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Daytona International Speedway opens the NASCAR season with Speedweeks 2014

The opening volley of the NASCAR portion of Daytona Speedweeks takes place on Friday, Feb. 14, with two practices guaranteed to fill you and your Valentine's need for speed in preparation for Saturday night’s annual non-points event, The Sprint Unlimited, which takes place at the historic Daytona International Speedway, and can be seen and/or heard at 8:00 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1, Motor Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

A star studded group of individuals, including America's favorite motorsports power couple, are set to participate in Speedweeks at Daytona.
A star studded group of individuals, including America's favorite motorsports power couple, are set to participate in Speedweeks at Daytona.Daytona International Speedway

The Sprint Unlimited features drivers who won a Coors Light Pole in 2013, or any driver who has previously won the event and ran at least one race last season. Eighteen such competitors fit those criteria; Jamie McMurray, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Marcos Ambrose, Danica Patrick, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Terry Labonte, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Carl Edwards. The race marks the return to the cockpit for three-time champion Tony Stewart, who makes his long-awaited return after a broken leg sidelined him for the second half of last season. Racing's favorite lovebirds, Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., will make their Sprint Unlimited debut.

Fans can cast their votes to set the overall format and determine key racing elements of The Sprint Unlimited. They will again set the number of laps in each of the three segments, while also voting on how drivers will line up at the start of the race and how they will line up for the restart of the final segment. In addition to the website, fans can submit their votes within the official NASCAR app; NASCAR MOBILE. Voting is unlimited and all votes cast through NASCAR MOBILE will count twice. Voting closes at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday.

Legendary television and radio journalist Larry King will serve as co-Grand Marshal of The Sprint Unlimited, while his wife, singer Shawn King, will perform the National Anthem.

Shawn King will sing the National Anthem just prior to her husband Larry King’s starting command, “Drivers, start your engines,” which will be delivered alongside two race fans that will be selected earlier in day to serve as Co-Grand Marshals.

“We are excited to welcome Larry and Shawn King to the ‘World Center of Racing’ to participate in the pre-race ceremonies for The Sprint Unlimited,” Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III said. “Larry is an iconic newsman and we’re looking forward to his command alongside two race fans. We are also delighted to have his wife Shawn King deliver a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem.”

The Co-Grand Marshals that will give the starting command alongside Larry King are part of the 1,000+ prizes that will be awarded to race fans on property throughout Budweiser Speedweeks. Fans can register at the DAYTONA Reward Stations powered by Windows located in Sprint FANZONE, the Midway outside Turn 4 and in front of the Daytona International Speedway Ticket and Tours Building, or they can preregister online prior to arriving at the track.

King, who started his radio career in Florida, has been a household name for decades with his nightly coast-to-coast talk show “The Larry King Show” and his international TV call-in show “Larry King Live.” He is also known for his voice work for animated films such as “Shrek 2,” “Shrek the Third” and “Bee Movie.” Additionally, King has written several popular books including “How to Talk to Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere” and his candid, tell-all book “Truth Be Told.” He can now be seen on the RT America network.

Shawn King grew up in the entertainment business, starting her singing and acting career at the age of 3. Since then she has guest starred in many films and primetime television shows, co-hosted “The Spectacular World of Guinness Records” and hosted the weekly entertainment news show “Hollywood Insider.” In September 2005, she released a country album titled “In My Own Backyard.”

On Sunday, NASCAR sets the front row for the Daytona 500 during Coors Light Pole Qualifying, which can be seen and/or heard at 1:00 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. Last year, Danica Patrick became the first female driver to win a pole in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history, while also becoming only the fourth Sunoco Rookie of the Year to win the pole for the Daytona 500. Eight drivers are competing for rookie honors this season, and all are expected to qualify on Sunday.

Sunday’s Daytona 500 Coors Light Pole qualifying is unique in that only the top two positions will be guaranteed. Remaining qualifiers are seeded by qualifying speed into Thursday’s Duel.

