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Sprint Unlimited is NASCAR teams’ first true test of 2015

This is a test.

This is only a test.

In a NASCAR offseason that featured a ban on private testing and the absence of a Daytona preseason test in January, Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, a non-points race, offers Sprint Cup Series teams their first chance to race together ahead of the Feb. 22 Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

Testing – particularly on NASCAR’s superspeedways – is not a favorite activity for many drivers, but most still prefer the known to the unknown.

“I used to have the (Xfinity) race and things like that to get acclimated with your spotters and everything. (But) I’ve been driving a tractor,” driver Clint Bowyer said.

“It’s been a long offseason and nobody has tested, nobody has been in a car and nobody has been acclimated to your guys and everything else.

“Just to show up cold turkey and not be ready is real for the Daytona 500, and I believe that.”

That’s coming from a driver whose team remains mostly intact from a year ago. Others begin the 2015 season with new crew chiefs, or with new teams altogether. Any track time in race conditions – Thursday’s Daytona Duel qualifying races are another opportunity – is a bonus before points, and berths in the Chase, begin being awarded.

Carl Edwards, who moved from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing in the offseason, is ready to start anew.

“I believe that change in itself is good because it puts a lot of pressure on you,” he said. “I’m actually nervous, and I think that’s good. ... I’m way outside of my comfort zone. Hopefully it yields good results.”

The format for the Unlimited remains basically the same – two segments of 25 and 50 laps. The eligibility rules were altered in the offseason to make all 16 participants in last season’s Chase eligible.

Former winners of the event and former Daytona 500 pole winners, plus additional drivers based on points, were added to produce a minimum field of 25.

Jeff Gordon, entering his final season as a full-time competitor in the Cup series, has appeared in the most consecutive Unlimited races, starting the event every season since 1994. He’s won twice, in 1994 and ’97.

Only seven times has the winner of the Unlimited gone on to win the series championship in the same season, most recently Tony Stewart in 2002.

Austin Dillon, who won the pole for the Daytona 500 last season as a rookie, is looking forward to cashing in on the honor.

“It will be my first Sprint Unlimited and I can’t wait,” he said. “I’ve watched so many of them growing up. I think it will be especially exciting for all of the fans who get to sit in the new grandstands as part of the ‘Daytona Rising’ project.

“You can see the entire track from up there, the view is incredible.”

Even if it’s only a test.

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