2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Season Opens With Shootout At Daytona

It’s here. At last. The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season ramps up this week with a bevy of traditional events leading up to the 54tn annual Daytona 500.

The “Great American Race” is set for 1 p.m. ET Sunday, Feb. 26 (FOX, MRN Radio, and SIRIUS/XM NASCAR Radio to broadcast nationally).

But first things first. Thursday’s 13th annual NASCAR Media Day opens Speedweeks activities at Daytona International Speedway, followed by Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout at Daytona and Sunday’s Coors Light Pole qualifying to set the front row for the 54th running of the Daytona 500.

All lead up to the following week’s Gatorade Duel (Feb. 23, 2 p.m., FOX), two 150-mile qualifying races to complete the Daytona 500 field; the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series NextEra Energy Resources 250 (Feb. 24, 7:30 p.m., SPEED); the NASCAR Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300 (Feb. 25, 1:15 p.m., ESPN); and, of course, The Great American Race.

Based on last year’s unprecedented NASCAR Sprint Cup Series dead-heat championship finish, and Trevor Bayne’s surprising and dramatic Daytona 500 victory in the legendary No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, the 2012 season is filled with anticipation.

First up is NASCAR Media Day, during which more than 50 of NASCAR’s stars will lay out their 2012 plans before an expected turnout of 300 print, broadcast and online reporters. NASCAR.com, ESPN, SPEED and SIRIUS/XM NASCAR Radio will broadcast live from Thursday’s two sessions – 8 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. until 4 p.m.

Visit www.nascarmedia.com for interview schedules and more Media Day information.

Dress rehearsal for the Daytona 500 … The Shootout at Daytona will be held for the 34th time. The format is unchanged from 2011, with a slight wrinkle in eligibility requirements. Criteria are based upon the following qualifications, with eligibility based on a driver having competed in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series during the past season:

•  Drivers finishing among the top 25 in the 2011 championship driver points

• Past Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola champions and winners of Shootout events.

As has been the case since 2003, the Shootout will be run in two segments, the first 25 laps and the second a 50-lap sprint for the win. That’s 187.5 miles on the track’s high-banked, 2.5-mile layout.

Following the first segment, a 10-minute “pit stop” gives crews the opportunity to make normal adjustments to their cars. Other notes: All work must be done on pit road or in the garage; teams may not change springs, shocks or rear ends; all green- and yellow-flag laps in both segments will count. Following the 10-minute “pit stop,” the event’s second segment remains a 50-lap sprint for the win.

Those entered, 25 in all, in Saturday’s race: Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle, Paul Menard, Martin Truex Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton, Juan Pablo Montoya, David Ragan, Joey Logano, Michael Waltrip and Jamie McMurray.

Several drivers will be making their first appearances with new teams including Bowyer with Michael Waltrip Racing, Kahne with Hendrick Motorsports, Kurt Busch with Phoenix Racing, Ragan with Front Row Motorsports and Allmendinger with Penske Racing. Allmendinger already has one 2012 Speedweeks victory in last month’s GRAND-AM Sports Car Series Rolex 24. Kurt Busch is the defending champion of the Shootout.

A unique qualifying format … Sunday’s Daytona 500 Coors Light Pole qualifying session is the year’s only time trials in which just the front row positions are set. The remaining qualifiers are seeded into Thursday’s Gatorade Duel, a pair of 150-mile races from which the final starting grid for the Daytona 500 is set.

The front row starters and remaining top 35 owners’ cars are guaranteed a spot in the Daytona 500. Where they start is based on how they finish in the Duel events, along with the two top finishing, non-top 35 cars in each qualifying race.

How important is Sunday’s qualifying? Critical in that the remaining starters – as many as four cars – will be based upon speeds recorded in time trials, which begin at 1:05 p.m. ET and can be seen live on FOX.

The most recent Daytona 500 pole winner to win the race was Dale Jarrett in 2000, one of two drivers (Bill Elliott is the other) to sweep Shootout, pole and race in the same season.

Fast Facts

What: 34th Annual Budweiser Shootout At Daytona

Where: Daytona International Speedway

Track Layout: 2.5-mile tri-oval

When: Saturday, Feb. 18

Time: 8:10 p.m. (ET)

TV: FOX, 8 p.m. (ET)

Radio: MRN; SIRIUS/XM NASCAR Radio, Channel 90

Distance: 75 laps/187.5 miles (25 laps in first segment; 50 laps in second segment)

2011 Winner: Kurt Busch