The front-row qualifiers and the highest 15 finishers in each Duel – excluding the front row from qualifying – will earn a spot in the Daytona 500. The next four fastest Coors Light Pole qualifiers will make up positions 33-36. Six provisional starting positions (37 through 42) will be awarded to the highest eligible car owners in final 2013 standings not otherwise qualified for the race. The 43rd position will be filled by the most recent past champion participating in a 2013 event. Should no past champion be eligible, the final position goes to the next highest owner in 2013 points.

On Sunday night, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East will open its season at New Smyrna Speedway at 7:30 p.m. ET with the running of the New Smyrna 150 presented by JEGS. FOX Sports 1 will broadcast the event on Saturday, Feb. 22 at 9 a.m. ET.

The K&N Pro Series drivers make a quick turnaround, competing again on Tuesday, this time at the World Center of Racing – Daytona International Speedway – for the second running of the UNOH Battle at the Beach. A non-points race featuring drivers from the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour opens the evening of racing, followed by a points event for the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. The stars of tomorrow will compete under the lights on the track’s famed backstretch starting at 7 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 2. Motor Racing Network (MRN) will go on the air at 6:45 p.m. ET with its pre-show, and the broadcast will be streamed live at MRN.com and simulcast by SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Short-track fans will have more than a week of racing at New Smyrna as the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series headlines the track’s 48th Annual World Series of Stock Car Racing. Super Late Models are the top division at New Smyrna, which will hold racing every night between Feb. 14-22.

For the first time in the race’s history, the Duel at Daytona – twin 60-lap, 150-mile qualifying races for the Daytona 500 – takes place in primetime. On Thursday, Feb. 20, the remainder of the 43-car Daytona 500 starting grid will be set, starting at 7 p.m. ET, and can be seen and/or heard on FOX Sports 1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

On Friday, Feb. 21 the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series NextEra Energy Resources 250 begin their quest for the championship at 7:30 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. The award winning NCWTS SETUP with Krista Voda airs at 6:30 p.m. ET.

The NASCAR Nationwide Series takes the spotlight Saturday, Feb. 22 in the DRIVE4COPD 300, and can be seen and/or heard at 1:15 p.m. ET on ESPN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. Madison Rising, a patriotic, guitar-heavy band, has been chosen to have the honor of singing the National Anthem for the race.

"Madison Rising’s modern take on the National Anthem is remarkable and we are excited to have them perform the National Anthem prior to the start of the DRIVE4COPD 300,” Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III said. “Their popular rendition is energetic, yet true to the original version, something the fans in attendance and at home will enjoy.”

Madison Rising is fronted by lead vocalist Dave Bray, a U.S. Navy veteran who served as an 8404 FMF Corpsman for the 2nd Battalion/2nd Marines stationed out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. Drummer Sam Fishman and bassist Steve Padelski make up the rest of the New Jersey-based band.

Founded on the principles of independence, personal responsibility and liberty, the band brings American-rock back to popular culture with their passionate performances.

Madison Rising’s self-titled debut album was released in October 2011 landing them spots in the top 100 best-selling rock albums on iTunes. Their rendition of the National Anthem became a YouTube sensation in 2012 with more than 5 million views.

Most recently, their long-awaited second album was released in November 2013 titled “American Hero,” which is dedicated to the men and women of the armed forces, police, firefighters and first responders. The album contains 10 songs, including their popular rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

NASCAR's strangle hold on the speedway ends, until the summer anyway, on Sunday, Feb. 23, when the engines crank on the most prestigious race in NASCAR; the Daytona 500. FOX will broadcast the race live at 1 p.m. ET, with prerace coverage of FOX NASCAR SUNDAY at noon ET on FOX., and radio coverage on MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

The reigning Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year Luke Bryan will electrify the crowd during the DAYTONA 500 Budweiser Pre-Race Show, the prelude to the start of the “The Great American Race."

Bryan will perform several of his hits on pit road of the “World Center of Racing” prior to the start of the 56th annual season-opening event to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. All race fans that purchase a Pre-Race/Sprint FANZONE access pass for the DAYTONA 500 can enjoy Bryan’s DAYTONA 500 Budweiser Pre-Race Show up close as well as driver introductions.

