A scheduled two-day test session for pre-season Thunder at Daytona International Speedway (DIS) for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) drivers had a damper put on it, literally. Thursday’s session was eventually cancelled due to an all day long, persistent rain. Not be a total wash, however, the day was filled with numerous drivers making themselves available to the media. Most notable was the ever responsive and entertaining Tony Stewart. Stewart was very excited and optimistic about getting back into his No.14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet next month for the 56th running of the Daytona 500. Stewart told the media he would not be surprised if three of the four Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) cars made it into the 2014 Chase. He admitted that Danica Patrick is still learning but expects even more improvement this year.
NASCAR President Mike Helton and VP of Competition Robin Pemberton addressed the media and Helton said to “stayed tuned” for changes in the the next month.
Day two arrived with even more anticipation by the drivers, media and fans in attendance. All awaiting for the cars to hit the track and try the new aero package. The morning began with NBC Sports President Sam Flood announcing that Steve Letarte would be joining Jeff Burton in the broadcast booth for the 2015 season when NBC begins NASCAR coverage. Letarte, current crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No.88 National Guard Chevrolet, said it will be different in leaving at the end of the season. Unlike a driver change, he will not be going to another race team. It will only be a career change and hence he feels this year could be Earnhardt Jr.’s best season ever, especially coming off a strong 2013 season.
Rusty Wallace donned a retro Lite beer fire suit and climbed into the No.2 Miller Lite Ford of Brad Keselowski. This was being done as part of the 25 year anniversary of Miller Lite’s sponsorship with NASCAR.
NASCAR’s new and innovative Air-Titan track drying system was given the litmus test thanks to Mother Nature. It’s last trips around the famed DIS track on Friday morning shortened the normal time for drying. AM showers kept the cars off the track for the scheduled 9am start, but with clearing skies the track was ready by 1pm. 41 cars were being pushed from the garage bays and staged for on track runs. As the cars and drivers took to the track, all eyes were on drivers with new teams, veteran drivers trying one more time to master the mystique of Daytona, and rookies looking to capture that coveted Daytona 500 trophy. Austin Dillon climbed into the famed #3 as a rookie Cup driver. Another rookie, Kyle Larson took the reins of the No.42 Target car for Ganassi Racing. Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch got behind the wheel of the No.4 and No.41, respectively, while former SHR driver Ryan Newman hopped in the No.31 Caterpillar for RCR, as Jeff Burton goes behind the microphone as a broadcaster. And, veteran drivers Bobby Labonte and Joe Nemechek will make one more attempt at a Daytona 500 win.
As nighttime fell and Daytona Sprint Cup testing came to a conclusion, it was only fitting that rookie Austin Dillon in the No.3 car, driven for years by Dale Earnhardt, led the field with the fastest lap speed of 195.109mph. “I’m honored to be in the No.3”, said Dillon. “This is special and walking into this NASCAR Sprint Cup garage this weekend is pretty cool. There are so many heroes in this garage for me,and just being in this garage is going to be pressure”.
The top five speeds for the shortened test were posted by Dillon, Brian Scott in the No.33 Chevrolet (194.582mph), Matt Crafton in the No.27 Chevrolet (194.342mph), Aric Almirola in the No.43 Ford (193.828mph), and Kyle Larson in the No.42 Chevrolet (193.411mph.). Six time Sprint Cup Series champ Jimmie Johnson was 11th with a fastest lap time of 193.021mph.
The green flag drops on the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season with the 56th running of the Daytona 500 on February 23rd.