The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series cars have hit the track for the first set of practices of the 2014 race season as teams prepare for the Sprint Unlimited. With practice complete, familiar faces rise to the top.
The Sprint Unlimited is an exhibition race that is held a week before the Daytona 500 that is open to last season’s pole winners and previous race winners who attempted to qualify for a race last season. 18 drivers are scheduled to start the event on Saturday night.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. led the first practice with a lap of 45.358 seconds as he enters his last season with Steve LeTarte atop the pit box at Hendrick Motorsports. LeTarte will be moving to the broadcast booth in 2015. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch was second with his brother Kurt Busch in third. The Sprint Unlimited marks Kurt’s first race with Stewart-Haas Racing. Busch’s teammate Kevin Harvick was fourth followed by Roush-Fenway Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Matt Kenseth was sixth followed by Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart. Stewart is taking his first laps behind the wheel after sitting out the second half of last season due to a broken leg.
“It felt good,” Stewart said. “The great thing is there is zero percentage of pain in the car. That was nice. We will see what it feels like at 9 o’clock tonight, but so far so good. That is better than I was hoping for, honestly. I thought we would have some kind of ache, pain of some kind that would bother us. It was like putting on an old pair of shoes again.”
In the second and final practice before the Sprint Unlimited, Denny Hamlin topped the charts with a lap of 450.030 seconds. Hamlin won the event back in his rookie season in 2006.
“I remember on the starting grid just to be a part of the race I lucked up and got a pole in those last few races of the season I ran at the end for FedEx in 2005 and so it got me into there,” Hamlin recalled the win during Media Day. “The next thing you know I’m thinking let me just try to work on some friendships for next week in the 500 and next thing you know we find ourselves in a position to win it and Jimmie (Johnson) gave me a push down the backstretch, Tony (Stewart) gave me a push down the frontstretch and next thing you know we got to the line first. They gave me the trophy, the money and the checkered flag so I guess I won.”
Past Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray finished second, followed by Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski. Harvick was sixth followed by Carl Edwards, Marcos Ambrose, Stewart and Kurt Busch.
The Sprint Unlimited is scheduled for 7pm EST and can be watched live on Fox tomorrow night.