is much better.

Where do you point your DVR for next week – The Great American Race will be live on FOX at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 21. It can also be heard on MRN affiliates and SiriusNASCAR Channel 90.

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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Three months from now when the All-Star Race rears its ugly head, we’ll have the same discussion. With essentially no testing now save tire tests, these non-points races have become glorified test sessions for actual races the following weekend. Can we put them out of their (and our) misery once and for all?
On a positive note, Terry Labonte has retired so at least we didn’t have to endure him doing a start-and-park in an exhibition race.


Brian France with all these “fairy tale”/”feel good” stories he is addicted to, seems like he is gathering material to submit to the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series and it will be about NASCAR. However, the publishers will reject his stories as they are manufactured and have no basis in reality or truth. Lol.


The plot of this movie for Fox is developing just as expected. It isn’t hard to predict the rest. Brian wants every
race” to be like Super Bowl XLIX. He’s going to get them like Stupor Bowl L. He’s found a free cure for insomnia.


made the mistake of watching most of saturday night’s race. looked like the same stuff from last year. guy out front takes off, and baring any trash blowing around, it’s a done deal. tires still an issue, and of course the incredible amount of torn up sheet metal and investments in the course of 2 hrs.


i watched a bit on saturday night. looked a lot like last year. whomever gets out front that’s it. you’d think with daytona rising they’d’ have trash cans nearby. i guess it’s only a matter of time before some team’s car blows up and owners complain that food won’t be able to be taken into the tracks. oh well, glad to see not much has changed. the conspiracy theories are running wild with elliott on the pole.

Brian in PDX

I’ll wear my tinfoil hat proudly! Four years in a row a media buzz-generator is on the pole for Daytona? Wow, we DO live in a magical world ;-)


Well, since the Phila area was in the deep freeze over the weekend and I was staying in where it was warm, I turned on the Sprint Unlimited. I won’t call that a race, it was pretty lame and as pointed out, very little passing. I have the same concerns about Brian Vickers making the choice to drive again but overall, it is his choice and if the doctors say OK, well, he can live his life as he wants. Even so, that wreck he was in made me cringe.

Since my favorite “abandoned” his car – at least that is how you phrased it in the article. I thought he made a good decision to retire last year, so relinquished, yes, abandoned, no. I enjoyed being able to watch a RP race w/o worrying about my favorite being in a bad wreck. Works for me. Until the weather takes a turn for the better, I’ll probably be watching the races on Fox or until DW and Mikey make me so annoyed that I have mute it or turn it off.

As far as Chase Elliott on the pole, whatever, after all it seems like the 500 pole is always “won” by whatever driver who has a story that NASCAR wants to promote. Danica, Austin and now Chase.


It won’t take too long to hit the mute button for DW and Mikey. I mute it right from the start of the broadcast and save myself a lot of aggravation and yelling. It’s like listening to Tim McCarver and thinking “I can see that already.” At least Tim sticks to baseball.

I was watching Barrett-Jackson periodically and saw Jeff Gordon’s restored 1992 FORD THUNDERBIRD Busch car that he drove for Bill Davis and won three races with before Mr. H poached him. Dogs still rely on old tricks. Jeff and Mr. H were there and Jeff looked very relaxed. The car sold for $100,000. I wonder what Jeff went for.

Broken Arrow

Don’t forget that your darling Jeff won the pole last year. More NASCAR manipulation to help him go out on top? After all, Jeff was the story of the year until Kyle Busch stunk up the show by outdriving him.

Bill B

I agree Gina…
” I enjoyed being able to watch a RP race w/o worrying about my favorite being in a bad wreck.”

I’ll second that. It wasn’t too bad watching half the field wreck when I don’t care about anyone in the field winning, losing or wrecking out (as long as no one gets hurt of course). I could relax and just let the mayhem happen since I had no dog in the fight. Hard to believe with “the best” 25 drivers out there that more than half the field was involved in some sort of contact/damage.

