It was only a 75-lap exhibition, but following the first repave since 1978 wide eyes and great expectations were placed on NASCAR's crown jewel speedway down in Daytona Beach. The Bud Shootout, featuring a hodgepodge of entrants (from last year's top 12 finishers to former Daytona 500 champs) was the equivalent to a public, experimental test session for NASCAR's Super Bowl on the 2.5-mile oval next Sunday. Twenty-four drivers got an eight-day head start on how to handle new asphalt under race conditions, deal with the draft and find a dancing partner -- or two -- that'll help them take the checkered flag first when the big prize comes next week.
So why did what they discover relate more to Valentine's Day than actual racing? It's one of five things you should know now that the green flag's officially dropped on NASCAR 2011:
Synchronized driving. The two-car tango. Restricted love. Nicknames were flying all over the place from fans after witnessing a type of race unlike anything Daytona has ever seen. In some sort of Valentine's Day Twilight Zone, an event typically defined by big packs devolved into pairs of two-car freight trains pairing up and drafting together for maximum speed. The shape of NASCAR's new cars, introduced in 2007 and armed with a new front end this year, lends itself to coupling up, but this race was the one where seemingly everyone figured out that secret. Shattering NASCAR's mythical "200 mph safety barrier," these duos were churning out laps of 205, even 206 miles an hour while breaking up the behemoth, 24-car pack by a bumpdraft that made both cars look stuck together like glue.
"It's really difficult," Carl Edwards said of the style of competition. "You have to really trust the guy that is pushing you."
Of course, that's not easy when most drivers have little to no experience at it. NASCAR's bumpdrafting rules went away during the "Have at it, boys" push that defined 2010, but I don't think anyone expected cars to turn into perpetual two-car cabooses, driving up RPMs toward the dangerous 10,000 RPM range while causing confusion for fans, crew chiefs, even spotters who found their most important job was making deals with other drivers so their own could have a partner.
"We've never done this before, pushing like this," Greg Biffle said. "So it's just something new."
Uh-oh. If there's anything the last five years have shown, change doesn't come easy in this sport, and there were plenty of drivers concerned with the new setup. For 23 years, restricted engines at Daytona and Talladega had made it impossible for drivers to jump out of line and win races by themselves, but now? Their relationship pairings, based on off-track friendship (see point No. 3 below) as much as on-track chemistry, seem ridiculous for athletic competition.
Love me ...
"It has its own excitement and interest that's all new that all of us are trying to get adjusted to," Jeff Gordon said.
Or love me not ...
"It's going to be what we got," Kyle Busch said. "It's not going to change here in the next week or two unless we go back to the rules where you can't push each other through the corners and NASCAR's going to police it. Eventually there's going to be a mismatch somewhere, somehow and it's not going to work out for the best of somebody."
"I think it would be a better race to see us all grouped up rather than the two-car deals and pushing each other around."
We'll find out in eight days.
To make this night even more bizarre,
But should there even be an "out of bounds" on the last lap? You know it's never good when FOX's Mike Joy says on TV, "Who will go to Victory Lane? That is the question NASCAR officials will decide for us." In the end, they decided Hamlin should be penalized, giving Busch the win and leaving the culprit claiming there was nothing he could have done differently.
"That yellow line is there to protect us," he said, claiming that trying to keep from wrecking isn't cheating. "I just chose to take the safer route. A win in the Shootout is not worth sending the 39 (Newman) through the grandstands. For me, as fast as we're running -- if I get into his left rear, that car will go airborne. It was a tough position."
The impossible position, though, lies with NASCAR when officials make the decision on who won the race. I've always thought the out of bounds rule is ridiculous in a sport based on risk; if you need to have one at Daytona and Talladega, why not on every track on the circuit? It just doesn't make sense to me, never has and never will.
Oh yeah, in the midst of these strange happenings Busch got his first restrictor plate win of any kind. Getting his just desserts three years after pushing Newman to a Daytona 500 victory, the 2004 Cup Series champ benefited from his longtime friendship with McMurray. Last year's 500 winner, McMurray was left without a teammate once Juan Pablo Montoya wrecked early and chose to align his loyalty with the guy who doubles as his off-track neighbor in North Carolina.
"Once Juan got wrecked, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch are the next most loyal guys to me," he said. "It just worked out that I got behind Kurt; I don't think he had a very fast car but we put ourselves in the right position right there at the end to win it so I'm really happy for him."
How big of a difference did that choice make? For Kenseth, he wound up without a drafting partner, running speeds of 185 miles an hour alone while the McMurray-Busch duo ran over 200. It took just 15 laps for him to go one lap down, his friend streaking by while providing the power for their other buddy to win the race.
For Busch, it was the first Shootout victory for Dodge but the third straight for Shell-Pennzoil, his new sponsor that got a wonderful welcome after jumping ship from Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress Racing. Can they pull a repeat in next week's 500? Busch certainly thinks they have a shot -- if things remain the status quo.
"It's going to be interesting to see what NASCAR does and if they shake out the rules," he said, asking the million dollar question everyone's asking after this strangeness shook out. "But I believe in what we've got."
Considering the crapshoot this new package has become, certainly he'll remain one of the favorites over the next eight days -- but so will about half the field.
Friday night, it looked like a promising start for NASCAR's Most Popular Driver as luck went his way: he drew the pole for the Shootout. But after an ill-conceived partnership with Kyle Busch early in the race, Junior ran third in the first segment and was wrecked shortly thereafter following contact with Carl Edwards and Regan Smith. In between came some frustration with the racing, ("This is ridiculous as [poo]" was his most colorful radio transmission) combined with the politically correct public script on how his night turned out.
"The racing might look kind of crazy, but it was pretty fun," he said. "It was just too many race cars going for the same piece of real estate there, but we'll be all right."
Don't be fooled, though. Earnhardt was looking for a strong start at one of his best career tracks, and posting a DNF -- even in an exhibition -- can dent that all-important confidence and make him moody. Look for him to put extra effort into Thursday's Gatorade Duel qualifying race to have something positive to hang his hat on moving into the 500.
Silly Season's silliest story of 2010 began his one-year temp job for Red Bull in ugly fashion, the only car blowing an engine as a result of the two-car tangos. NASCAR had hoped a new rule restricting air hoses -- making overheating easier in the two-car packs -- would change the style of racing but with Kahne the only victim, it wasn't exactly a deterrent to other teams going forward. Not the best start for RBR, either, who's dealing with a new driver and the return of Brian Vickers following his blood clot treatments last year.