The NASCAR season will move into high gear at Daytona International Speedway Saturday night with the running of the 34th Budweiser Shootout, a 75-lap sprint race that will give 25 drivers and teams their first look at new rules for the new year.
Of 33 eligible drivers in a format that seems to change from year to year, 25 are scheduled to participate. The lineup for the race will be determined in a drawing, scheduled to be broadcast by SPEED at 8:30 p.m. (ET) Friday.
Shootout practices, also to be televised by SPEED, are scheduled at 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Friday.
Drivers eligible for this year’s race include those who finished in the top 25 in 2011 Sprint Cup driver points, plus past Daytona 500, Coke Zero 400 and Shootout winners, as long as the drivers competed in the Sprint Cup Series in 2011.
The entry list: Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle, Paul Menard, Martin Truex Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton, Juan Pablo Montoya, David Ragan, Joey Logano, Michael Waltrip and Jamie McMurray.
The race, originally devised as a sprint chase involving pole winners from the previous season, will be run in two segments – one of 25 laps and the second of 50.
After the first segment, teams will have a 10-minute pit window to make adjustments on their cars.
The Shootout typically is a proving ground for the Daytona 500, scheduled eight days later, and it will be even more so this year. Teams are dealing with numerous changes, including fuel injection systems and body changes designed to break up the two-car drafts that have dominated recent events at Daytona and Talladega.
Drivers making their debuts with new teams in the race are Allmendinger with Penske Racing, Kurt Busch with Phoenix Racing, Kahne with Hendrick Motorsports, Bowyer with Michael Waltrip Racing and Ragan with Front Row Motorsports.
"I've got to work,” Bowyer said. “I have a new spotter. I've got a new crew. We've got to use this as a practice session and put it toward the big race on the next Sunday.
“But we're here to win, man. The Bud Shootout is a big race. I haven't been able to win it, and I want to win the damn thing."
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.