To many race fans, the 2012 season kicks off this weekend, albeit unofficially, with the Budweiser Shootout. It’s unofficial on a couple of levels, because it’s an exclusive exhibition race, but also because the end to winter it signals is only on the Florida beachland where Daytona International Speedway dominates the scenery. While parts of the country brace for another shot of winter in the form of a snowstorm, in Florida spring abounds and the sound of motors sings above still-sleepy Daytona Beach.
While the Shootout is a chance for race fans and teams to get back in the game, it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It was once a very exclusive club indeed, for pole winners from the previous season, plus an open invitation to anyone who had won the race before to come try their luck in an all-out, balls-to-the-wall 20-lap dash with nothing on the line but the money. In other words, at some point, in order to get in, you had to be the fastest man on the racetrack.
Now, you just have to be mediocre.
That’s part of the problem with the Shootout. The current format, necessitated when Budweiser abandoned the pole award after the 2008 season, allows the top 25 in drivers’ points from the previous season, plus any former winner of the Shoootout or a points-paying race at Daytona who also competed in at least one race in the previous season, making 33 drivers eligible. That’s almost a full race field. Nine of the eligible drivers had neither a race win nor a pole in 2011. Of the drivers whose eligibility comes on points standing, seven failed to crack the top 5 in a race more than three times. On the flip side of the coin, only five drivers who ran a full season in 2011 without starting and parking at least a few times failed to make the Shootout field.
How is that exclusive?
Well, other than to the teams who don’t get the advantage of the extra track time that the qualifiers get, anyway. (Why not run a last chance qualifying race for any Daytona 500 team who wants to enter a car? Winner gets into the main event, and all of them get the extra practice and race time that way.)
Teams don’t, as a rule, enter their Daytona 500 cars in this race, so there are two sides even to that argument. It’s too dangerous; some have run backups in the past, had incidents in the race and then in 500 practice with their primary car and had to send off to their home shop for a new car. Plus, teams have been working on the Daytona 500 cars for months and aren’t about to risk them in an exhibition race. Many use the race as an extra practice session, bit others are a bit more experimental with setups.
So, other than a return to racing after a long, cold winter, is there anything to be gained from the Shootout anymore?
The short version is yes; the Shootout is still going to give fans a pretty decent idea of what to expect a week from Sunday. The teams who are excluded are unlikely to contend. Perhaps the best example of that is Jamie McMurray’s 2010 Daytona 500 win-McMurray ran an outstanding race in the Shootout and it should not have come as a surprise when he won the Great American Race. Kurt Busch scored a top 5 last year after winning the Shootout. It’s a good chance for fantasy racers to get a good line on their 500 picks.
But it’s certainly not infallible, because Daytona is still ultimately a plate track, and wel, things happen at plate tracks. Heck, last year’s Daytona 500 winner wasn’t even eligible for the exhibition special. No driver has won both the Shootout and the Daytona 500 in the same year since 2000; it’s only been done 5 times.
And even the entertainment value of the Shootout is debatable. It was a lot of fun when it was 25 laps. 50 laps made for a lot of drivers biding their time. 75 laps makes for way too much of that. I’ve said in the past that in order to stay relevant, the Shootout needs a drastic update in format and eligibility. The best solution? Allow all Daytona 500 entrants, plus any active former Shootout winners, to enter, and then run it like a good old Saturday night special: run four or five 10-lap heat races of ten to twelve cars, and the top three form each heat transfer to the feature. All who do not transfer run a 15-lap Last Chance race, from which the top 2 make the Shootout field for a 20-lap feature race. This format would require excellence to transfer, not simply money or star power.
This would do two things. For the teams, it would allow equal track time in preparation for the season opener instead of giving an advantage to the teams who need it least. For the fans, it would ensure that every segment has maximum excitement and that every fan could see their driver compete in at least a heat race. Believe it or not, the excluded drivers do have fans, too.
The big question is, in its current format, is the Budweiser Shootout as relevant as it was back in 1979 when it was exclusively for pole winners, who, in NASCAR, get no reward for qualifying? (A wild card spot was given as well in the early years by random draw, but there was no provisional for past race winners)
The answer is no, and that’s a shame. The unofficial start of the NASCAR season was once an exciting, all-out sprint to the paycheck and the glory. It featured the fastest men the sport could find, and the winners list reads like a who’s who of the sport for over three decades. Among those winners are no fewer than eleven Cup champions. What a shame that it’s become a watered-down race with no need for real excellence to make the show. The 75-lap format with very little level of difficulty to make the cut makes for a few good laps of racing, but no real excitement, no sense that it took excellence just to be in the field.
Once upon a time, the NASCAR season ended with a sudden, shining example of the excitement the sport embodied. Now, it’s about as exciting an end to winter as watching the dirty snow on the roadside slowly melt into oblivion.
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