NASCAR’s season-opening spectacle always raises plenty of questions. Here are 5 of the biggest this year.
What was the takeaway from the Budweiser Shootout?
Aside from a junkyard’s worth of bent metal? Basically, that rule changes have unintended consequences. NASCAR’s top priority heading into Speedweeks was to end tandem drafting and restore the "pack racing" that fans have come to expect at Daytona. And the sanctioning body succeeded. Unfortunately, pack racing can lead to pack wrecking. That was starkly evident last Saturday night. There were three multi-car crashes in the 82-lap sprint, which went seven laps beyond the scheduled distance because of the final — and most spectacular — pileup, an eight-car melee in which Jeff Gordon can to rest on his roof. With the new package, drivers need to resist the temptation to bump-draft in the corners — which had been standard practice in tandem drafting. Kevin Harvick (a victim of the final cluster crash) said last Saturday’s lesson was simple: "Don’t hit guys in the left rear."
Are the Busch brothers back on track?
During the Budweiser Shootout, both Kurt Busch, 33, and younger brother Kyle, 26, showed once again why team owners are willing to tolerate their often boorish behavior. Kurt had the Phoenix Racing entry, a second-tier car (although one that’s often stout on plate tracks) in the hunt until the last wreck. And Kyle? He merely won the race with one of the most remarkable displays of talent ever shown at Daytona or any other racetrack. Twice, the No. 18 M&M’s car got turned sideways, with tires smoking and sparks flying, and Kyle managed to save it both times by using the flat apron at the bottom of the banking to straighten himself out. Oh, and then he passed defending Cup champ Tony Stewart at the line with a classic slingshot maneuver to win by .013 seconds. Said Kyle of his remarkable saves, "I was steering, stabbing, braking, gassing, everything in between, trying to keep the (car) straight, get it back under control." But then car control isn’t the issue with the Busch brothers — self-control is. Here’s hoping they can maintain both for a full season.
Can Jimmie Johnson rebound from the disappointment of 2011 to win his sixth Cup title?
Yes — at least according to the members of the press. While Johnson’s run of championships ended at five, he extended his streak as the top pick in the annual NASCAR preseason media poll to three. "To be honest. I’m stoked that they (picked me)," said Johnson, who edged Carl Edwards by two votes. "They know racing and know how much last year will motivate us. Now, we need to go out and do our best to make them all look good." Johnson used to make the press look bad. During each of his first three championship seasons, the media "experts" picked other drivers in the preseason poll.
"Can our reigning Sprint Cup Series champion get his first win in the Great American Race?"
That question came, verbatim, from NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France, during the preseason Sprint Media Tour. And it’s a good one — even if France, understandably, chose not to try to answer it. Tony Stewart is the latest in a line of Hall-of-Fame-caliber drivers for whom a Daytona 500 win has proved frustratingly elusive. It took Darrell Waltrip 17 tries to win his first (and only) Daytona 500. It took Dale Earnhardt Sr. 20 tries. This will be Stewart’s 14th attempt, and so far he’s had almost as many last-place finishes (two) in the Daytona 500 as top-five finishes (three). Since his first Daytona start in 1999, Stewart has seen fellow Cup champions Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth win the 500, but also journeymen such as Michael Waltrip, Ward Burton, Jamie McMurray — even Nationwide series interloper Trevor Bayne. More so than any other Cup race, the Daytona 500 is subject to the whims of happenstance and fate.
So who’s the favorite on Sunday?
Kyle Busch. History warns not to read too much into a driver’s performance during the Speedweeks preliminaries. (No driver has won the Budweiser Shootout and the Daytona 500 in the same year since Dale Jarrett in 2000.) But it’s hard to ignore the package of skills that Busch employed last Saturday. It wasn’t just the speed. It wasn’t just the picture-perfect execution of the last-lap slingshot pass. It was the ability that Busch showed in recovering from two near-certain disasters. The 2012 Daytona 500 could come down to survival of the fittest or survival of the fastest, and Busch can win it either way.