Daytona International Speedway's Speedweeks arrives every year with a roar. Unlike the beginning of any other pro sports, NASCAR does not start a season at a slow, deliberate pace and gradually build up to a climatic, frenzied season-ending crescendo. Instead, it slaps you right in the face to announce its arrival. Last Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout marked, for all intents and purposes, the end of winter for race fans. And for most…it was about time!
Let's recap what has transpired so far, as well as the rest of the week that lies ahead:
The Shootout wiped the winter sleep out of fan’s eyes with a fast and furious racing exhibition presented by the fifteen fastest race qualifiers of 2006, as well as six past winners of the annual event. The race was broken into two segments, the first consisting of 20 laps at the famed 2.5-mile oval. Following a 10-minute break in action that allowed crews to “tweak” their machines, the second race segment of 50 laps was run to determine the winner.
The event is all for fun, bragging rights, and the lion's share ($215,000) of the $1 million total purse that is divided between the contestants for taking the checkered flag first. Tony Stewart had the most fun of all, taking the lead with eight laps to go from Kyle Busch and never looking back. Stewart, who polished the rear bumper of Busch's Chevy, sending him reeling up the track wrestling the wheel to regain control, understands the concept of the race better than most, being aggressive when he needed to in order to get out front when it mattered.
Rookie David Gilliland almost pulled a repeat of the near miracle race fans witnessed in last year’s Busch race at Kentucky, when the then-underdog driver from California bested a field heavily laden with Nextel Cup drivers to take the win. The Robert Yates Racing rookie, with virtually no experience at the super speedway finished second in the Shootout, shadowing Stewart to the finish. Gilliland continues to improve and impress, and owner Robert Yates appears rejuvenated after seeing his team's performance steadily decline the last few years.
The obligatory "Big One" didn't happen until the last lap when NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. got into the back of Elliott Sadler setting off a chain reaction that resulted in not only Sadler's race car, but those of Denny Hamlin's, Kasey Kahne's and Greg Biffle's needing serious straightening. Junior once again "manned up" and took full responsibility for causing the melee. Dale Junior loyalists continue to point out how admirable his willingness to accept blame and not attempt to weasel out of it is. That honesty it is not only admirable…but refreshing.
Junior explained, “I got into the back of Elliott trying to help him. It was my mistake. It got him sideways and bumped him a little bit too early. I’ll take the blame for that one. I was trying to do all we could there, but we didn’t really have what we needed tonight. I was trying to help a friend of mine and I just overdid it.”
However, after several of these incidents in recent months, Junior is putting himself in danger of wearing out his mulligans at some point. Junior, didn't Jeff Gordon, the 4-time NASCAR Champion ask you to not be doing that in the turns a while back? The idea is to fess up, learn from your mistakes and then NOT repeat them.
Tony Stewart, on the other hand, has taken a little different tact apparently when roughing up a fellow for position. After his race-winning "bump and run" of Kyle Busch, Stewart jumped out his car in Victory Circle and praised the younger Busch brother for his driving abilities he demonstrated in not ending up in the wall after Stewart's shove. When the backhanded compliment did not appease the younger Busch, Stewart reverted back to the Stewart of old, and said, "We finally got Kyle (Busch) to where we could give him a big push into (Turn) 1 and that was with a tailwind, so that was where the least amount of downforce was. We went in there and got him loose getting in, and then we caught him and got him loose again. So I don’t know what he’s mad at me about. I did my job and did what I could do to win this race."
Still, the Bud Shootout did its job…it wet fan’s lips for more racing.
Budweiser Pole Day Qualifying:
Sunday's qualifying could have best been described as almost a total exercise in futility. NASCAR tries to create some meaningfulness in the process by awarding the top two fastest qualifiers front row starting positions in the 500; but with the Top 35 cars in owner points from 2006 guaranteed a starting spot in the race, not much more is accomplished. Besides the top two starting spots, only three other drivers outside of the Top 35 did secure a spot for the Daytona 500: Boris Said, Sterling Marlin and Johnny Sauter assured themselves they’ll make the race based on their strong qualifying speeds. For those drivers, qualifying was a good thing…but there were still 56 others for whom it meant nothing.
Again, as in the Bud Shootout, David Gilliland was the "feel good" story, winning the pole position for the race. Robert Yates was as close to animated as he’ll ever be, as the driver of his second car, Ricky Rudd, captured the outside pole, making it a clean sweep for his team. So far, the Daytona festivities have been more beneficial to Yates’ mental well-being than anything a $500 an hour therapist could offer.
These two 150-mile qualifying races should be very interesting. The qualifying race format is what I have been shouting from rooftops for years for NASCAR to move to in setting fields at all their race weekends. However, these races are structured with a different format than I’d like. Let's get to an even bigger problem, though: the races are scheduled for 2:00 PM EST this Thursday. Most people have to work on Thursdays…if they didn't, they wouldn't have money to purchase all those officially licensed NASCAR products. However, SPEED TV will re-air their earlier broadcasts at 10:00 PM EST, meaning if you can avoid the internet, you might be able to watch the races in the comfort of your own home.
With sixty-one cars having attempted to qualify last Sunday and thirty-nine drivers locked in, there will be a maximum of four starting positions available to twenty-two entries. That’s a recipe for some serious racing!
The field for the two races will be lined up by owner's points from 2006, with the exception that the fast qualifier, Gilliland, will start on the pole for the first qualifying race, with odd numbers first, third, fifth, etcâ€¦lining up behind the rookie sensation. Teammate Ricky Rudd will sit on the pole for the second 60-lap race, with drivers piloting even numbered finishers in 2006 owner points starting behind him.
Certainly, the Duel format is somewhat confusing, but at the conclusion of these two races, the field will be set behind Gilliland and Rudd as a result of their finishing positions in the Duels. The four drivers that race their way into the field through the Duels will be the two highest placed finishers in each race not locked in by virtue of finishing in the Top 35 in owner points last season.
This concept could be made a lot simpler and more interesting if the Duel was converted into true qualifying races of say, eighteen in each race qualifying for the 500. The final seven starting positions could then be determined in a "last chance" race between those drivers that failed to make the field in the first two qualifying races. No Top 35 rule, no provisionalsâ€¦ just racing.
After the Duels, the lineup for the 500 will be set, and this coming Sunday, "The Great American Race" will be run! It’s about time for winter to officially be over for race fans…the season has just begun.
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