On November 21, 2010, the final checkered flag fell in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. One driver went to victory lane, another was left to wonder what might have been, and one more celebrated yet another championship.
It would be nearly three months until NASCAR would return to the track, but when they did, many changes were noticed. There was a new look to the cars. No more was the front splitter held on by braces, making it look like a snow plow. Now, it was streamlined into the body, making it look more like the cars on the street.
Drivers and teams had new sponsors, new colors, and new attitudes for the season. The pit crews had to deal with one less man over the wall, and an entire new fueling system, with a fuel now including ethanol by Sunoco.
But, most importantly, the biggest change was the track they were racing on.
After last summer’s Coke Zero 400, Daytona International Speedway went into a $6 million, six-month, construction project where all the asphalt was torn up, and a new racing surface was laid down. Pit road, the apron, and most importantly the 2.5-mile track surface got an entire new look. So what did this mean? Based on testing in December and January, it meant faster speeds and a lot of intense action.
Saturday night, 24 of the drivers took to the track to compete for the first checkered flag of the season. There were no points on the line, as it was all about the checkered flag and the paycheck. Fans, media, and announcers were ready as the 2011 season went green with the 33rd annual Budweiser Shootout in Daytona.
Dale Earnhardt Jr, who was working with a new crew, drew the pole for the event, but did not lead the first lap as Tony Stewart took the top spot at the line. Almost immediately after, Clint Bowyer got the top spot, and the then shortly after, here came Jeff Burton. But what was catching everyone’s attention was two huge differences in the racing compared to last season. First, the speeds were unbelievably faster. Much like when the Talladega Superspeedway was repaved in 2006, speeds went up. But, NASCAR went with a larger restrictor plate due to the bigger hole the cars put in the air.
What it caused was, at some moments speeds recorded at the line were nearing and topping 200 mph. At one point, both Kyle Busch and Michael Waltrip recorded laps in excess of 206 mph.
The other noticable racing moments were that two cars were not only faster than one, but often faster than three. The reason, the third car in line had to work harder than the car in second to draft to the front. The entire race saw cars racing two and three-wide, but for a majority of the time were running two-deep.
This was most evident by the Richard Childress Racing duo of Burton and Kevin Harvick. These two were stuck together as if a suction cup was on their bumpers. Burton would lead for a majority of the first 25 laps, as the first caution of the race came out…which was put out by NASCAR. After the first 25 laps, teams got a 10-minute “halftime” break to make adjustments and talk to their teams.
After the break, the race would run another 50 laps. Burton brought the field to green, but didn’t stay out front for long as Kyle Busch got the jump out of the fourth turn. Shortly after, Bowyer made the move to the front and began drafting right along with his teammate.
The race’s first caution for an on-track incident came on lap 29. On the backstretch, Carl Edwards was coming up the middle in a hurry. Unfortunately, the gap he was trying to get through wasn’t quite wide enough for his No. 99 Scotts Ford Fusion, as he clipped Earnhardt Jr. and then set off a chain reaction crash. In the end, six cars were involved which included the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya and Joey Logano.
Some cars decided to hit pit road to top off the fuel tank, and the race went back to green on lap 34. Once again, the RCR bunch seemed to be the ones to beat as Burton led as the race’s third caution came out. Entering turn 1, Kyle Busch got a push by Mark Martin, but in the turn the bumpers didn’t match up and both cars went sliding. Each hit the wall on the outside, but drove away with little damage. However, Martin decided it was best to call it a night since the race wasn’t for points.
On the restart, it was Jeff Gordon outside of Burton, but Busch made one incredible slingshot to the front as he was lagging behind on the track, but was on the throttle once the green came out and went from 18th to first in about half a lap. He wasn’t able to hold it as he fell backwards coming out of the fourth turn, giving the lead to Burton.
The lead would swap between Burton, Kyle’s older brother Kurt, and the 5-time defending Sprint Cup Champion, Jimmie Johnson, as the race’s final caution flag came out on lap 49. In the fourth turn, Michael Waltrip got loose while drafting with Stewart, causing him to spin out and severely damage the front of his NAPA Toyota.