I also didn’t care when the GWC crapshoot ending unfolded. They wrecked real good. :)

Faster Eddie

Bill B and Regina V24 Spence, you promised to leave when Rainbow Boy retired. Yet here you still are. You are obsessed fans who can’t let go. Get some therapy.

Bill B

Faster Eddie, go back to any comments I’ve made and show me where I said I’d be leaving, as in “not following NASCAR at all”.
And now, even if I did, I would stick around just because you wish it.

Brian in PDX

After a stupid wreck, I used to enjoy Kyle Petty’s quip: “That’s 43 of the world’s best drivers right there, folks!” What a bloodbath, the ARCA race was better.

Tim S.

With an invite from good friends for dinner, crappy restrictor plate rules, and no Tony in the field, I did not watch a lap, nor did I follow electronically. First one I missed since it was still called the Busch Clash. Oddly enough, I wasn’t even compelled to read about it afterward except to see what the regulars here said about it.

And Gina, I’m thinking NASCAR and several writers probably feel like Gordon did abandon them. The former because they worry about the fan dollars he takes with him, and the latter because a lot of Gordon fans are now former readers.

Faster Eddie

Regina Spence is an obsessed Gordon fan. Her posts should be treated like the love notes they are.

Bill B

As Tony Stark said in “Age of Ultron” when he was trying to subdue the out of control Hulk, “Dick move Banner”.

Charles Jenkins

Tim S., I also did not watch a lap… Like you, went out to eat and did not check electronically either. When I returned home, the “event” was over. For those of us
who were blessed to see real racing in years past, this motor sports entertainment is not very interesting. But, the dollars continue to roll in for NA$CAR and racing is not the goal any longer. Sad but true…..

Tim Walgren

Chase Elliot wins pole, Ty Dillon in 14 starting at Atlanta. Is this WWE?

Brian in PDX

… and you just know ‘ole Ty will win the pole ;-)

Faster Eddie

Was Jeff Gordon’s pole win last season also “part of NASCAR’s grand plan for a fairy tale ending?” After all, his retirement was supposed to be the story of the year. But I guess the tin foil hat-hate brigade only complains when it doesn’t go the way they want it to!

Bill B

If you had been paying attention last year, many of us did call NASCAR out on that. Even Gordon fans. My bet was on The Wood Brothers winning the pole since that would have made the best story “Disrespected Team Wins Pole, Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Charter”.

As for Elliot winning the pole, that was my second expected “feel good” outcome for the pole.

Although, it’s easy to justify an HMS car winning the pole. Didn’t they win all the poles at last year’s restrictor plate tracks? (one of them may have been rained out last year). So maybe it was fixed at all the RP tracks last year.

BTW, did you all see that the Wood Brothers withdrew from the RTA today. Good for them. It seemed the purpose of that organization was to ensure that Kaufmann got some money for the two folded MWR teams.

Brian in PDX

Once again, for the fourth year in a row, NA$CAR milks Daytona 500 qualifying for maximum media effect. Danica, Austin (Return of the 3!!!) JG (retiring!) and now Chase (rookie son of racing legend!) Reall? In NCAR land it really does work out that magically? Unfortunately we are not watching racing anymore, just glorified fast driving, millionaires driving with other millionaires. Way too many gimmicks and little attention paid to the competition. Reality entertainment but sadly, not a sport anymore. I’ll continue to be interested but more from a force of habit rather than any current excitement. I used to be their core demographic, but I won’t spend a dime with these hucksters.


We did not watch the qualifying, we already knew who it was going to be. About a hour or two later I checked and laughed my okele off, we all did, too bad it wasn’t a winning lotto ticket, we all would have hit the jackpot.

I don’t care, really. Other that the faux prestige to parade in front of the media and the great pit stall pick, who really cares. It is the fact that NASCAR thinks most are stooopppiiiddd and think all will just drink up in belief. And how obvious they are, silly..really.

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