What we learned from Shootout
Kyle Busch prevailed at the Budweiser Shootout in the closest finish of the race
He passed Tony Stewart on the outside of the final stretch and won by 0.013
Tandem racing may be a thing of the past, but pack racing has its risks
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There was plenty of trepidation heading into Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout. A new rules package aimed to do away with the two-car tandem left many of the drivers curious as to what style of racing would be produced in the 75-lap contest at Daytona International Speedway. Some expected large packs of racing cars similar to the typical style of racing on restrictor-plate speedways with the race eventually decided by a two-car tandem.
By the end of the Shootout, sparks were flying, a four-time Cup champion was involved in a massive crash and went barrel-rolling, and the winner prevailed in a photo finish as Kyle Busch defeated three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart by 0.013 seconds -- the closest finish in the history of the Shootout.
It was a spectacular way to kick off NASCAR's SpeedWeeks at Daytona, which culminates with next Sunday's Daytona 500. So let's race into the "Three Things We Learned from Saturday at Daytona."
1. The Pack is Back but so is the danger -- After fans vocally disapproved of the tandem-style of racing, NASCAR changed the rules to minimize that form of racing. That meant a return to pack racing, where most of the cars raced in large groups before the race could be settled.
But the return of pack racing also meant more danger, which was evident on Lap 73 when Jeff Gordon's Chevrolet slammed into the wall and lost its roof before flipping wildly down the track before coming to rest upside down. (Gordon was able to climb out while the car was on its roof.)
Ironically, Gordon started the crash when he ran into the back of Kyle Busch's Toyota. Jimmie Johnson, Gordon's teammate, ran into the side of him, sending the Chevrolet upside down into its wild barrel roll 2½-3 times.
"Me and Jimmie were looking good there and once Kyle got in front of me, every time I got to Kyle's bumper, he kept getting sideways," Gordon said. "I went to go wide and somebody got into the side of me and I went for a wild a ride. We're still bump drafting but we just can't do it for long periods of time. With less downforce, the cars move around a lot. It takes patience, but I was having a blast out there."
Eight cars were involved in the crash which mangled some of the race's top contenders.
Stewart was leading at the start of the green-white-checkered flag restart. Marcos Ambrose drafted to the lead with a push from Brad Keselowski. But Kyle Busch pushed Stewart to the lead and the two cars distanced themselves from the pack before Kyle Busch perfectly timed his move to nip Stewart at the finish by mere inches.
"Man, it was exciting where I was at a few times," Busch said. "It was a fun race. The Pack is Back."
The victory in the season's first race helped Busch achieve redemption from the way his season ended last year when he was suspended by NASCAR officials after intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday in November's Camping World Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. His sponsor also chose not to be on Busch's car for the final two races.
"I'm glad to see the pack back like that and making it interesting for us drivers," Busch said. "First race back in the M&M's car and we're back in Victory Lane. I pulled low and got behind Stewart and motored right in there. It was a two-guy race right there and it was either going to be me or him. I've seen that move before and this time it was my turn."
Despite losing the race by mere inches Stewart -- an outspoken opponent of pack racing in the past -- was glad to see its return.
"It is definitely a lot more fun and I was a lot more eager to be engaged in the race this way than in the two-car deal," Stewart said. "I had fun racing at Daytona again. I had more fun as a driver tonight than we did in the past. This is better than having to stare at the back of a spoiler for 500 miles. We had more control as drivers today. Look at the history of this race -- they always crash cars here. Everybody complained about two-car stuff and it's better. It's the Bud Shootout -- everybody pushes the envelope. You don't have to worry about the standings in this race. You have to be aggressive tonight."
Not only was there plenty of aggressive racing, but the racewinner had two spectacular saves when his Toyota was out of control, but he was able to gather it and keep it out of the wall.
"I have no idea how I saved it -- stab and steer -- that's what you do -- and some braking," Busch said. "I tried going down slowly and Jimmie (Johnson) just must have been there a little bit and turned me sideways and got me on the apron. It scared everybody half to death -- including me."
