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NASCAR's finest get on track for Preseason Thunder at Daytona

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Since mid-November, the loyal world of NASCAR fans have been eagerly awaiting the return of their favorite drivers and teams to the airwaves. Originally, the NASCAR Preseason Thunder, where drivers and fans are able to interact as well as test for the upcoming season, had been scheduled for two track days at the storied Daytona International Speedway. However, after rain showers washed out Thursday’s Preseason Thunder testing, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers finally got some track time on Friday, Jan. 10.

The schedule was continually adjusted to account for weather conditions both at the speedway and at the team's headquarters in North Carolina. Conveniently for the Fox Sports 1 coverage, cars began making testing runs around the 2.5-mile tri-oval shortly before 1:00 p.m. in preparation for the 56th annual Daytona 500 scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 23.

Forty-one drivers turned laps in Gen-6 Chevrolets, Fords and Toyotas, which are entering their second year of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition. Those cars featured a new 4.5-inch spoiler, designed to add more rear downforce for stability. Results were positive. Thirty-three cars topped 190 mph and the new aero package performed well in traffic, which was tested in the draft during the final hour of testing.

“It's a comfortable zone for the teams to be into, so really this test is all about the teams and those guys working on their set-ups and their engine packages and things of that nature,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition and racing development. “So far speeds look to be what we expected.”

Two of the sport’s biggest stars turned their first Daytona laps with new teams, including past Daytona 500 winners Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman. Harvick now drives the No. 4 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing, while Newman is behind the wheel of the No. 31 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.

Fastest of the test was Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon, who posted a top speed of 195.109 mph in the No. 3 Chevrolet. Rounding out the top five were Brian Scott (194.582), Matt Crafton (194.342), Aric Almirola (193.828) and Kyle Larson (193.411). Casey Mears and his GEICO Chevrolet had found their way to the top of the speed chart and sat sixth overall after wheeling around the 2.5-mile high-banked superspeedway in just 46.547-seconds (193.353 miles per hour). Six-time and reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was 11th on the charts, with a fast lap of 193.021 mph.

Germain’s new alliance with Richard Childress Racing and switch to Chevrolet is a familiar feel for Mears, who piloted the #07 Chevrolet for legendary team-owner Richard Childress during the 2009 season.

“It was nice to finally get on the track and turn some laps. The test went really well and our #13 GEICO Chevrolet SS felt great,” Mears said. “All of the guys on our Germain Racing team did a great job in the off-season getting prepared to start 2014. It was nice to see some familiar faces at RCR (Richard Childress Racing) and that relationship seems to be working out well. I can’t wait to get back to Daytona for Speedweeks.”

Austin Dillon, the defending NASCAR Nationwide Series will be a top contender for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in 2014.

“I'm honored to be in the 3,” said Dillon, who is driving a number that Dale Earnhardt drove to victory 24 times at Daytona. “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.”

Jimmie Johnson is gunning for back-to-back victories in the Daytona 500. Last year at Daytona, he became the first driver since Bobby Allison in 1982 to sweep both NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races.

“There is no other sensation when you come into a race track like there is here,” Johnson said. “Driving through the tunnel and popping out in Turn 4 and looking around and realizing you’re here is always a great way to start the season.”

Tony Stewart was in attendance for the test, but he wasn’t behind the wheel of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet. Stewart, who is still recovering from injuries suffered in a sprint car accident back in August, had Mark Martin shaking down his car.

“February here is high on that bucket list,” said Stewart, who is winless in the Daytona 500 in 14 starts. “We haven't won here yet. We've won here, just not on the right day. The second Sunday would be nice. That's all that's on the bucket list right now.”

NASCAR Preseason Thunder testing at Daytona continues for four more days, as the NASCAR Nationwide Series’ top drivers take to the track Saturday and Sunday. NASCAR Camping World Truck Series drivers will test Monday and Tuesday. Testing sessions for all four remaining days are scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Tickets for NASCAR Nationwide Series testing are $10 each day and are available only at the gate. Children 12 and under will receive free admission throughout testing. Fans can also watch each day’s testing at no cost from a section of the Oldfield Grandstands.

Also announced during the event was the voting procedures to determine the competition elements for the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona, the 75-lap, non-points race that kicks off the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing season on Saturday, February 15 (8 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Fans 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.

“We are excited to build off of the success of last year’s event and give our fans another opportunity to help make key decisions that will enhance the excitement around this highly anticipated race,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition and racing development. “This interactive element is unique to NASCAR – and all of sports.”

Voting is unlimited and all votes cast through NASCAR MOBILE will count twice. The voting window for the race format will close on Saturday, February 15 at 6 p.m. ET, while voting for the starting order and final segment restart order will close at various times during the race broadcast. Voting results will be announced live during the FOX Sports 1 race broadcast.

“Our ultimate goal is to use Sprint’s wireless technology to bring NASCAR Sprint Cup fans closer to our sport, and this is the latest example,” said Steve Gaffney, vice president of corporate marketing for Sprint. “This effort, the Sprint Unlimited, gives fans the opportunity to sit in NASCAR race control and make calls on key elements of the race. We encourage fans to grab their wireless device and seize this unique opportunity.”

Twenty NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers are eligible to participate in the 2014 Sprint Unlimited at Daytona. Each driver raced his or her way into the starting lineup by winning pole positions in 2013 or by winning past Sprint Unlimited events.

Tickets for all of the Speedweeks 2014 events are now available online, at the speedway ticket office, or by calling 1-800-PITSHOP. Fans can stay connected with Daytona International Speedway on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest for the latest news all season long. Fans can also follow the latest on DAYTONA Rising, the $400 million frontstretch renovation at the “World Center of Racing” by using #DAYTONARising on Twitter.

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