DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The danger, safety and skill of NASCAR racing was on full display Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway. Three major wrecks, Jeff Gordon on his roof, nobody hurt, Kyle Busch in victory lane after pulling off not one but two miraculous saves to win the Bud Shootout by a nose.
All this in just 82 laps, so imagine what kind of show we could be in for in next Sunday's 200-lap Daytona 500.
Twice a year, NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series heads to the high banks of Daytona, which gained fame for putting on shows like no other. With engines restricted to run at virtually the same speed, races here set up to be one big 43-car convoy barreling around the 2.5-mile track running inches apart at 200-plus mph.
Or at least it used to be that way.
The pack racing fans had grown to love went on hiatus last year after a repaving of the track generated a phenomenon where two cars ran faster than three, four or 43 bunched together. While safer, drivers railed against it because it took skill out of the equation. Fans were even more vocal with their displeasure, screaming at NASCAR to do something – anything – to bring back the 43-car pack.
NASCAR responded with a series of rules changes and the result was evident Saturday night.
Pack racing is back, only this time it's even more dangerous.
Prior to the repaving, drivers could steam around the track nosed up against the bumper of the car in front of them without a care in the world. They can't do that anymore; their engines will overheat thanks to the new mechanical package NASCAR installed to stifle the two-car draft.
It's cause and effect, and in this case the effect is that drivers have to move around in order to funnel air into their grills to cool their engines. And when a car is moving around inside a big pack, dangerous things can happen. Like this:
And that was only 10 laps into the Bud Shootout, a non-points paying event that serves as the unofficial start to the Sprint Cup season.
Before the checkered flag there would be two more "Big Ones," including the incident that put Gordon on his roof for the first time in his 19-year career.
While the wreck looked brutal and it took Gordon several minutes to extricate himself from his upside down car, he walked away unscathed.
"The hit from the wall was much harder than any of the rest of it," Gordon explained. "The roll was pretty soft and pretty easy. The protection we have inside these cars is amazing because I didn't even hardly feel any of it."
And still he welcomed the return of the pack. And so did Michael Waltrip and Martin Truex Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – each involved in major wrecks, each offering NASCAR a pat on the back for the changes it made to bring back pack racing.
"I like this kind of racing better," Earnhardt said. "At least I know what to expect. I feel like I have a better chance with this style than I did last year for damn sure."
It's interesting considering "this kind of racing" produced an outcome in which just 13 of the 25 cars were still running when the checkered flag flew. And it probably should only have been 12.
Busch had no business finishing the race, let alone winning it. Twice a car got into his rear bumper, putting him sideways through a corner while pushing the 200-mph barrier. Twice he saved it.
It doesn't take much to appreciate this:
"He had to catch it three times before he saved it," explained Tony Stewart, who was right behind Busch. "You get 3,400 pounds moving like that, to catch it once was pretty big, to get away from it and catch it again was big, and the third time was big. That's three big moments in one corner and he never quit driving. There's a lot of guys that wouldn't have caught that."
Ironically, it came down to these two at the end – Stewart leading Busch around the final corner in a two-car dash to the finish. Busch waited until the final moment, pulled out and inched ahead just as the two crossed the line, winning by a razor-thin margin of .013 seconds – the closest in Shootout history.
"He knew he was a sitting duck as soon as we got clear of everybody. It was over. He knew who the winner was," Busch said. "If I would have been in his spot, I would have known, too. The car behind has the momentum because you're pushing the car in front. "
That is how the Daytona 500 will end – with two cars pushing and pulling each other toward the prize on the final lap, Busch guaranteed. But to be there, drivers will have to survive 498 miles of pack racing, which as we saw Saturday night is going to be a tall order to fill.
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