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 actually 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,” said Hamlin, “but obviously I used some pavement I shouldn’t have.”
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, while Busch was declared the winner with McMurray and Newman finishing second and third.
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.”
Busch gushed praise on McMurray, a friend off the track who he credited for pushing him around the oval and staying on his rear bumper so that Busch could pick up his first win at Daytona.
“He was the man tonight. He stayed with us. He stayed true,” Busch said. “I can’t thank him enough for doing that.”
McMurray, like everyone else, used the closing laps to get an idea of how next week’s season-opening Daytona 500 may be won.
“It looks like third place is the place to be [on the final lap],” McMurray said. “You know the second-place guy will try to go for the win. You have to hope the guy in fourth will stay [behind] the guy who’s in third.”
Some drivers liked the racing, and Newman, who for years has railed against the dangers of restrictor-plate races, was in favor of the new style.
“I honestly liked the way it separated out,” he said. “When you’re sitting four rows deep in the middle of three wide, there’s nothing you can physically do to make anything any different. When you are in those positions, or those two-car packs, you have a little more versatility to move around. I would rather it be the way it was than they way it has been at Talladega, three wide 10 rows deep.”
And although hysteria often accompanies speeds that creep too close to 200 mph, McMurray said he didn’t even notice a difference. NASCAR can change the size of the horsepower-sapping restrictor plates to reduce the speeds, and can do it at anytime before next Sunday’s race.
“You can’t tell the difference if you’re going 180 or 220,” McMurray said. “I never went 220, but you can’t tell the difference in the speed.”
But it made for an active night for the spotters, who had to coach their drivers around the track until they figured out a strategy.
“It’s so hard. I’ve got a headache right now from just trying to be strategic,” Hamlin said.
At one point, Jeff Gordon sarcastically radioed his team his take on the race.
“I figured it out,” he said. “This is like playing chess on the edge of a cliff with the wind blowing 50 mph gusts.”
Top 10 Results: Final 2010 Tally
Baetz, Richard 1670
Tavares, Alarick 1500
Light, Bryan 1450
Holmes, Kendrick 1370
McGee, Donna 1370
Sprick, Ron 1360
Wood, Timi 1350
Allen, Wes 1330
Baetz, Michelle 1310
Tavares, Tammy 1310
You can get a complete list of the current weeks points anytime by sending a blank e-mail to fantasylist at ktbb dot com