The Budweiser Shootout at Daytona is the same adrenaline-packed kick-start to the NASCAR Sprint Cup season that it’s always been since its inception – only this year, not so much.
Don’t mistake: the 2009 season will still kick off Saturday night with the annual exhibition race (8 p.m. on FOX), but with a change in format, the race is no longer about recognizing the Sprint Cup Series’ pole winners from a year ago – and it’s no coincidence this change coincided with Coors Light becoming the official beer of NASCAR (whatever that means), as well as the sponsor of the series’ pole award last season.
Could you really see Anheuser-Busch recognizing drivers who won an award with Coors Light’s logo plastered on it?
The new format will take the top six teams, plus one wild card, from each manufacturer in the previous season’s owner points. That means, despite not running a full schedule last season, Joey Logano will run in this year’s Shootout. Meanwhile, Ryan Newman – Mr. Pole himself – will not race, since his No. 39 did not finish high enough in the points last season.
The merits of the format changes can be debated until the series reaches Homestead in November; this is not the forum for such pointless fodder (because let’s face it, when was the last time fan complaints actually prevented NASCAR from doing something?). Rather, let us examine Saturday night’s race on its own.
Defending Race Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Race History: The Budweiser Shootout started in 1979, then known as the Busch Clash, with Buddy Baker winning the inaugural event. The late Dale Earnhardt leads all drivers with six Shootout victories, while his son has won the race twice (2003, 2008). Only three drivers have ever won back-to-back Shootouts: Neil Bonnett (1983-84), Ken Schrader (1989-90) and Tony Stewart (2001-02).
Stewart also won the race in 2007. His former teammate, Denny Hamlin, became the first rookie to win the Budweiser Shootout, taking the checkered flag in 2006.
This Year’s Race: The 2009 Budweiser Shootout at Daytona will be 75 laps, up from 70 laps last season. Green- and yellow-flag laps will count. There will be a 10-minute intermission after 25 laps, at which times teams will be able to add to fuel, change tires and make regular adjustments to their cars – only work crews would perform on a normal pit stops will be permitted (this means no changing springs or rear ends).
Starting positions were determined by a blind draw on Thursday.
If the final 50-lap segment seems a bit long, then it probably is; both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin have questioned the format, citing the length of time it takes to run that many laps at a 2.5-mile superspeedway, and Hamlin talked of how quickly tires wear at Daytona.
"Only racing 10 laps at the end would be way better," Hamlin told ESPN.com in August. "The tires go away pretty fast at Daytona, but they still would have a lot of grip for just 10 or 15 laps. We could really go all out and the racing would be a lot closer."
If NASCAR asked me (which they never will), I’d suggest taking those 75 laps and breaking them up into three segments – the first 25-lap segment I’d keep the same, followed by a 10-minute break for pit stops. Then, I’d run the next 40 laps. Another break, this time just five minutes, for crews to replace tires and fill the fuel tanks.
Then run the last 10 laps. All-out, green-flag laps only. If this is going to be the Budweiser Shootout, how about we actually have a shootout, you know?
Now that I’m off that little soapbox, who’s going to win the race? At the risk of sounding like a wuss, I have no idea. Restrictor-plate racing is always a bit of a crapshoot – remember how Regan Smith almost won at Talladega back in October? – though there are a few teams and drivers to look out for.
Naturally, anyone from Hendrick Motorsports is worth keeping an eye on. Both Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have had their share of success at Daytona, to the tune of a combined four Daytona 500 trophies, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still considered a plate-racing king – not to mention, he won this race last year in his first trip in the No. 88.
The Gibbs cars will always be strong – Tony Stewart finished second in the Shootout last season and nearly won the 500 – though I’m not sure if Joey Logano will do much. He’s got a prime ride, but being a rookie, there’s no telling who will, or won’t, work with him in the draft. Though Roush Fenway cars haven’t traditionally been strong on plate tracks, Carl Edwards nearly won the July Daytona race last year and was running strong at Talladega before an ill-timed bump draft blew up half the field.
Honestly, though, I wouldn’t count anyone out of this race. Plate racing is a great equalizer in the sense that under-funded teams can often compete in the tight packs created by the draft and those restrictor plates. That means don’t count out someone like Bobby Labonte (No. 96) or Robby Gordon.
Long and short, any one of the 28 drivers running in this race (entry list) can win it. It’s tempting to go for Junior in the repeat, but I’m going to pick Jeff Gordon to kick off 2009 with a trip back to Victory Lane.
Sure, it’s just a hunch. But when you’re at Daytona, a hunch is as good as anything.