DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kyle Busch twice appeared destined to destroy his race car, and twice used breathtaking saves to keep on running around Daytona International Speedway.
He probably shouldn’t have been in position to race with the leaders. Yet there he was, bearing down on the finish line with a shot at winning Saturday night’s exhibition Budweiser Shootout, and with a slingshot pass on the outside of defending NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, Busch pulled off a miraculous win in the first event of 2012.
NASCAR has every right to be giddy about Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500, a pivotal race in sparking interest at the start of a very long season. A rain-shortened event in 2009 set the tone for a rocky year, and two lengthy delays to fix a pesky pothole in the track surface impacted the 2010 season.
Then came Trevor Bayne’s upset victory last year, and NASCAR never looked back. The 2011 season ranked among the best in years, and ended with a phenomenal race between Stewart and Carl Edwards for the Sprint Cup championship. They ended the season tied, with Stewart winning the title on a tiebreaker.
All that momentum meant NASCAR could tweak very little during the offseason, right? Well, not everything was rosey.
NASCAR officials said earlier this month that more than 80 percent of fans polled “hated” the two-car, tandem-style of racing that had taken over at Daytona and Talladega. Such a strong opinion forced NASCAR to spend a significant chunk of the offseason tinkering with the rules in an effort to recreate pack racing.
The Shootout proved NASCAR made the right moves, and the drivers seemed overwhelmingly in favor of the racing.
“It’s pretty wild and crazy, but, I mean, I like this better than what we had last year, definitely,” said four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who rolled his car several times and wound up on his roof for what he said was the first time in his NASCAR career.
Gordon’s night ended seconds after he nudged Busch, triggering a chain-reaction crash that also led to Busch’s second save of the race. It was one of three multicar crashes – the wrecks collected 23 total cars, set up a green-white-checkered overtime finish and resulted in the closest finish in race history. Busch’s margin of victory was a mere 0.013 seconds, and his driving awed his competitors.
“I was right behind him … and he had to catch it three times before he saved it,” Stewart said. “When you get 3,400 pounds moving like that, to catch it one time was pretty big. … That’s three big moments in one corner. He just never quit driving it.
“There’s a lot of guys that wouldn’t have caught that. I’m sitting there and the green is still out. I’m going, ‘Man, that’s the coolest save I’ve seen in a long time.’ ”
It was a redemption of sorts for Busch, who had to fight hard to keep his sponsors intact at the end of last season. Suspended by NASCAR for intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday Jr. in a Truck Series race at Texas, primary sponsor M&M’s told Joe Gibbs Racing it didn’t want Busch in its car the final two races of the year last season.
His career at a crossroads, Busch worked hard in the offseason to repair his reputation.