DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It was a two-car tango at Daytona International Speedway, where the wild, pack racing was replaced Saturday night by sizzling fast speeds and a strange ending that gave Kurt Busch the win in the Budweiser Shootout.
The exhibition race was the first test on Daytona’s smooth new pavement, and speeds at times hit 206 mph in a race that had a record 28 lead changes among nine drivers.
The final pass, though, was ruled illegal as Denny Hamlin was disqualified for going below the out-of-bounds line.
It made Busch, who crossed the finish line in second place, the first Dodge driver to win the non-points race that has opened Speedweeks for the last 33 years.
“What an unbelievable experience, this two-car draft. I had no idea what to expect going in,” Busch said. “I was just going to take it one lap at a time and see how it played out.”
The ruling against Hamlin by NASCAR was not controversial. The yellow-line rule has been in effect and enforced since NASCAR returned to Daytona in July 2001, nearly five months following the last-lap accident that killed Dale Earnhardt.
“I thought it was a great, three-wide finish, but obviously I used some pavement I shouldn’t have,” Hamlin said.
It was instead the style of racing seen Saturday that created the most controversy as the opinions between drivers and fans differed greatly.
The racing at Daytona had for so long been a white-knuckle, bumper-to-bumper mob of race cars unable to pull away from each other. Cars could shoot through the field at will, but one small bobble often created dangerous accidents.
When the track opened last month for testing, though, teams had seemingly figured out the new NASCAR rule packages and the smooth surface at Daytona had created a new strategy of two-car racing.
So from the start of Saturday’s 75-lap race, the field was quickly split into several packs of two cars. It lasted all the way to the end, when two packs of two had pulled so far away from everyone else that they were the only four drivers in contention for the win.
Ryan Newman was leading Hamlin around the oval, with Busch and Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray trailing close behind. Newman, as the leader, said he knew he was “a sitting duck” as he waited for Hamlin’s attempted pass.
It came as they closed in on the checkered flag, when Hamlin dove low and eventually under the yellow line that circles the bottom of the track.
Busch then skirted around Newman at the top of the track, pulling McMurray with him.
Hamlin was black-flagged and fell to 12th in the final standings. Busch was declared the winner and McMurray finished second.
Hamlin understood NASCAR’s ruling.
“That yellow line’s there to protect us and the fans in the stands safety. I just chose to take the safer route,” he said. “Winning a Shootout’s not worth sending (Newman) through the grandstands, and for me, as fast as what we’re running, if I get into his left rear, that car will go airborne. … It’s a tough position. I probably should have gone high to avoid that whole thing.”
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