NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 Budweiser Shootout at Daytona

Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind this weekend’s Sprint Cup event? Amy Henderson has you covered with each week with the answers to six race day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H in her Big Six.

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

Talk about being there at the end. We barely heard a whimper from Denny Hamlin all night long, but when it counted, there he was, finishing fifth. The run is made all the more impressive by the fact Hamlin lost two laps early on, involved in a lap 10 wreck, only to stay patient, work with a damaged engine and draft to perfection after earning Lucky Dogs to get those laps back. Now, it’s too early to say if new (and defending Cup champion) crew chief Darian Grubb is having that big of an impact or if Hamlin will regain the form that nearly carried him to the 2010 title himself. But if the 31-year-old can run like he did Saturday night – quietly staying out of trouble only to make some noise at the end – Hamlin could well roar back into championship contention this year. Sometimes. you don’t have to be overtly spectacular to turn heads; you just have to get it done right.

What… was THAT?

Note to FOX: Danica Patrick wasn’t in this race. That might come as a surprise, considering how much airtime Patrick got visiting the Hollywood Hotel and watching the race from the spotters’ stand. Sure, she’s going to be in the Daytona 500 next week, but so were 25 other competitors who were actually on the track Saturday night, competing at speed in some of the most thrilling superspeedway action in recent memory. Sorry, FOX, but Patrick watching a race isn’t exactly a story, let alone one to stretch out for half of the broadcast.

Where… did the pole winner wind up?

After a miserable 2011, Martin Truex Jr. hoped his luck was turning around when he drew the pole position for the Budweiser Shootout. But unfortunately for Truex, all that got turned around on Saturday night was his racecar. The seven-year vet was involved in the same mid-race wreck that claimed Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth, among others after sticking strongly inside the lead pack all night. The end result of that mess? A decidedly unlucky 19th-place finish.

When… will I be loved?

The blame for the huge pileups in this race lies squarely with NASCAR. The sanctioning body was in such a hurry to find a way to curb the tandem draft that the collateral damage (and the safety issues that go along with it) were clearly not deemed as important. With the previous style of tandem drafting, based on recent racing history both of the big wrecks would have involved fewer cars, or better yet never happened due to competitors being spaced out all over the track. Simply put, pack racing breeds wrecks, the serious, upside-down type like we saw on Saturday night. Oh, wait; maybe that was exactly what NASCAR and a lot of fans wanted to see (except for the part where Dale Jr. gets involved, anyway). Considering 80% of fans said they didn’t like the pairs in a national survey last year, it makes me wonder how many based that opinion on the lack of wrecks like we saw on Saturday night — and how many went home satisfied that the Big One is back.

Why… were there so many cars in this race?

When the lineup for the Shootout was announced, it would have been a lot easier if NASCAR had just told everybody who wasn’t in the race. The automatic inclusion of the top 25 in driver points (along with past winners of either the Shootout or any points race at Daytona) was really put into perspective when you consider that just five Cup drivers who didn’t start-and-park at least part of the time last year got excluded. Such a bloated lineup makes this race feel a whole lot less special, doesn’t it? Luckily, NASCAR realized that the luster has faded, announcing Sunday the race will revert to its original format beginning in 2013. The criteria to enter, rules that worked so well from 1979 to 2008 will now revert to the previous season’s pole winners and past editions of the Shootout. NASCAR should be applauded for this move… I just wish it happened sooner.

How… much light did the Budweiser Shootout shed on what to expect next week in the Daytona 500?

A lot, and not all of it good. With the pack style of racing, it was made abundantly clear that the Big One will happen again – probably more than once. That means, like the Shootout, the winner will likely come from a small group of cars, dodging the wrecks to duke it out at the finish. So remember, 80 percenters, if your guy gets taken out next Sunday, you got what you wished for.

The Shootout did, however, give a look at some of the likely contenders for next Sunday’s Daytona 500 – assuming they survive. Two years ago, Jamie McMurray had a bad fast Shootout car, and although he didn’t win the exhibition battle that night, was able to break through and win the Daytona 500 a week later. McMurray, it appeared had that same look Saturday night until he got caught up in one of the multi-car wrecks. Earnhardt also had a similar strength early on, as did Harvick, who were also involved in crashes not of their making. Finally, if Kyle Busch is able to avoid trouble better than he could on Saturday, he’ll be a contender, but a race like he had in this one simply won’t win over 500 miles. And, as always, Tony Stewart looked like he’ll be knocking on the victory door when all is said and done – will this be the year he breaks it down? Smoke is 0-for-13 for his career in the Great American Race.

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