Listening to NASCAR’s preseason announcements and Saturday night’s broadcast of the Budweiser Shootout has been much the equivalent of listening to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Change. Change everywhere, as far as the eye can see.
And to be fair, when the Sprint Cup Series (or much of it, anyway) took the green at Daytona under the lights this weekend, there was plenty to talk about that was different. It was, after all, the first race of the 2011 season and the Budweiser Shootout had yet another format to set the field, its third in the last three years. NASCAR’s CoT had grown up and lost its braces, new front ends providing hope “stock cars” could one day return to the track. Plus, to top it all off, the hallowed high banks had new asphalt for the first time since the late 1970s.
So change, change, change was the running theme; and after 75 laps of racing Saturday night, at first glance you’d think there’s nothing to discredit that philosophy. Cars joined up in frenetic, two-car freight trains upping speeds and providing perhaps the most bizarre racing circumstances in the 23 years since we’ve had restrictor plates. Kurt Busch, who has scored 15 top-5 finishes in plate races without winning, finally closed the deal on one of the circuit’s fastest superspeedways.
Then again, while Victory Lane at Daytona may have been a first for Busch, it was the third consecutive year that the Shell/Pennzoil machine made the trip. So with an all-too-familiar paint scheme snagging the trophy after the first 187.5 miles of the season were in the books, the question that’s perhaps getting lost in all the hubbub of “the Daytona Do Si Do” is… just how unique was the race that transpired on Saturday night from those fans have seen in recent years? Because if one attempts to dig deeper, going beyond the “pairs racing” phenomenon the truth of the matter is there’s not a whole lot that was different this time around.
Sure, there were a record number of lead changes. But in the grand scheme of things, how many of them meant anything in terms of how the race progressed? There was no money on the line for leading at halfway, or the end of the first segment, or leading the most laps. Until the white flag, the record 28 lead changes were simply nothing more than a product of drivers experimenting, testing what they could do with drafting runs and timing just how long it would take them to get up front when the pay window opened. It’s a type of basic strategy we’ve seen before … as in, dozens of times before the latest repave.
Even the finish itself, while it more closely resembled those seen in recent years at Talladega (Ryan Newman must be having fits about leading late in plate races – remember how he lost the Talladega Nationwide Series race in similar fashion back in ’09?) wasn’t all that unusual in its outcome. This time around, we saw it end with a few laps of the top-5 guys riding it out in line before making their one and only charge on the final circuit. That sounds an awful lot like last year’s Daytona 500 (minus the wrecks), or the summer Nationwide Series race that Dale Jr. pulled off in that Wrangler No. 3 his dad made famous.
Then, there were the wrecks, and plenty of them. This one isn’t rocket science…crashes are more likely to happen in tight packs when people are bumper-to-bumper, literally, with the guy in front or behind them. So when Regan Smith pinched Carl Edwards while fighting for real estate on the backstretch, squeezing Edwards into Dale Jr. and triggering the largest melee of the evening, fans got “the Big One” while innocent bystanders including Kevin Conway and Joey Logano among others had their cars destroyed simply because there was nowhere to go. As for the “Small Ones,” they have an easy explanation, too; wrecks are likely when cars run inches off each others’ bumpers at, Saturday night at least, well over 200 mph. In the Shootout, this practice turned imperfect for even some of NASCAR’s best, with even Kyle Busch ending up dumped by Mr. Clean himself, Mark Martin. There was no intent to wreck in that case, with both drivers left utterly dumbfounded after contact between the two in turn one sent both cars to the garage.
Bumpdrafting went wrong, in a nutshell… just as it did before the repave.
But of course, no analysis of Saturday night would be complete without tackling the two-car drafts that substituted for the larger packs that the old Daytona was prone to producing. It sure looked different on TV, granted. But, yet again, was it really that significant an alteration? Was it really something that had never been seen before?
Backmarkers got booted from the draft in a hurry; Kevin Conway made one of the evening’s better saves coming through the tri-oval early in the running after Juan Montoya all but punted him out of the way. Teammates stuck together as much as possible; Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick were glued together throughout the entire second segment. And most of all, friendships and relationships shaped off the track dictated the course of events in this plate race.
Going back to Kyle Busch and Mark Martin, was it really surprising to see those two working together? There’s been a level of respect between that duo since Busch’s rookie year on the Cup circuit in 2005. And was it really surprising to listen to Jamie McMurray remark post-race, only minutes after pushing Kurt Busch past Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin to victory, that after his teammate had been wrecked out of the event he made the decision to stick with Busch because of a self-measured level of personal respect?
Be it two-car pairs or 22-car packs, this draft, like every other draft before it, had its race dictated not solely by the moves of an aggressive race car driver but on who had the best dancing partner. The draft was the same as it ever was… only the anonymity was gone, two-car tandems revealing the alliances of friend and foe long before the final laps were complete.
Sure, this Shootout had some subtle differences. If someone hadn’t thought to create the “Rookie of the Year” entry rule, maybe Regan Smith wouldn’t have hit Carl Edwards, who wouldn’t have hit Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who wouldn’t have triggered a melee on the backstretch in the latter portions of the event. It would have saved NEMCO Motorsports and Conway a car at the very least.
But beyond that, despite its strangely altered appearance Saturday night at Daytona was, at its core, still a restrictor plate race. The lead was fluid. The wrecks were larger than their sources. And it was drafting tandems, not a single fast race car, that won the night.
Just as it was before the repave.