DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR Sprint Cup teams will fire their engines today for the first time on a race weekend in 2016 as practice begins for the preseason Sprint Unlimited.
There will be plenty of stories in the coming days of "what did we learn" -- some might even appear in this space.
But here's what fans will learn over the next nine days: very little. Possibly zip. Maybe something, if they look hard enough, that could predict what will happen through 2016.
Most fans know what happens at Daytona International Speedway has little bearing on what will happen at Atlanta or Las Vegas in the coming weeks or even Charlotte and Indianapolis in the coming months. But it's always good to remind oneself that this is Daytona. The big event, the one with all the hoopla. It also remains a restrictor-plate race, and the only other track like Daytona is Talladega.
Matt Kenseth did win the Sprint Unlimited last year, proving that he could still find Victory Lane after a winless 2014. Dale Earnhardt Jr. did win one of the Daytona 500 qualifying races, a preview of what was to come in two of the four restrictor-plate races last year. So there is that.
But leaving Daytona last year, did anyone think Kyle Busch would win the championship? No one was really sure when he would even return to racing after breaking his left foot and right leg in the Xfinity Series race the day before the 500, and considering the woes of Joe Gibbs Racing at the time, the turnaround remained unpredictable.
When the checkered flag dropped for the 2015 Daytona 500, most celebrated Joey Logano as the toast and the sliced bread of the town. Who knew he would turn into the evil villain, take-no-prisoners, unethical racing punk he apparently turned out to be? Or at least how he turned out to be in the eyes of some.
While taking Daytona for what it is, it still means a great deal. To some, it means everything. A win at Daytona ranks as a great memory for any racer.
So this weekend brings excitement in addition to the roar of Sprint Cup engines that have been silent for nearly three months.
Practice for the Sprint Unlimited is today. The 75-lap exhibition race will be split into two segments, a 25-lap segment and then a 50-lap dash to the finish.
NASCAR wants a field of 25 drivers, so the confusing and complicated eligibility process lets in 2015 pole winners first and then (if not at 25 entries), past Unlimited winners, former Daytona 500 pole winners and 2015 Chase drivers. But even then there weren't 25 drivers, so two got in based on driver points. With one eligible driver retired (Jeff Gordon) and at least one other without a ride (David Gilliland), even more drivers got in on points. Plus, NASCAR is letting the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 car compete with a substitute driver. Oh, the insanity.
Considering most teams get those 75 laps of "practice" racing in Saturday night, don't expect too much in the two practice sessions Friday. A few laps to make sure the cars come up to speed and maybe a couple of laps in a draft is all most will need to feel ready for the exhibition race.
They'll then use that race to get ready for the Daytona 500 qualifying races on Thursday.
Practice Saturday for Daytona 500 qualifying won't feature much drafting at all now that the drivers won't draft when setting qualifying speeds. Drivers will do single-car runs Sunday as part of the restrictor-plate qualifying format.
Those with the top 12 speeds will go out again one at a time to determine who will sit on the front row of the Daytona 500. That might sound a little boring, but considering the circus of the group-qualifying sessions for the Daytona 500 last year, most will gladly accept the more traditional single-car runs.
Qualifying Sunday for the Daytona 500 carries less weight than in past years. A year ago, with only seven truly guaranteed starters based on owner points (and one past champion), speed in qualifying was important as a fallback in case of a poor performance or crash in the qualifying races.
With the new NASCAR charter system in place, 36 teams know they have starting spots. Having a 40-car field this season, down from 43, limits available spots for the big race to just four.
NASCAR announced Thursday that qualifying Sunday will matter to the eight cars that are expected to show up without charters. Two of the final four spots in the Daytona 500 will be awarded to the top non-charter finisher in each race Thursday, with the final two spots based on the speed from qualifying Sunday.
Here's an apology. There is something that fans will learn this weekend. They'll learn if they can enjoy qualifying even if there's little drama. They will learn who will sit on the front row of the Daytona 500.
True, it doesn't matter where drivers start. It matters most where they finish. The most recent driver to win the Daytona 500 from the front row? Dale Jarrett won from the pole 16 years ago.
See, you probably learned something right there. Now let's go racing.