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Drivers gear up for Sprint Unlimited

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams go head-to-head for the first time in 2014 tonight when the Sprint Unlimited (8 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1) gets underway at Daytona International Speedway.

The non-points event will feature 18 teams -- pole winners from the 2013 season, as well as former winners of the event.

Three-time Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart, sidelined for the final 15 races of 2013 with a broken right leg, will be seeking his fourth win in the race, as will Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick.

Jeff Gordon, a four-time series champ, is a former winner as well (1994, '97) and will be making his 21st consecutive start in the race.

Harvick is the defending winner of the event, having shot his way to the front on the final lap in a race that ended under caution last year.

The 75-lap race is divided into three segments, and a fan vote will be used to determine the number of laps in each segment, the starting order and the restart order to begin the final segment.

Much can be gleaned from the race as teams begin preparations for next weekend's season-opening Daytona 500. For Stewart, it will be his first competition since suffering his injury last August. 

"I feel like we still have potential; we will still go out and try to win it," Stewart said Feb. 13. "If it's something in the seat (of my car) or something else that's going to be a problem, it will probably show up (in that race)."

Any additional track time is beneficial, whether a driver is coming back from injury -- such as Stewart -- or simply getting ready for the long season that lies just ahead. 

"I think you can always learn when you get on the track," said Jamie McMurray, driver of the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 1 Chevrolet. "I don't think the cars are going to draft any differently with the small spoiler change they've made. But it always takes a while to get used to drafting again, especially in a large pack."

McMurray is winless in seven career starts in the event, but four of his seven career Sprint Cup wins have come on restrictor-plate tracks (Daytona and Talladega).

"There are some pluses to being in the Unlimited race," he said. "I watched it last year and if you're a driver in this series, you want to race anytime there is some fun on the track.

"The one thing about the (Budweiser) Duel being at night that came to my mind is that it used to be we would run this Unlimited race and it would be nighttime and everyone's car would handle really well. And then when we got to Thursday (for the Duel), everyone said 'if you could make my car handle like it did at night, we'd have a chance to win.' Well, now we're going to run two races at night and then the (Daytona) 500 is going to be in the daytime. So I think there are going to be some surprises for guys that thought their cars handled really well Saturday night and on Thursday, and then maybe on Sunday it will change there."

While the race can provide useful information for the 500, it's still "an opportunity to win at Daytona," said 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski.

"I think any win here is significant," he said. "As a guy that's sat out this race quite a few times and not had the opportunity to run it, a win in the Unlimited is significant and an opportunity to make sure I don't have to sit it out again, so it's definitely more than a test session for me.

"I think any track time here helps you."

The race debuted in 1979 as the Busch Clash, a 20-lap feature for the previous season's pole winners. Buddy Baker won the inaugural event. Dale Earnhardt holds the record for most wins with six and 20 different drivers have won the race at least once. 

Denny Hamlin won the 2006 race in his first appearance during his rookie season. 

"A lot of things worked out great for us in that particular event and obviously (in) superspeedway racing anything can happen," the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said.

"I was just so grateful. I remember on the starting grid just to be a part of the race -- I lucked up and got a pole in those last few races of the (2005) season I ran for FedEx ? so it got me into there."

Hamlin's initial focus, he said, was to develop friendships that might prove beneficial in the draft for the following week's Daytona 500.

"And the next thing you know we find ourselves in a position to win it and Jimmie (Johnson) gave me a push down the backstretch, Tony (Stewart) gave me a push down the frontstretch and ? we got to the line first.

"They gave me the trophy, the money and the checkered flag, so I guess I won."

Two drivers, SHR's Danica Patrick and Roush Fenway Racing's Ricky Stenhouse Jr., will be making their first starts in the Sprint Unlimited. Patrick earned an invitation by winning last season's Daytona 500 pole, while Stenhouse earned a berth with a pole at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

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