NASCAR – Budweiser Shootout – Daytona International Speedway

Okay, NASCAR is underway with the curtain-raising Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night. There was $250,000 in prize money, but no points – the real Sprint Cup start is next weekend.

The starting order for the Shootout was by drawing lots, resulting in an enjoyably mixed up field. The format was a 25 lap run, then a ten minute break for pit lane adjustments, and then a 50 lap run to the chequered flag. The idea is to get the drivers and teams back into racing after the close season, and collect data about the cars this season – especially important as the usual close season practice days were cancelled as part of NASCAR’s cost-cutting drive in the economic climate.

There were an unusually high number of cautions for such a short race – eight in all. The first of them came as early as lap 5 when Jimmie Johnson – toward the back of the field – had to lift off in traffic resulting in a compression that caught out David Ragan right behind, who was hit from behind by Robby Gordon and then the wreck also claimed Scott Speed and a completely innocent Joey Logano who had been far from the scene on the inside groove.

The 25-lap opening stint even ended under yellow when first-timer David Reutimann and 2006 Shootout winner Denny Hamlin made contact on the backstretch,, sending Reuitmann spinning onto the grassy infield and collecting David Stremme en route – who did well to turn the car away from a high speed impact with the infield wall. Both able to carry on.

Stremme was involved in several of the cautions, but Greg Biffle seemed to be the magnet for the most accidents – although he was able to regroup and carry on each time until the 7th caution with three laps to go which saw Stremme and Biffle finally have a hit too far, Biffle turned across Stremme’s Dodge like roadkill until the two came to a grinding halt.

That temporarily halted what had been an impressive building climax to the race and meant a final two-lap “dash to the flag” finish under yellow and chequered conditions, meaning that the race would finish at the next yellow or the chequered, whichever came first.

Up until this point, the lead had been claimed by the “usual suspects:, with Johnson, Biffle, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busche, Jamie McMurray, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr (who crashed out in a wreck with Paul Menard with less than 11 to go) and many others appearing at the front of the line at one point of another – there were a record 23 lead changes among 14 different drivers in one of the most eventful editions in the history of the event.

One name that hadn’t featured at all – except in being repeatedly at the scene of caution-inducing wrecks but managing to stay out of trouble himself – was Kevin Harvick. He had been in the bottom half of the field all evening, twice losing the draft that is the benefit of running with the leading pack, but with just 5 laps to go he put on a hugely impressive and completely unexpected surge to break into the top 5 before the Biffle/Stremme crash.

At the final restart it looked that McMurray was in the best position, surging away into an impressive lead at the green flag. Harvick managed to get himself locked into a five car nose-to-tail crunch on the inside line and appeared to have no where to do, but then managed to break into the middle groove and then benefited from a huge boose from Denny Hamlin.

This blasted him into the lead on the final lap as McMurray found – as many others had earlier in the evening – that running too far in the lead without anyone to draft with or get pushed by was a massive disadvantage. Still, there would have been time for McMurray to rescue the situation if – right as Harvick took the lead – Casey Mears tagged Hamlin who then tipped Jimmie Johnson into a spin and then all manner of cars got involved.

Under NASCAR rules, this meant the result was locked at the moment of the yellow flag rather than the last fully completed lap: and that meant Harvick had come from no where to take a hugely impressive if also astonishingly lucky Shootout victory. But that’s NASCAR for you – get used to it, it’s going to be a long season! Harvick became the fifth driver in the history of the Shootout to win by leading just the last lap – which was also how he won the Daytona 500 in 2007.

An omen for next weekend?

“They’ve got to cancel testing every year if you guys want to see a race like that,” Harvick justifiably said. “That was a lot of built-up racecar drivers that were really looking for something to hang out on the edge and I think everybody got a good show tonight.”

Pos  Driver              Car        Laps
 1.  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   78
 2.  Jamie McMurray      Ford        78
 3.  Tony Stewart        Chevrolet   78
 4.  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   78
 5.  AJ Allmendinger     Dodge       78
 6.  Kasey Kahne         Dodge       78
 7.  Carl Edwards        Ford        78
 8.  Matt Kenseth        Ford        78
 9.  Kurt Busch          Dodge       78
10.  Kyle Busch          Toyota      78
11.  Brian Vickers       Toyota      78
12.  Paul Menard         Ford        78
13.  Denny Hamlin        Toyota      78
14.  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   77
15.  Casey Mears         Chevrolet   77
16.  David Stremme       Dodge       73
17.  Greg Biffle         Ford        72
18.  Dale Earnhardt Jr   Chevrolet   64
19.  Bobby Labonte       Ford        63
20.  David Reutimann     Toyota      56
21.  Elliott Sadler      Dodge       54
22.  Michael Waltrip     Toyota      43
23.  Reed Sorenson       Dodge       36
24.  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet   32
25.  Scott Speed         Toyota       4
26.  David Ragan         Ford         3
27.  Robby Gordon        Dodge        3
28.  Joey Logano         Toyota       3

Sunday afternoon sees qualifying for next week’s Daytona 500, the first Sprint Cup race of 2009.

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