One wild Shootout
New rules make for interesting ride at Daytona warmup race
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For the better part of a year, NASCAR officials have worked on making the Daytona 500 a more fan-friendly race. A little more exciting, hopefully, a bit more even.
If Sunday's Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway is any indication, they may have hit their mark.
Tony Stewart drove his No. 20 Pontiac to a wild win in a warmup to next Sunday's 500, holding off The Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, in a 70-lap race that featured 19 lead changes and seven different leaders. The race wasn't settled until Stewart ducked by Earnhardt's black No. 3 Chevrolet with two laps to go and then held him off by just more than a tenth of a second.
"It [was] intimidating when I saw him back there," Stewart admitted. "But I can't quit doing my job. He has more tricks than anyone."
Stewart earned more than $200,000 for the win. More importantly, he found out that his Pontiac will be able to compete with the other manufacturers in the Daytona 500 next Sunday under NASCAR's new rules.
NASCAR has mandated an aerodynamics package this season that is designed to slow the cars down but give them more "throttle control," theoretically making passes and lead changes more frequent. Getting past other cars Sunday in the first real test of the package wasn't exactly easy.
But the new rules did seem to make for a lot more jockeying and suggest that this year's 500 will be a tad more interesting than the last. Fans, and many others, considered the 2000 Daytona 500 a flop. There were only nine lead changes in the 200-lap race.
If the 500 this year goes like Sunday's Shootout, there could be more than 50 lead changes.
"It was a great race. The cars handled better than I expected," said Jeff Gordon, who finished 12th in the No. 24 Chevrolet. "I like the rules."
Not everyone did. Dale Jarrett, who finished fourth in the No. 88 Ford, insists the Fords are at a disadvantage with the new car setups. Ford teammate Jeff Burton agreed.
Still, many others -- including Rusty Wallace in the No. 2 Ford, who finished third -- thought the race was plenty even.
Many drivers called the race a rough one, though a lot of that had to do with the track at Daytona International. There were no yellow flags, but there was enough close racing -- side-to-side, nose-to-bumper, swinging in and out -- that it the drivers had to stay on the brakes and the gas.
The average speed climbed over 183 mph in the middle of the race. Stewart averaged 181.036 mph in his win.
"We got three wide [on the track] early, and that was kind of scary," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led for nine laps and finished sixth. "But everyone kind of settled down after that."
Stewart contributed to the tight racing, blocking off moves from Earnhardt, Earnhardt Jr. and several others whenever he had the chance.
"I think this blocking stuff is dangerous," he said. "But when everyone else is doing it, you've got to do it to win the race."
With all the lead changes and all the maneuvering, Sunday's 500 -- with a 43-car field -- may turn out to be as wild and wooly as NASCAR wanted it. Stewart, for one, expects it.
"I watched guys in front of me and it looked like an old dirt race," he said. "It was a lot of fun. It was something I don't think anybody has seen here for a long time."
If Sunday's Shootout was any indication, we ain't seen nothing yet.