The first competitive NASCAR race held on the new pavement was a thrilling speed-show at Daytona International Speedway.
By Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service
(February 12, 2011)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—Budweiser Shootout winner Kurt Busch got it right—Daytona is a whole new game.
With a push from 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray, Busch won Saturday night’s season-opening exhibition race when Denny Hamlin drew a black flag for passing below the yellow out-of-bounds line as the cars approached the finish.
Hamlin, who was inches ahead at the stripe, was demoted to 12th for the infraction and scored as the last car on the lead lap.
Without a teammate in the race, Busch took his first victory at Daytona—and his first victory on a restrictor-plate racetrack, for that matter—in the No. 22 Penske Dodge.
McMurray came home second, narrowly edging Ryan Newman, who led the race off the final corner, only to have Hamlin slingshot past him in the dogleg. Newman was third, followed by Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle.
This was a brand-new Daytona, with a brand-new asphalt surface and a brand-new style of racing. The fast way around the 2.5-mile superspeedway was to pair up in a two-car draft, and that was what fans saw for the entire event.
The race produced a record 28 lead changes among nine drivers.
"What an unbelievable experience, this two-car draft," Busch said. "I had no idea what to expect going in. I was just going to take it one lap at a time and see how it played out. I wanted to learn as the race went on how this Shell/Pennzoil Dodge raced.
"(McMurray) was the man tonight. He stayed with us. He stayed true. I can’t thank him enough for doing that tonight. I hope it was the show the fans wanted to see."
For McMurray, the experience was equally novel.
"It’s completely different plate racing than we’ve ever had," McMurray said. "I hope it was exciting for the fans to watch. But from the driver's seat, it was actually really exciting to push two-by-two and do the side draft. It is awesome the runs you were able to get, so I hope the fans enjoyed it."
Hamlin said he chose to dip below the yellow line, rather than knock Newman into the fence.
"That yellow line is there to protect us and the fans in the stands, and I just chose to take the safer route," Hamlin said. "A win in the Shootout is not worth sending the 39 (Newman) through the grandstands. For me, as fast as we’re running, if I got into his left rear, that car will go airborne."
Polesitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the victim of a multicar crash on the backstretch on Lap 28. Contact from Regan Smith’s No. 78 Chevrolet turned Carl Edwards’ No. 99 Ford into Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevy and spun it into the outside wall. The chain-reaction crash also collected Joey Logano, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kevin Conway.
Johnson also sustained right-side damage in the incident but brought his car to pit road for repairs and remained on the lead lap.
"We were three- or four-wide back there, and I was going between the 88 and the 78, and I don’t think the 78 knew I was in there," Edwards said. "He kept coming down, and I just had enough of my car in there. I laid up against the 88 and then the 78 got me in the right-front, but that’s just everybody trying to get the best position they can so we can go out there and race."
Jeff Burton led 13 of 25 laps in the first segment of the 75-lap race, including Lap 25, as cars danced in pairs around the track. In an oft-repeated scenario, cars would team up and draft to the front only to fall back dramatically when they separated to get air to the engine of the pushing car.
Kevin Harvick and Burton teamed well together, as did Earnhardt and Kyle Busch, though during the break after the first segment Earnhardt said Busch’s No. 18 "jacks my car around like he has Velcro on that thing." Earnhardt led four laps in the first segment, tied for second most with Tony Stewart.
At the completion of the 25-lap opening segment, there was a 10-minute break to service and adjust cars on pit road.