Friday February 17th, 2012

On Saturday night in Daytona, the shortest offseason in sports will officially end with the running of the Budweiser Shootout, a 75-lap exhibition event that essentially is not much more than a glorified practice season for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26. But this year's Shootout will be more revealing than usual, because we'll get our first look at how well the two-car draft -- so called "tandem racing" -- will work this season.

Last year, drivers were able to run nose-to-bumper with another car at both Daytona and Talladega, the two-restrictor plate tracks on the Cup circuit. Two cars drafting together were about five miles per hour faster per lap than a car by itself, thus creating tandem racing.

But the vast majority of race fans positively detested this style of racing. To its credit, NASCAR heard the displeasure from the masses and instituted several changes this offseason. Officials tinkered with the radiator, for instance, so that cars will overheat much quicker. But no one really knows how the new package will influence the racing and, depending how things transpire on Saturday night, NASCAR may very well continue to make changes into next week with an eye toward quelling the two-car draft.

No matter what NASCAR does though, I'm guessing that drivers will hook up and draft over the final five laps, willing to risk blowing an engine for the additional speed. Winning the Shootout doesn't portend success in the 500 -- the last driver to sweep both events was Dale Jarrett in 2000 -- but the exhibition race can be a tone-setter for the season. My pick to take the checkers is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who I think is going to win multiple races in 2012 and be a legitimate title contender for the first time since 2004.

Now, onto the 'Bag...

Are drivers actually vying for Victory Lane at the Shootout or do they just view it as warmup for the season?

-- Paul Broder, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Generally speaking, the drivers view the Shootout as a time to gather information and to test different setup ideas. As the laps wind down, the drivers will pay particular attention to who will make a good drafting partner and whether or not their car performs better as a pusher or pushee. Of course everyone wants to win, but the intensity level for the Shootout is nowhere near what it is for the 500 or any other points-paying race.

NASCAR needs to find a way to stop "start and park!" One way: make cars finish 25 percent of the race to get paid. Engine failures will be confirmed by NASCAR, crashes are exempt. Your input on this subject would be interesting.

-- Phillip Monticue, Delaware, Ohio

I like this idea, Phillip.

Start and parkers refer to the teams that only compete for a few laps, go to the garage, call it day, collect their purse money, then move on to the next track on the schedule. Like most people who enjoy watching competition, I'm not a big fan of this practice.

Yes, I understand that "start and park" is a result of being an underfunded team that is afraid to tear up its equipment and use costly tires, but it also compromises the integrity of the sport. So I'm with Phillip on this: Let's force teams to finish 25 percent of the race before they can pull into the garage and grab that paycheck.

Why is no one picking Tony Stewart to repeat as Cup champ? Sure, it'll be hard for him to replicate his Chase run, but Smoke nearly won four races early in the season, too. If he can avoid a slow start, I think the title is his.

-- Chris Bennett, Kentucky

One reason: his age. Stewart is 40. In the last 15 years, only one driver has won the championship that was older (Dale Jarrett in 1999 when he was 42). I explore this issue in next week's Sports Illustrated. Check it out.

While I agree with your point about rewards for leading at the midpoint of races, I found it interesting that you brought up some traditional team sports for comparative purposes. One of my long held disappointments with NASCAR is the Cup drivers racing in Nationwide competition. Does Blake Griffin play at Oklahoma or in the Developmental League while starring for the Clippers? Does Cam Newton play for Carolina and Auburn? For that matter do Rory McElroy, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods play the Nationwide or Hooters Tours? I wish NASCAR would reserve the Nationwide Series as exclusively a developmental series and not just another revenue source for Cup stars.

-- George, Columbia, S.C.

I've been writing for years that the Nationwide Series needs to be a developmental circuit, pure and simple. Why is there a dearth of young talent in NASCAR today? Because young drivers aren't being cultivated in what should be the Triple-A of NASCAR.

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