DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — NASCAR officials penalized Tony Stewart, his driver Danica Patrick, and Bobby Labonte after all three drivers made “unapproved engine changes’’ when their Hendrick-built power plants blew up during a Daytona 500 prequalifying practice session Saturday at Daytona International Speedway.
NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said engine changes were not allowed until after Thursday night’s Duel, which means all three drivers would be relegated to the rear of the field for the 150-mile qualifying races and for the 56th Daytona 500 on Feb. 23, regardless of their results in Sunday’s pole qualifications.
Patrick, who became the first woman in NASCAR history to win a Sprint Cup pole, last year at Daytona, will remain eligible to run for the pole but will be relegated to the rear of the 43-car field for next Sunday’s season opener.
“Hendrick is great support for us,’’ said Patrick, who turned five laps each in the two practice sessions, posting a fast lap of 193.903 miles per hour on the second lap of her second session. “I sat on the front row last year. I sat on the pole. I’m sure we will get it together and it’s better it happens [now]. I mean, I only had a few hundred yards before the start/finish line and then I would have shut it off.’’
Stewart, who returned behind the wheel Friday for the first time since breaking his right leg in a sprint car crash Aug. 5 and missing the final 15 Sprint Cup races, seemed to take the setback in stride.
“It’s just a motor,’’ he said. “If it was getting ready for the race, you would be a little more concerned. It’s just for qualifying. They pay the big check a week from tomorrow, not tomorrow.’’
Hamlin wins Sprint Unlimited
Denny Hamlin evaded a multicar crash of the Sprint Unlimited that red-flagged the race for 11 minutes 25 seconds and whittled the starting grid in half to nine cars. Hamlin, winner of last season’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, won the season-opening exhibition by going from fifth to first on a final restart with five laps to go and holding off Brad Keselowski and third-place Kyle Busch.
“You love starting Speedweeks like this,’’ said Hamlin, who launched his Cup career by winning this event in 2006. “I think we’re building on something big here.’’
The three-segment, 75-lap event, which included Coors Light Pole Award winners from 2013 and previous Unlimited winners, was marred by a nine-car pileup six laps into the second segment. The crash was triggered when Matt Kenseth’s car pulled down in front of Joey Logano’s car as the lead pack went through the front stretch of the 2.5-mile trioval.
“I had no idea that Joey was that close to me and that we got together,’’ Kenseth said. “I just feel bad all those cars got wrecked.’’ Stewart and two other of his Stewart-Haas Racing drivers — Patrick and Kurt Busch — were taken out in the wreck. Stewart was not injured. “Hate to have that happen,’’ Stewart said. “It’s just part of being back at Daytona.’’
Strong showing for RCR
Richard Childress Racing looked to be a strong contender to sweep the front row for the Daytona 500, if Saturday’s practice results were any indication. Paul Menard, driver of the No. 27 RCR Chevrolet and his new teammate, Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 31 RCR Chevy, posted the fastest times in the first practice session, with Menard recording a fast lap of 195.042 and Newman going second fastest (194.839). In the second session, Newman topped the speed chart with his fast lap of 195.346 while his RCR rookie teammate, Austin Dillon, driver of the No. 3 Chevy, was second fastest (195.211) . . . Grant Enfinger won the Lucas Oil 200 ARCA Racing Series opener at Daytona, piloting his No. 90 Ford to a narrow margin of victory (0.158 seconds) over Frank Kimmel . Enfinger, a two-time winner last season in ARCA races , qualified second behind pole sitter Dylan Kwasniewski, who finished 14th . . . Clay Campbell, the president of Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, recorded his best finish in the ARCA Series opener at Daytona with a third-place effort in the No. 52 Chevrolet.Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.