"It's pretty cool to see someone who had two big moments tonight come back and win the race," Stewart said.
2. A learning experience for next Sunday -- NASCAR wanted to put racing back in the hands of the drivers and Stewart believes it's up to the drivers to keep from ramming into the back of a lead car with the left front in an attempt to bump draft. And while Saturday night's race had its moments of thrills, pack racing increases the level of risk. That's why it is important for all the drivers to get a handle on what they can do and what they can't do before heading into the biggest race of the season.
"It's back to a chess match, instead of sitting there and hanging on like we did before," Stewart said. "Historically, you have always seen this race be one where everybody sees what they try to get away with and use it as a practice session. Everybody, no matter the outcome, learned something they can take into Thursday's qualifying races and take into next Sunday."
Stewart explained how he drove the race differently in the first 25-lap segment compared to the final 50 laps.
"In the first 25-lap segment, we tried to take it easy and watch guys and pay attention to what they were doing more than our car, and watch the trial and error process of what they could get away with and what they couldn't," Stewart said.
Kyle Busch found the perfect time to unleash the slingshot pass and register the win.
"There were situations that got really tense and hectic but you just do the best you can at that particular moment," Busch said. "Sometimes we were pushing three deep in the middle and I was spinning on the straightaway. There will be more cars and 50-times more pressure because it is the Daytona 500 and everybody is going for all it is worth."
3. Fast Fords in Daytona practice lay claim as Daytona 500 pole favorites -- [Update: Carl Edwards captured the Daytona 500 pole with a speed of 194.738 mph on Sunday] Looking for a favorite to win Sunday's Daytona 500 pole? Look no further than Greg Biffle of Roush Fenway Racing, who led both of Saturday's two-hour practice sessions. Biffle was fastest in the morning session at 193.395 miles per hour just ahead of fellow Ford driver Marco Ambrose's 193.349 mph. Biffle backed it up in the afternoon practice session with a fast lap at 193.241 mph. That was a tick faster than defending Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne's 193.154 mph.
Does that make Biffle the favorite?
"We're definitely one of them, but some other guys still have some speed left," he said. "The thing that concerns me a little bit is that's about all we've got. We really don't have many more tricks in the bag. So if guys come out and pick up a couple tenths, they're going to put some pressure on us because look at how tight it is. It's so close right now, but we're one of them. We're going to be one of probably eight cars that have a stab at it."
It's important for Bayne to lock himself into the front row on Sunday because the defending Daytona 500 winner has to race his way into the field due to a limited schedule last year and is not locked into the race based on points. If he can take one of the two front row starting positions, Bayne would be assured a spot in the starting lineup for next Sunday's Daytona 500 because the top two cars are locked into that starting position based on Sunday's single-lap qualification runs. The remainder of the lineup will be set in Thursday's Gatorade Duel at Daytona qualifying races, with the rear of the field set by qualification time and provisional starting positions.
"The only two positions that count are the front row, so that's what we're going for," said Bayne, who turns 21 on Sunday. "We're second on the board, and I think we can get that a little bit more to go for a pole. I know these guys (the crew) are excited to defend what we did here last year, and they want to tell everybody to get out of our house. If we can start on the front row, I think that would make a statement."
Former IndyCar Series driver Danica Patrick makes her NASCAR Sprint Cup series debut in the Daytona 500 and, after Stewart Haas Racing was able to acquire last year's Top 35 points from Dave Blaney at Tommy Baldwin Racing, Patrick is guaranteed to be in the starting lineup. Patrick's fastest lap was 191.975 mph (46.881 seconds), .344 seconds slower than Biffle.
"I want to be good at Daytona," Patrick said. "I know there's a lot of tracks on the schedule, but when it comes to choosing this one or another one I've been to, I'm coming to Daytona, because I want to be good here."
After next Sunday's Daytona 500, Patrick won't compete in another Cup race until Darlington in May. She will run the entire NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule as she competes for the championship in that series.