Tonight’s 75-lap Sprint Unlimited race at Daytona International Speedway (8 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1) isn’t just a way to knock the rust off for drivers and teams coming back from the offseason. It’s also a chance to see how new combinations work in advance of the Daytona 500 eight days later.
Fifteen of the 18 drivers entered in tonight’s race are back with the same teams they drove with last year, but four of those 15 have new crew chiefs: Jamie McMurray is paired with Keith Rodden, Tony Stewart has Chad Johnston, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is reunited with his former NASCAR Nationwide Series crew chief Mike Kelley and Terry Labonte will work with Dan Stillman.
Of the new driver-team pairings, Ryan Newman moves to Richard Childress Racing. But the two drivers everyone is keeping an eye on are new Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, who collectively have won 47 NASCAR Sprint Cup races.
Article continues below ...
And, oh by the way, they’ve also combined to win the Sprint Unlimited four times in the last five years, which makes them among the favorites tonight.
They certainly are two drivers who could well be in the championship mix at the end of the season, too.
The move to SHR means that Harvick and Busch will be using engines and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports, the team that has supplied the equipment for seven of the eight most recent Sprint Cup championships — six for Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson and a seventh for Tony Stewart in 2011.
It’s little wonder, therefore, that the new guys at SHR are so fired up.
Harvick, who is one of Stewart’s closest friends, said moving to SHR has been an eye-opening experience.
"I think as we’ve gone through the whole process, the biggest thing I’ve learned is about the company in general," said Harvick. "Whatever you need, whoever you need … go get it and let’s figure out how to make this all happen. That part to me has been fun. Everything on our car is brand new – from the hauler to every race car, every nut and bolt in the drawer. They’ve put an unbelievable effort into it."
Harvick came onboard in large part because of his relationship with Stewart, while Busch was handpicked by Stewart’s partner, SHR founder Gene Haas. And Haas, who is using his own company to sponsor Busch, hasn’t exactly been shy about setting expectations high.
"It’s an exciting time to have a shot at winning the Daytona 500 because Gene Haas expects Haas Automation and his brand to be competitive right away," said Busch. "His big thing is he just wants to win. He wants that hardware from Victory Lane and at the same time we have a regular season to develop as a team to be ready for the Chase when it starts."
Harvick said the entire SHR organization is ready to go.
"I love change," he said. "As I’ve learned over the off-season, change is very enthusiastic for not only myself but for all the people around me. I think everybody at SHR would tell you that the enthusiasm is contagious at the shop just because it just bleeds over from one person to the next. It’s been a lot of fun. Hopefully, the results will show everything that we think we should be able to achieve."
Of course, before the season starts, every driver, owner and team is optimistic.
Tonight’s Sprint Unlimited will be the first chance to see how well founded that optimism is at SHR.