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From humble roots, Sprint Unlimited hits big stage

NASCAR.com

It began with only nine cars, which must have looked lost on the vast two and a half miles of Daytona International Speedway. The first incarnation of the exhibition race that now opens the NASCAR season was just a 20-lap shootout, and to the drivers involved, all that mattered was the check waiting for them at the end.

"All we looked at was a chance to make more money," said Darrell Waltrip, who in 1979 competed in that first edition of what's now called the Sprint Unlimited, and will call Saturday night's version from the broadcast booth. "These guys (today) don't live in that world. We raced for money. That's why we drove like we did. We were crazy. You'd run over a guy and be like, 'That's another five grand right there. The hell with him.' "

Times have certainly changed. Buddy Baker won that first Busch Clash 34 years ago, which was limited only to pole winners from the previous season, with one wild card thrown in. The event has gradually been transformed into a prime-time extravaganza, which will unfold on the high banks of Daytona once again this Saturday night. It's been known by different names and endured innumerable format changes, but one thing has remained the same -- it's race cars on the race track, for the first time each year.

This time around, there are plenty of unknowns. Fan voting will determine several aspects of the 75-lap event, including length of the three segments, the type of pit stop (if any) teams will have to make after the first segment, and how many cars (between zero and six) will be eliminated after the second segment. Although voting on the segment lengths ends at 11:59 p.m. ET Wednesday night, the other two aspects won't be determined until after the race begins Saturday night -- which will force participants to adapt on the fly.

"You don't know what's going to happen when they drop the green flag," said former crew chief and current television broadcaster Jeff Hammond. "You're waiting for a determining factor to make your decisions. Even though you've got a lot of scenarios you've run through, now that you know what you've got to do as far as changes or no changes, it's going to put you and your team basically in a little bit of a box in making the right decisions and making the right adjustments to try to stay up front."

That's a far cry from what it was like in 1979, when Baker and Waltrip ran away from the field to finish 1-2. But the Sprint Unlimited is no stranger to breaking in a new race car, as it will do once again this weekend as the more brand-identifiable Generation-6 vehicle makes its debut. The sport went through something similar in 1981, after the "big body" cars were phased out to make way for vehicles with smaller wheelbases that more closely resembled what manufacturers were churning out at the time.

For crew chiefs like Hammond, those new vehicles presented a real challenge -- there were problems to overcome involving turning radius, center of gravity, even getting a race tire underneath a smaller vehicle. For Waltrip the transition was seamless, as he showed by passing Benny Parsons low on the race track to win the first event featuring the Generation-3 cars.

"Benny was mad as a hornet," Waltrip remembered. "They didn't have any out of bounds then. He kept running me down, down, down, down, and I was on the flat. I guess I would have gone into the grass if he'd forced me into it, but I was not going to let up."

That 1981 Busch Clash featured only seven drivers, and took all of 15 minutes. Although the race was eventually broken up into a pair of 10-lap segments with an inversion in between, the event essentially remained a 20-lap dash until a change in naming rights brought a new format.

The Budweiser Shootout debuted in 1998, with a 25-lap qualifying race for drivers who had been fastest the previous year in second-round qualifying -- remember that? -- and the victor joining the pole winners in a 25-lap main event.

The qualifying race was eliminated along with second-round qualifying. From there the format was shuffled often, with organizers experimenting with a variety of different segment lengths and eligibility requirements, and in a bit of foreshadowing even bringing the green-white-checkered rule over from the Camping World Truck Series. Last season's 25-car field was the second-largest in the event's history, and produced its closest finish as Kyle Busch nipped Tony Stewart at the line.

For this season, organizers are going back to the event's roots by limiting the starting field to pole winners from the previous season, as well as previous winners of the race. Much has changed since those modest beginnings in 1979, but not the anticipation over seeing cars back on the track. Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited will give fans their first look at the Generation-6 car in competition -- and provide a first glimpse of the vehicle at Daytona since testing, which produced a multi-car crash.

"There's so much apprehension, I think, going into this race because of what we saw in testing," Waltrip said. "? It might get kind of crazy at the end."

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