Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway marked the unofficial start to the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and already we have some controversy. After a record-breaking 28 lead changes (the previous record was 24 in 2009), this race’s final lap came down to a four-car shootout between Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, and Denny Hamlin. Busch, Hamlin, and Newman crossed the start/finish line three-wide, with Hamlin crossing first but Busch being awarded the victory after NASCAR determined Hamlin made an illegal pass below the yellow line.
Daytona 500 qualifying was also held over the weekend, and while starting positions don’t typically mean much to the race, cars were back on track and after the offseason that’s all fans want, right?!
So welcome back, Frontstretch readers, to another column that’s returned for NASCAR season: Who’s Hot / Who’s Not! There’s already plenty to write about on both sides of the fence, so let’s get started:
*Kurt Busch* – As mentioned above, Busch won the Budweiser Shootout last weekend, his first win at Daytona International Speedway. The race was also Busch’s first in the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge for Penske Racing, transitioning from the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge over the offseason. A real morale booster – Busch had never won a restrictor plate event before – could give the team some momentum for the remainder of Speedweeks. However, Busch’s statistics in the Daytona 500 have been hit-or-miss, with his last five finishes consisting of a 23rd (2010), tenth (2009), second (’08), 41st (’07), and 38th (’06). Not exactly the kind of finishes that scream “winner,” are they? If Daytona is anything, though, it’s a crapshoot, the new rules possibly working to an underdog driver’s advantage. If Busch can find the right partner to draft with in the race, he could become the first person to sweep the 500 and the Shootout since Dale Jarrett accomplished that feat back in 2000.
*Dale Earnhardt, Jr.*- “Junebug” has had an impressive Speedweeks so far, beginning with his lucky qualifying draw of first for the Budweiser Shootout. Earnhardt, Jr. even led a few laps in the race before getting caught in a wreck; nevertheless, he had a fast racecar and seemed a real threat to be a consistent challenger up front for the 500.
He’ll certainly have the perfect place to start. Earnhardt made up for the 19th-place Shootout finish during Daytona 500 qualifying on Sunday, where he laid down the quickest time at 48.364 seconds (186.089 mph). Earnhardt was the only driver in qualifying to reach 186 mph, with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon’s average speed a tick behind at 185.966. Earnhardt has also been fast in practice, leading one of the Shootout sessions and coming in fourth on the speed charts during a full-field Daytona 500 one. While it’s too early to say that Earnhardt’s new crew chief Steve Letarte is making a difference — or if Earnhardt’s team, now operating out of the same shop as five-time and defending champion Jimmie Johnson, is more effective – but the driver himself definitely seems confident about the coming weeks. Racing’s favorite son, though, will still be racing with a heavy heart this weekend, as this Friday marks the ten-year anniversary of his father Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500. A moment of silence will be held on the third lap of Sunday’s race in tribute.
*Honorable Mention:* Jamie McMurray (second in the Shootout, 2010 Daytona 500 champ … can he repeat?)
*Clint Bowyer*- Bowyer has flown under the radar (as usual) during Speedweeks, but the No. 33 Chevy he pilots has been consistently fast. Though not usually at the top of the charts, his name hasn’t been very far down in every practice. Bowyer finished ninth in the Shootout and was fifth-quickest in qualifying on Sunday, setting himself up well for the Gatorade Duels. Managing to miss all the Shootout carnage, he still spent a few laps up front and led twice for four circuits before falling back. In the end, his No. 33 machine was left without help just long enough to keep the driver away from being up front with race winner Kurt Busch, a position from which he certainly could have contended for the win.
I expect Bowyer to be a contender this Sunday. Know who the last restrictor plate race winner is? That’s right, it’s a man you may not have thought of right off the bat. To refresh your memory, Bowyer was declared the winner by mere inches over teammate Kevin Harvick after a yellow flag was thrown on the last lap for a huge wreck exiting the tri-oval involving, amongst others, A.J. Allmendinger. One of the most underrated restrictor plate drivers in NASCAR, keep an eye on that No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet in the Daytona 500.
