It was a good weekend to be a fan of stock car racing, as the World Center of Racing provided two amazing races, and a tension filled day of qualifying for the Great American Race. The racing action began on the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 15, where Grant Enfinger captured his first victory at Daytona International Speedway in the 80-lap Lucas Oil 200 Presented By MAVTV American Real.
“This means everything to everybody,” Enfinger said of winning at the historic track. “Everybody knows Daytona, everybody knows this race. More than just personally and career-wise – which is great for me and for BCR (Racing) – we put ourselves on the map last year with a couple wins, but to (win) here, in front of everybody – the biggest crowd, the biggest spectator race we have all year – is just an incredible feeling."
Enfinger, who rolled off second in his fourth start in the season-opener for the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards, has a long history at the speedway. He first raced at Daytona in go karts with his dad, and more recently raced on the 2.5-mile tri-oval in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, finishing 12th in 2012. Despite two wins in the ARCA Series in 2013, Enfinger was awaiting the win that would propel his career, and now he has it.
“This (win) is one of those things that hasn’t sunk in yet,” Enfinger continued. “I’m feeling it, but it hasn’t sunk in yet. It’s just incredible. I wish my family could have been here because this is something we’ve dreamed of for a long time.”
Finishing second and tallying his ninth top-five finish in 23 starts in the kick-off race to Budweiser Speedweeks 2014 was 10-time ARCA Series champion Frank Kimmel, who has yet to visit Gatorade Victory Lane at Daytona during his long and successful career. Following Kimmel across the finish line was Martinsville Speedway president Clay Campbell, Tom Hessert and top-finishing rookie Tyler Reddick.
The race was filled with familiar names in stock car racing, if not familiar faces. Chase Elliott, son of 11-time Daytona winner and owner of the fastest qualifying speed in a stock car at DIS, Bill Elliott, stayed near the front of the pack for the majority of the race and finished ninth. Jeb Burton, son of DAYTONA 500 champion Ward Burton, finished 29th and Justin Allison, grandson of Donnie Allison and great-nephew of Bobby Allison, finished 36th.
When the sun set on the historic track, the big guns came out, as Denny Hamlin kicked off Budweiser Speedweeks 2014 with a strong showing under the lights in the star-studded Sprint Unlimited at Daytona. After keeping the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Toyota out front for a race-high 27 of the 75 laps, and being the lead car at the end of the first two segments, Hamlin fittingly resumed his place at the head of the pack to lead the final lap around the 2.5-mile tri-oval and take the victory.
“The best car won, that’s for sure,” Hamlin said in Gatorade Victory Lane. “We’ve had a good car all weekend. It was survival of the fittest for sure. With three (laps) to go, we’re at the tail end of a very small pack and it’s really hard to get runs, but this car was just phenomenal and you saw it those last couple laps.”
Hamlin’s teammate, Kyle Busch, finished third despite a spin in Turn 4 with 15 laps to go. Busch expertly commanded the No. 18 Toyota and received minimal damage.
“(Denny) won the last race of the year at Homestead, was the quickest in practice by doing what he needed to do to get a quick lap in practice for sitting on the pole for this race tonight, then he wins tonight,” Busch said. “He’s on fire right now. He’s good, he’s fast, he’s ready.”
The field consisted of 18 drivers, and included the 16 pole winners from the 2013 season and two past Sprint Unlimited winners who attempted to qualify for at least one Sprint Cup race last season. Unlike most other races in the season, save the All-Star race, fans controlled many of the details of the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series non-points event of 2014. Their first vote separated the 75-lap race into three segments of 30, 25 and 20 laps, respectively. The second vote, which was to determine the starting lineup by final practice speeds, gave Denny Hamlin the pole with Jamie McMurray alongside of him. The third vote based the final segment restart order on a mandatory two-tire pit stop, with the first car off pit road the leader being Hamlin.
Tony Stewart made his return to competition after suffering season-ending injuries last summer. Stewart, who is second to Dale Earnhardt Sr. on Daytona International Speedway’s all-time win list, did not get a chance to notch another victory at the World Center of Racing after being involved in an incident early on in the second segment.