On the race’s final restart, Johnson held the lead, but lost it to Burton. It would swap between the two until lap 59 when Ryan Newman got hold of the top spot. Unfortunately for Burton, after getting the lead back for two laps, he fell back after losing his drafting partner. Newman held the spot as he was getting a huge push from Denny Hamlin. Meanwhile, Kurt Busch was running third and also had drafting help thanks to Jamie McMurray.
Newman held the top spot, but as was evident at Talladega last year, the leader was in the most vulnerable position. Over the radio, the communication between Kurt and McMurray was simple.
“Last lap. Backstretch…it’s go time!” McMurray said to his spotter, which was then relayed to Kurt.
Sure enough, the time had come to go for the move, but the two simply couldn’t pull it off. But the race still had two more corners to get through, and Hamlin wanted the victory as well. Coming out of the final corner, Hamlin ducked low as Newman tried to block, but there was enough room for Hamlin to get low. However, he went below the double yellow line in making the pass. Kurt, all the while, stayed right with McMurray as the two came to the checkered flag. Hamlin was the first across the line, but NASCAR was reviewing the tapes to see if the pass he made was legal.
The tape revealed that he made the pass below the line, which at both Daytona and Talladega is considered “out of bounds,” which officially gave the victory to Kurt Busch. It would be his first restrictor plate victory of any kind, and also the first for his new look. No longer was Kurt the driver of the Miller Lite Dodge; he was behind the wheel of the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge Charger.
After the race, Hamlin was honest in why he chose to go that low for the pass.
“That yellow line is there to protect us and the fans in the stands, and I just chose to take the safer route,” Hamlin said. “A win in the Shootout is not worth sending the 39 [Newman] through the grandstands. For me, as fast as we’re running, if I got into his left rear, that car will go airborne.”
If this race was any indication, this year’s Daytona 500 will be nothing short of being an intense, fast, and unpredictable race. In honor of this grand event, I will be providing you coverage from Daytona in four different parts. Coverage of Saturday night’s Bud Shootout is just the beginning.
Up next, qualifying for the Daytona 500, which is Sunday at 1:00 p.m. Only the top two drivers are set in qualifying, so I will also provide coverage of the Gatorade Duals, which set the remainder of the field.
The Parks Pit Report coverage from Daytona will conclude on Sunday, February 20, with coverage of the 53rd annual Daytona 500.
RESULTS: 1-Kurt Busch, 2-McMurray, 3-Newman, 4-Johnson, 5-Biffle, 6-Gordon, 7-Harvick, 8-Burton, 9-Bowyer, 10-Labonte
NOTABLE FINISHES: 11-Stewart, 12-Hamlin, 16-Kyle Busch, 17-Martin, 19-Earnhardt Jr, 21-Edwards, 24-Kahne
CAUTIONS: 4 for 12 laps. Lap 25-25 (Competition), 29-34 (#20, 42, 78, 88, 97, 99 accident-BS), 37-39 (#5, 18 accident-T1), 49-51 (#14, 15 accident-T4).
LEAD CHANGES: 28 among 9 drivers. Earnhardt Jr POLE, Stewart 1-2, Bowyer 3-5, Earnhardt Jr. 6, Stewart 7, Burton 8-10, Earnhardt Jr. 11, Stewart 12, Burton 13-16, Earnhardt Jr. 17-18, Burton 19-21, Kyle Busch 22, Burton 23-25, Kyle Busch 26, Bowyer 27, Burton 28-29, Newman 30-33, Burton 34-39, Gordon 40, Burton 41-45, Kurt Busch 46, Johnson 47-52, Burton 53-56, Johnson 57, Kurt Busch 58, Newman 59-60, Burton 61-62, Newman 63-74, Kurt Busch 75.
TIME OF RACE: 1 Hr, 13 Mins, 15 Secs.
AVERAGE SPEED: 153.584 MPH
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 0.058 Seconds