The 2015 Sprint Cup Series season has arrived with Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.
This 75-lap preseason, non-points race will be the first opportunity for drivers and teams to gather data under race conditions in preparation for next week's Daytona 500.
As part of its new rules package for this season, NASCAR banned all private test sessions as a cost-cutting measure. That included the elimination of "Preseason Thunder" testing at Daytona, which had been held in the middle of January in past years.
With the exception of a one-day Goodyear tire test at Las Vegas last month, involving just four drivers (A.J. Allmendinger, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski), there has been no on-track activity since the Nov. 16 season-ending race at Homestead. Kevin Harvick won that race and claimed his first Sprint Cup championship.
"Being in the Sprint Unlimited is even more important now since there is no testing," said Greg Biffle, who drives the No. 16 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing. "It's a great opportunity to get on the track and see what you've got, a warmup to how the following week will go."
Biffle is one of 25 drivers scheduled to compete in the Sprint Unlimited, making it one of the biggest fields for this event. In the past, the field was made up of pole winners from the previous season and former Sprint Unlimited race winners. This year, NASCAR has added past Daytona 500 pole winners who competed full time in 2014 and any one of the 16 Chase drivers from last year that had not already been eligible for this event. Clint Bowyer, Casey Mears, Paul Menard and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. gained eligibility due to driver points from last year.
Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson, both rookies in Sprint Cup this past season, are expected to make their first starts in this race. Dillon won the pole for last year's Daytona 500.
"I think it's cool to know that I won the pole last year for the Daytona 500, and one of the rewards is to always be able to race in this prestigious race," Dillon said. "It will be my first Sprint Unlimited, and I can't wait. I've watched so many of them growing up."
Denny Hamlin is the defending winner of the Sprint Unlimited. Hamlin is now in his 10th full season as driver of the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. He won this event for the first time in his 2006 rookie season.
"Our team had a lot of success in Daytona last year and on restrictor-plate tracks as a whole, so hopefully we can continue that this year," Hamlin said. "JGR always builds great speedway cars, and it's up to us (No. 11 team) to work together, remain patient and try to stay clean to have a chance at the end. It would be great to kick off another season in victory lane at Daytona."
The Sprint Unlimited will be split into two segments, with a competition caution at lap 25 separating the segments.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Saturday, Feb. 14. Race: Sprint Unlimited (preseason, non-points race). Site: Daytona International Speedway. Track: 2.5-mile oval. Start time: 8:15 p.m. ET. Laps: 75. Miles: 187.5. 2014 Winner: Denny Hamlin. Television: FOX. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.