There were no points on the line in Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, but that doesn’t detract from what the race did provide.
It offered a glimpse of what kind of racing fans will see in next Sunday’s 57th running of the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.
Given that the 75-lap, two-segment race featured four cautions and two red flags totaling 20 minutes, even more intense racing – and the related consequences – are likely when an “official” victory and a berth in the 2015 Chase is on the line.
“I’ve seen a lot of (restrictor) plate races the last 15 years. More end up like that than don’t, especially the first race of the year, seems like,” said Matt Kenseth, who held off Martin Truex Jr. on a restart with four laps remaining to earn the first Unlimited victory of his career.
The win also served as a salve for Kenseth and his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team, which failed to win a race last season after leading the series in victories in 2013 with seven.
Kenseth’s only victory in Cup series competition in 2014 came in one of the Budweiser Duel qualifying races at Daytona almost one year ago.
Even without a win, Kenseth qualified for the Chase but ended up seventh in the series standings.
“There’s nothing like winning,” Kenseth said. “That’s why we come out and do this every week. Getting a win was the best part for us.
“I also feel like we learned some stuff. Felt like we learned some things about the race car, the track and tires a little bit that will apply to Thursday night (in this year’s Duels).”
JGR owner Joe Gibbs has been in this position before, beginning Speedweeks with non-points victories – driver Denny Hamlin won the Unlimited a year ago – only to come away empty in the 500. That’s why his enthusiasm is tempered.
“We’ve been here 24 years. We’ve won once,” Gibbs said of the 500. “We’ve had real good cars at different times, led laps and everything.
“I can’t tell you how hard that 500 is. It’s been gut-wrenching. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been disappointed walking away from here.”
Any other year, Truex’s second-place finish might have been a disappointment, especially in an exhibition race.
Truex, however, struggled through 2014, his first season with Furniture Row Racing. He watched his girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, battle ovarian cancer.
Truex led a single lap in all of 2014. Saturday night, he led 28 – the most of any driver.
“Honestly, it was the most fun I’ve had in a race car in quite some time, probably about a year and a half,” Truex said after the race. “It just felt really good to be out there, you know, leading laps and mixing it up with the guys up front all night long. It was pretty awesome.”
There aren’t many satisfied second-place finishers in NASCAR racing, but Truex could be counted among them Saturday night.
“If we can come to the race track and know we’re going to have cars like that every week,” he said, “then that’s a dream come true for me.”