“We’re thrilled to have a talented artist such as Luke Bryan perform prior to the start of the Daytona 500,” Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III said. “We’re expecting Luke to put on an exhilarating show that will energize our race fans as we kick off the new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.”

Bryan’s recently released fourth studio album “Crash My Party” has produced hit singles such as “Crash My Party,” “Drink a Beer” and “That’s My Kind of Night” and has sold over one million copies. In 2013, Bryan was named Academy of Country Music Awards’ Entertainer of the Year and earned American Music Awards Favorite Country Male Artist.

Luke Bryan joins a long list of star-studded performers in the DAYTONA 500 Budweiser Pre-Race Show including Zac Brown Band, Lenny Kravitz, Brad Paisley, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban and Bon Jovi. Following Bryan's performance, singer/songwriter Aloe Blacc will perform the National Anthem prior to the race.

“Aloe Blacc is recognized around the globe for his smooth vocals, so it’s only fitting he perform at the ‘World Center of Racing’ in front of more than one hundred thousand race fans and millions more watching on FOX,” Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III said. “We look forward to hearing his moving rendition prior to the start of NASCAR’s richest and most prestigious race.”

Aloe Blacc will release his major-label debut album Lift Your Spirit March 11th on XIX Recordings/Interscope Records. The set follows up Blacc’s collaboration as vocalist and co-writer on well-known DJ/producer Avicii’s track “Wake Me Up,” a song that hit the Top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on its Hot Dance Club Songs and Dance/Electronic Songs charts, as well as topping charts in more than 100 countries.

Blacc’s five-track Wake Me Up EP came out last September and included an acoustic version of the title track. Blacc’s current single, “The Man,” which is featured in the new Beats by Dre national TV campaign, is quickly climbing to the top of the charts with more than 900,000 singles sold. Blacc is featured in the line-up for this April’s Coachella festival and will be touring the U.S. this summer with Bruno Mars.

Gary Sinise, actor, humanitarian and founder of the Gary Sinise Foundation, will wave the green flag as the Honorary Starter for the 56th annual Daytona 500.

“Gary Sinise is not only a respected and accomplished actor, but a compassionate advocate for our servicemen and women and does a tremendous amount of work for the American troops,” Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III said. “We are excited to have him kick off ‘The Great American Race’ by waving the green flag for the Daytona 500.”

In addition to Sinise’s participation as Honorary Starter, a special Daytona 500 ticket package supporting the Gary Sinise Foundation is available for $90 and includes a Daytona 500 backstretch ticket, a $10 donation to the Gary Sinise Foundation, and access to a 15-minute fan forum with Gary Sinise prior to the race.

“It’s an honor to be selected as Honorary Starter at this year’s Daytona 500 on behalf of the Gary Sinise Foundation. The race is a celebrated tradition and an important occasion to raise awareness and support for the men and women who serve our country”, said Sinise.

Paralympic athlete Blake Leeper, known as the “American Blade Runner,” will serve as an Honorary Race Official for the event. As Honorary Race Official, Leeper will be introduced at the driver’s meeting, participate in pre-race ceremonies and ride in one of the honorary race official cars ahead of the 43-car field for the 200-lap, 500-mile prestigious race.

“Blake Leeper is a true inspiration and a legend in the making,” Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III said. “We are honored to have him participate in the pre-race ceremonies at the ‘World Center of Racing’ for the thrilling and historic Daytona 500.”

Leeper’s story is nothing short of remarkable. He was born with a birth defect that stopped growth below his knees, yet he was able to build muscle above the knee and began playing sports at the age of five.

In 2008 Leeper started intensively running after the Challenged Athlete Foundation presented him with a grant for state-of-the-art blade prosthetics. He won the silver medal in the 2012 Paralympic Games and the gold medal in the 400m Relay at the IPC Worlds in Lyon, France.

Leeper is currently training for the 2016 Rio Olympics for Team USA, where he would become the first double-amputee American to compete in the Olympic Games.

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 p.m. ET. The cars will also be on track throughout the "SpeedWeeks" leading up to the "Great American Race," including the Budweiser Duels qualifying races, which will be televised live on Feb. 20 at 7 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1.

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