*Ryan Newman*- Newman was leading on the backstretch on the final lap of the Budweiser Shootout, with Denny Hamlin right on his back bumper. Between the backstretch and the checkered flag, though, Newman went from the catbird’s seat to a sitting duck. Behind Newman and Hamlin, Jamie McMurray and Kurt Busch were preparing to make their move as they made their way to the stripe. Busch and McMurray went high, while Hamlin ducked beneath Newman leaving all three side-by-side as they came to the checkered flag. The 2008 Daytona 500 champion went from first to fourth, then was bumped up to third after Hamlin was moved to the tail end of the lead lap for passing below the yellow line.
But Newman’s Victory Lane near-miss didn’t affect him the next day. Putting forth a seventh-place qualifying effort, that will put him third in the race lineup for the first Gatorade Duel race this Thursday and the driver is expected to stay at or near the front all race long. While Newman’s practice speeds haven’t exactly been promising (seventh, 12th, and 13th) he’s been consistent and stayed out of trouble — two key components to being successful throughout Daytona Speedweeks.
*Honorable Mention:* Kevin Harvick (Two-year Bud Shootout win streak ended, but top-10 performance in first race for new sponsor… Budweiser)
*Joey Logano*- Aside from leading the first Budweiser Shootout practice session, Logano has been rather quiet. Sliced Bread was involved in the first non-competition caution of the night, though he was a victim of someone else’s mistake and things never recovered from there. He wound up finishing 18th, unable to continue after the crash that managed to collect five other cars. Logano’s time for Daytona 500 qualifying was also slow, with his time 34th fastest of 48 machines. The 20-year-old driver, starting his third year now and entering a bit of a make-or-break year still has yet to live up to the hype that surrounded him in his debut. Logano has been spending a lot of time in the draft during Speedweeks, though, and if he can use that to his advantage he might just turn into a contender for the 500 win.
*Kyle Busch*- Logano’s teammate Busch has also been quiet. While Busch showed some strength in the Shootout — leading twice for two laps total — his night would be cut short when Mark Martin drafted him into the corner. Busch lost control of the car and was unable to continue because of the damage sustained in the incident. In qualifying, Busch was 30th-fastest of 48 cars and his Toyota’s practice speeds have been mixed as well. While Busch was fast in practice for the Budweiser Shootout (fifth and second, respectively) he hasn’t had the same good numbers in Daytona 500 practice (19th and 22nd).
*Honorable Mention:* Matt Kenseth (hung out to dry by friend McMurray, lapped by the end of the Shootout and throwing his hands up in exasperation at not having anyone to draft with)
*Kasey Kahne*- Kahne was looking fast in the Budweiser Shootout before a busted motor knocked him out of the race only seven laps in. Definitely not the start the driver wanted in the first race of his first full (and only) season with the Red Bull Racing Team, right? Kahne is moving over to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, and while showing quite a bit of speed in the Shootout Daytona 500 qualifying was another disappointment, as Kahne was only 29th-fastest of the 48 cars that made laps. The Washington native was slow in practice, too, with his best session coming in the first Budweiser Shootout practice when he was 19th quick.
*Carl Edwards*- Edwards finished 21st of 24 cars in the Budweiser Shootout. That is reason enough for him to be in the “cold” section, but let me continue to elaborate. The driver who won the last two races of the season was 18th in Daytona 500 qualifying. While Edwards’s low finish can be attributed to a crash on lap 29, the initial contact that started the wreck began with Edwards. Some of the blame can be pinned on Regan Smith, but there’s no doubt the crash was definitely avoidable. Moving forward, Edwards has typically been top-15 in practice, so maybe he’ll improve his position on Thursday and surprise me on Sunday. We’ll see.
*Honorable Mention:* Regan Smith (blamed in part for the wreck that took out Earnhardt, Jr., Edwards, Logano, Juan Pablo Montoya and several others)
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