DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There was a tangible sense of electricity surrounding the first event of Speedweeks, a race everyone expected to be so rough-and-tumble that NASCAR’s relaxed rules toward aggressive driving would most certainly be tested.
Instead, Saturday night’s exhibition Budweiser Shootout felt more like a cease fire.
The bumping and banging that’s become the trademark of Daytona and Talladega wasn’t too intense until the closing laps. The slicing and dicing of drivers weaving through the field seemed minimal.
And the opportunity to dazzle fans with a spectacular Daytona 500 preview was lost.
“It wasn’t nearly as crazy as I thought it would be,” said fifth-place finisher Denny Hamlin. “You would’ve liked to have seen a little bit more excitement.”
That’s because NASCAR all but promised as much by lifting the restrictions on bump-drafting and giving drivers the “Boys, have at it” to mix it up more on the race track. Series officials had progressively squeezed out bump-drafting – the practice of one car shoving the car in front of it to push each other through the field at Daytona and Talladega – but decided to let the drivers police themselves after complaints of sterilized racing at NASCAR’s fastest two tracks.
So it seemed logical that the no-points Shootout would be the perfect opportunity to see just what NASCAR would allow.
After all, the drivers seemed fairly feisty in the first practice of Speedweeks, when contact between Hamlin and Mark Martin triggered a seven-car accident that ruined several race cars. The second practice wasn’t clean, either, as bumping between Juan Pablo Montoya and Kurt Busch led to the first of Busch’s two weekend wrecks.
But come actual race time, it all felt fairly calm.
There were a few in-race incidents, including Busch’s wild slide through the grass and subsequent hard hit into the outside wall, but the breathtaking passes and all-out aggression seemed fairly limited. A late caution set up a two-lap sprint to the finish, but Jeff Gordon’s bump-drafting of Greg Biffle started an eight-car accident with one lap remaining to draw a race-ending caution.
Although NASCAR waited a bit longer than usual to wave the yellow flag – in a presumed attempt to give drivers an attempt to race to the finish line – the wreckage was too severe and winner Kevin Harvick crossed the finish line under caution.
So what went wrong?
Nothing, if you ask the drivers.
Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray, the second- and third-place finishers, both raved about how exciting it was on the track. And fourth-place finisher Kyle Busch complained numerous times during the race that many cars were out of control.
Only it didn’t translate to the audience, which had hoped all 75 laps were as action-packed as the final two.
It’s wishful thinking, but also unrealistic.
For starters, the eight-car accident in Thursday’s first practice put many teams in a bind. Their Shootout cars wrecked, they were forced to pull out the cars that had been designated as backups for the more important Daytona 500. Now down a car, they couldn’t help but worry about those being wrecked, as well.
With several practice sessions and next week’s qualifying races remaining, drivers walked a fine line Saturday night of trying to preserve equipment and keep their focus on Sunday’s main event.
“We didn’t want to tear this car up, and that was the main focus,” said Hamlin, who ran a conservative race before his late charge to a top-five finish.
There was also a sense among the drivers that the Shootout is a nice, momentum-building win, but the risk of being too aggressive far outweighed the reward. That, Gordon promised, would change in the big race.
“Once we get to the 500, that’s a totally different deal,” he said. “Man, it’s the Daytona 500 and everybody is going to be going for it and you’re going to see a lot more risk being taken and for good reason: That’s an important trophy that we all want.
“You’ll see plenty of action and plenty of bump-drafting.”