Through Daytona Rewards, some lucky fans were able to partake in the events of the evening, winning opportunities like presenting The Sprint Unlimited trophy in Gatorade Victory Lane, serving as co-Grand Marshal with legendary television and radio journalist Larry King and riding in the Grand Marshal car during the pace laps, attending the drivers’ meeting, serving as an honorary pit crew member and having their photo taken with the winning driver. King's wife, singer Shawn King, performed the National Anthem.
After the crash fest that was the Sprint Unlimited, some fans wondered whether Sunday's qualifying for the Daytona 500 would be just as action packed. Fortunate for the drivers, the only action was speed related, and history minded, as Austin Dillon put the famed No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet on the pole for the 56th annual DAYTONA 500, turning a lap of 196.019 mph around the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
In December, it was officially announced that the No. 3 Chevrolet would return to full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup competition this year, with the eldest grandson of Richard Childress Racing owner Richard Childress behind the wheel. Childress ran the No. 3 as a driver from 1976-81, and was car owner for all six of Earnhardt’s series championships driving the No. 3 machine.
The late Dale Earnhardt, whose excellence in the No. 3 elevated the number to iconic status, was the last to drive the No. 3; a car number he drove to six of his record-tying seven NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships. The historic No. 3 hasn’t been used in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition since 2001, and today marked the fourth time that No. 3 has won the pole for the Daytona 500, and its 67th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole overall.
“Everybody wants to see this number perform well,” said Dillon, who has previously won the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck series championships driving the No. 3 car for Richard Childress Racing. “That’s why my goals are to stay focused. I know this is just qualifying, but it is great for these guys.”
Dillon, who won last year’s NASCAR Nationwide Series championship, becomes the fifth Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender to win the pole for the Daytona 500. He joins Loy Allen Jr. (1994), Mike Skinner (1997), Jimmie Johnson (2002) and Danica Patrick (2013). Dillon is the fourth driver in the history of the DAYTONA 500 to put a No. 3 car on the pole. Buddy Baker (1969), Ricky Rudd (1983), Dale Earnhardt (1996) previously won DAYTONA 500 poles with the No. 3 car.
“I couldn’t be more proud for Austin and (crew chief) Gil (Martin) and all the guys that worked so hard this winter to come down here and run good," said Childress. We wanted to put on a good show with the No. 3 and couldn’t be more proud of everybody.”
Starting alongside Dillon will be Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., who posted a lap of 195.852 mph with an Earnhardt-Childress Racing built engine. Dillon’s No. 3 car was also outfitted with an ECR engine giving the engine company a sweep of the front row.
“Front row, that is what we are here for today,” Truex Jr. said. “Obviously can’t say enough about this team. What a great job I think we have got about seven miles on this car One run yesterday, no testing down here, just an amazing job by the team.”
Earning the pole secures Dillon a spot in the invitation-only 2015 Sprint Unlimited At Daytona, and for the moment at least, Dillon will enjoy the spotlight for the next week as the DAYTONA 500 pole sitter.
Today’s Coors Light Pole Qualifying set the front row for the Daytona 500, where Martin Truex Jr. will start second in the race, and on pole for the second of two races in the Duel at Daytona. The remaining starting positions will be determined Thursday night during the twin qualifying races at 7:00 p.m., and can be seen/heard on FOX Sports 1, MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
Fans can follow NASCAR on Twitter, and stay up to speed on the latest news by using hashtags #NASCAR,#DAYTONA500 and #ROADTODAYTONA. You can also stay connected with Daytona International Speedway on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest for the latest news all season long, and follow the latest on DAYTONA Rising, the $400 million frontstretch renovation at the “World Center of Racing” by using #DAYTONARising.
Over the next week or so, this column will strive to provide full coverage of the events leading up to the Great American Race, including a possible interview with the head of the CJ Mears Gang himself, Casey Mears, as well as other members of the NASCAR garage.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season opens with the Daytona 500 in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Feb. 23. The race will be televised live on FOX at 1:00 p.m. ET. Tickets for NASCAR’s biggest, richest and most prestigious race start at $65 and are available online or by calling 1-800-PITSHOP.
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