(Trevor Bayne's win in last year's Daytona 500 set the tone for a competitive and exciting 2011 season)
The new NASCAR season is about to dawn as it has since 1959 when “The World Center of Racing” hosts Speedweeks.
Teams have been hard at work preparing for their 10 days in Florida that will no doubt produce surprises, frustration and excitement culminating with the 54th running of the Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 26.* DAYTONA SPEEDWEEKS SCHEDULE OF EVENTS
Things are a week later than usual at Daytona as NASCAR pushed back the proceedings in advance of the NFL’s proposed move of the Super Bowl to President’s Day weekend in the near future. The separation of the Daytona 500 from the NFL shadow was a wise move to get in front of and has also helped whet the appetites for hungry race fans anxious for the start of the season.
But before “The Great American Race” there will be much to watch at Daytona beginning later this week so we offer you a quick “Guide to Speedweeks 2012:”
Thursday, February 16 – Media Day
After one of the busiest and most memorable offseasons in NASCAR history, drivers will officially gather to meet the media in a daylong gathering held in a mammoth tent just outside the speedway. Sure we heard from drivers during Preseason Thunder testing in January and during the annual Media Tour in Charlotte, but Daytona Media Day offers one more chance to hear how excited everyone is for the coming campaign. It’s also a chance to see some of the new sponsor and color combinations as well as who stayed on their workout plan during the winter and who strayed from the program.
Saturday, February 18 – ARCA 200/Budweiser Shootout
The Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) stock car series begins its 60<sup>th</sup> season of activity with its annual 200-mile Daytona event. Many of today’s NASCAR stars came through the ARCA Series over the years and young drivers like Brandon McReynolds, Chris Buescher, Mikey Kile and Max Gresham bear watching Saturday afternoon.
The main event then comes with Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout, an exhibition race open to the top 25 drivers in last year’s point standings as well as others who have won at Daytona in recent years, a criteria that should produce one of the race’s largest fields in history at more than 30. Although no points are on the line, there is a healthy payday to the winner of the event, which is broken into two segments of 25 and 50 laps. But more importantly, it's the first real opportunity for teams to see NASCAR’s new rule package in place after days of testing last month in Daytona. The bigger restrictor plates, smaller spoilers and cooling system modifications -– all designed to at the very least limit the two-car tandem draft that has been so poorly received by a majority of fans –- will get a workout in the Shootout and perhaps provide a sneak peak of what to expect later in the week.
Sunday, February 19 – Daytona 500 Qualifying
Sprint Cup drivers will get two laps around the 2.5-mile speedway in Sunday’s qualifying session with the fastest of the pair the official mark. However, unlike the other 35 races of the season, this qualifying session is unique in only the front row for the Daytona 500 is locked in. The rest of the starting lineup will be determined through Thursday’s two 150-mile qualifying races with a combination of finishing positions, points and qualifying speeds deciding the 43-car field.
Thursday, February 23 – Gatorade Duel at Daytona
The two Thursday races have lost some of their luster from the days of the “go or go home” heat races they were before NASCAR instituted the Top 35 rule. Now drivers who finished inside the first 35 of last year’s point standings are guaranteed berths in the Daytona 500, so, for some, these two races don’t carry as much pressure as years past. Drivers who qualified in odd spots during Sunday’s time trials make up one race while the even qualifiers comprise the second race. It’s still imperative for some outside the Top 35 to finish high enough in their race to make the field, so although it’s limited, the day does carry a certain amount of drama.
(Michael Waltrip scored an emotional victory in last season's truck series opener at Daytona)
Friday, February 24 – Camping World Truck Series NextEra Energy 250
The season opener for the NCWTS is usually a competitive and at times slam bang affair. Last year’s race saw Michael Waltrip score an emotional win 10 years to the day after his 2001 Daytona 500 victory. This year’s Truck Series features an eclectic mix of young drivers trying to make a name for themselves and veterans looking to add to their careers. Ty Dillon takes the championship-winning ride of his older brother Austin and will face a field that includes four-time champion Ron Hornaday, former champ Mike Skinner, 2002 Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton, Jason Leffler in Kyle Busch’s truck and another former Daytona winner in Todd Bodine among others.
Saturday, February 25 – Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300
This race has been the Tony Stewart show for the last four years with “Smoke” winning the season-opening race every year since 2008 and victorious in six of the last seven seasons. He’ll try it again this year and as always will battle of stellar field of Sprint Cup drivers as well as Nationwide regulars. The race will mark the debut of Austin Dillon’s NWS effort for Richard Childress Racing while Danica Patrick begins her full-time assault on the series crown. Cole Whitt, Elliott Sadler and defending series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -- back for another complete season for Roush Fenway Racing -- will be others to watch.
Sunday, February 26 – Daytona 500
Last year’s Cinderella story of Trevor Bayne bringing the storied Wood Brothers to Victory Lane was the start of what turned out to be what I considered the best season in NASCAR history. The number of unknowns heading into this year’s race has even the most seasoned follower wondering what will transpire once the green flag flies. Will the new rules make an impact in the style of racing? Which news driver-crew chief combinations will prosper? What teammates will be able to work together in the draft and will anyone be left out in the cold ala the last restrictor plate race at Talladega? How will the new electronic fuel injection system function? Can either Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Danica Patrick pull off a victory that would send NASCAR into the stratosphere of publicity and exposure?
It promises to be one of the most intriguing Speedweeks in recent history. We’ll all find out together when we roll into Daytona later this week.
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