Last month, NASCAR issued its criteria for qualification for the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race to be run Saturday night at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. Among those criteria was a stipulation that drivers competed full-time in the Sprint Cup Series in 2015. Unlike criteria for other NASCAR rewards, the criteria to qualify for the Sprint Unlimited is tied to drivers, not race teams.
Tony Stewart was eligible for this year’s Sprint Unlimited by virtue of being a previous winner of the event. But, unless you’ve been living under some kind of rock somewhere, you’re probably aware that Stewart has been sidelined by a back injury suffered Jan. 31 in an all-terrain vehicle accident.
On Thursday, NASCAR announced that it has given Stewart’s Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 Chevrolet special consideration, as a result of Stewart’s recent injury, allowing the team to enter its car in the Sprint Unlimited with an ineligible driver behind the wheel. NASCAR’s reasoning for its decision — Stewart’s injury came late in the proverbial game, and as a result, his team was already preparing a car for the event. By the way, the ineligible driver who’ll be in the car Saturday night will be none other than Brian Vickers, who hasn’t raced since March of 2015. Vickers only ran two races last season, a far cry from all 36.
Should SHR received this special consideration? It depends on who you ask. If you ask me, I don’t think so. Yeah, I get it that the team had already been prepping a car for the event, since Stewart’s accident was just a couple of weeks ago. But there was a way for the No. 14 team to be eligible for the event without Stewart; an eligible driver could’ve been put in the car. David Gilliland, anyone?
Gilliland is qualified for the Sprint Unlimited by virtue of being the 2007 Daytona 500 pole winner. But he won’t be racing Saturday night, because he doesn’t have a ride for the race. He has a ride for next weekend’s Daytona 500, courtesy of Front Row Motorsports, but not for the Sprint Unlimited.
Sure Gilliland’s Daytona 500 ride is a Ford and SHR is a Chevrolet team, but considering his deal with FRM for the 500 is a one-race deal, I’m guessing Gilliland doesn’t have any manufacturer restrictions. And, sure, Gilliland doesn’t have the career stats of Vickers, but he did finish second at Talladega once while pushing then-teammate David Ragan to a win. Obviously, he knows something about restrictor-plate racing.
If Stewart-Haas Racing wanted Vickers for the Daytona 500, that’s fine. But I think maybe the team should’ve had to decide between Gilliland and not competing in the Sprint Unlimited. Or maybe if not Gilliland, the next driver in line for the 25th Unlimited slot. With Casey Mears and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moving into the field with Jeff Gordon’s retirement and Gilliland’s lack of a ride, the next in line would’ve been Sam Hornish Jr. It just so happens, Hornish wouldn’t have had a ride for the event either. Hmmm.
Follow Auto Racing Daily on Twitter @AutoRacingDaily or like Auto Racing Daily on Facebook (facebook.com/autorcngdaily). Amanda’s also on Twitter @NASCARexaminer and has a fan/like page on Facebook: NASCAR Examiner