Stewart returns to track; Hamlin leads Sprint practice

Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway will kick off a season of immense change in a decidedly traditional manner.

As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series incorporates new qualifying rules and a new way to determine its champion, the Sprint Unlimited remains a high-intensity exhibition race with an elite field of 2013 pole winners and previous winners of the event who participated in the series last year.

The latter classification applies to Tony Stewart, who returns to action for the first time since Aug. 5, when he was sidelined with a broken right leg in a sprint car accident in Iowa. Cleared to race by doctors, Stewart took to the track in Friday’s opening Sprint Unlimited practice session at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.

“It was kind of odd that it felt that good right off the bat,” Stewart said after running 10th fastest in the opening session. “It didn’t feel like I had been out of the car for seven months.

“I’m glad it wasn’t any bigger deal than that. That is the good part of it. I didn’t think it would just blend in like it did. It just kind of felt like any other day at the office. Once we got off pit road and got going and actually got in the pack, there you forgot about all the other stuff and you went back to work. Just got back in the swing of things.”

Stewart, a three-time winner of the event, and the other 17 drivers in the field know they will run a race scheduled for 75 total laps. What they do not know is how the three segments of the event will be structured, because fan voting for the format does not close until 6 p.m. ET Saturday.

Fans have three choices: two segments of 30 and 35 laps, followed by a 10-lap dash; two 30-lap runs followed by a 15-lap final segment; or segments of 30, 25 and 20 laps, in that order.

The starting order of the race and the restart order for the final segment also are in the hands of race fans, who can choose from three criteria to determine the order: most career poles (which would put Jeff Gordon up front), 2013 driver points standings (which would give Jimmie Johnson the pole) or fastest speeds in Friday’s final practice (which would give 2006 race winner Denny Hamlin the top spot).

Hamlin (199.867 mph) edged Jamie McMurray (199.645) for the fastest practice speed, with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (199.579) and Kyle Busch (198.842) third and fourth quickest, respectively.

Voting for the starting order will close at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday, 45 minutes before race time. Voting for the restart order for the final segment (based on either fastest lap in the race; most laps led; or a mandatory pit stop, with drivers lining up as they come off pit road) closes at the end of the second segment.

Danica Patrick, the first woman to compete in the Sprint Unlimited, was 12th on the speed chart in the final session. With a performance that bodes well for the race, however, Patrick was fastest among 10 drivers who posted consecutive 10-lap averages, running 194.328 mph from her first through 10th laps.

Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman sat out the final practice session and will start in the rear if fans vote to order the field based on practice speeds. Kevin Harvick, who has won three of the last five editions of the race, posted the sixth-fastest lap in final practice. Dale Earnhardt Jr. paced the first practice session but slipped to 14th in the last practice.

Earnhardt’s best chance for a good starting spot is for fans to order the field according to 2013 driver points. NASCAR’s perennial most popular driver was fifth in the final standings last year.