Hammer down: Sprint Unlimited a chance to push limits

Drivers tangle during the 2013 running of the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to competition for the first time this season with the running of the 75-lap, non-points Sprint Unlimited race Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway (FOX Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)

The action gets started today with two rounds of practice, both on FOX Sports 1, the first from 5-5:45 p.m. ET and the final Happy Hour round from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Because this is an exhibition race, there are several significant differences compared to a traditional Sprint Cup race:

The field is 18 drivers, not 43. Eligible drivers are those who won Sprint Cup poles last year, and past event winners.

The race format will be decided by fan vote at NASCAR.com/sprintunlimited or on the NASCAR Mobile app. Fans can vote on three different facets of the race.

Number of laps in each race segment — Option A: 30 laps/35 laps/10 laps; Option B: 30 laps/30 laps/15 laps; Option C: 30 laps/25 laps/20 laps  

Starting Order — Option A: Most Career Poles (most to least); Option B: 2013 Driver Point Standings; Option C: Final Practice Speeds (fastest to slowest times)

Pass the mic: Photos from NASCAR Media Day at Daytona

Restart Order for Final Segment — Option A: Fastest lap in the race (first and second segments both count); Option B: Most laps led (first and second segments both count); Option C: Mandatory pit stop (drivers lineup how they come off pit road)

Last but not least, in this race, drivers will not use their Daytona 500 cars so as not to incur damage to their best car if a crash occurs. The cars in the Sprint Unlimited are essentially disposable; drivers and teams won’t worry about crash damage in this race, which means drivers are likely to be more aggressive.

Make no mistake, though: Everyone wants to win this race. Plus, it gives them a chance to get back to actual competition for he first time in almost three months.

"It’s an opportunity to win at Daytona," said 2012 series champion Brad Keselowski. "I think any win here is significant. 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 ever have to sit it out again, so it’s definitely more than a test session for me."

"I really look forward to the Unlimited this weekend just to kind of knock the rust off of everybody a little bit, get some pit stops in, get some laps on the track, draft a little bit," said Matt Kenseth, the two-time Daytona 500 winner. "I think that gives you a really good head start on the week."

Some of the key storylines for the event are:

In this afternoon’s practice, Tony Stewart will take his first laps in a race car since suffering a double-compound fracture of his right leg in a sprint car crash last August.

Danica on Richard Petty jab: 'It really doesn't matter'

Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch will both compete in their first race with Stewart-Haas Racing and they will be among the favorites: Harvick won this race last year, as well as in 2009 and ’10; Busch won it in ’11.

How competitive will Danica Patrick be?

One other footnote: In the 32-year history of the event, the Sprint Unlimited winner has gone on to win the series championship more often than winning the Daytona 500.

Drivers who won the Sprint Unlimited and Daytona 500 in the same year:

1982, Bobby Allison

1987, Bill Elliott

1996, Dale Jarrett

1997, Jeff Gordon

2000, Dale Jarrett

Drivers who won the Sprint Unlimited and the Sprint Cup championship in same year:

1980, Dale Earnhardt

1981, Darrell Waltrip

1986, Dale Earnhardt

1991, Dale Earnhardt

1993, Dale Earnhardt

1997, Jeff Gordon

2000, Dale Jarrett

2002, Tony Stewart