Pack racing is back at Daytona International Speedway, but now the question is how much racing can be done within the pack.
Evidence presented in the Budweiser Shootout Saturday night indicates that up-close-and-personal racing in the new rules package will be difficult. The Shootout had several major crashes before Kyle Busch emerged as the ultimate survivor on a tough night and won the race in a dramatic battle with Tony Stewart.
The race was pushed into overtime by a sensational crash featuring a flipping Jeff Gordon with two laps to go.
The ensuing green-white-checkered started with Stewart in front. Marcos Ambrose, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman drafted past Stewart at the start of the two-lap chase, but Stewart roared back with drafting help from Kyle Busch.
After pushing Stewart to the lead, Busch whipped around Stewart on the outside coming to the checkered flag and won the race by inches – .01 of a second – despite driving a Toyota damaged by several incidents.
Following in the top five were Ambrose, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin.
“An amazing race,” Busch said. “It was fun to drive when I wasn’t getting turned around. Glad to see the pack back like that.”
Of the pass of Stewart, Busch said, “It was going to be either me or him. I’ve seen the move done before. It was my turn this time.”
Stability appeared to be a significant problem for the drivers as they maneuvered through big packs. Several drivers lost control and then regained it, the grandest example of that being Busch, who saved his car late in the race despite almost spinning out in turns one and two twice in the same incident, then saved it again while racing for the lead.
“I was right behind him when he had the deal in one and two,” Stewart said of Busch. “He had to catch it three times before he saved it. You get 3,400 pounds moving like that, and it’s hard to stop. That’s three big moments in one corner, and he never quit driving it. He did a fantastic job with that save. It was big.”
Despite the problems, several drivers praised the return of pack racing. Stewart, frequently a critic of the big drafting packs at Daytona and Talladega in past years, was effusive in praise of Saturday night’s racing, especially when compared to the tandem drafting of recent years.
“This is a lot more fun than the two-car stuff,” he said. “I still like open-motor races better where we literally control our own destiny, but this is better than having to sit there and stare at the back of a spoiler for 500 miles and not being able to see where you’re going.”
The night’s biggest wreck occurred with two laps left in “regulation.” Gunning for positions, Gordon tapped Kyle Busch, and the impact sent Gordon sliding into the outside wall. He was hit by teammate Jimmie Johnson, and Gordon’s car turned on its side and then went into a series of rolls before landing on its roof.
Gordon climbed from the car and was not injured.
Busch made another fine save after being hit by Gordon.
The caution that followed that spectacular crash, one that also involved seven other cars, pushed the race into overtime.
Twenty laps from the end of the race, the front pack was scrambled when Ambrose hit the rear of Joey Logano’s car, starting a six-car crash that involved Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.
On lap 31, teammates Clint Bowyer and Truex Jr. tangled on the frontstretch, a bump that sent Bowyer sailing onto the grassy area adjacent to turn one. That brought out the night’s third caution.
At the 10-minute break that followed the first 25 laps of the race, Jamie McMurray, who previously has shown expertise at plate-track racing, held the lead over Gordon, Harvick, Kyle Busch and Ambrose.
Earnhardt Jr. led 12 of the first 25 laps.
The season was only nine laps old when the return of pack racing prompted the first crash of the season.
Contact between Paul Menard and David Ragan sent Menard into a slide in front of a mass of traffic, sparking a nine-car wreck. Becoming involved at one level or another were Kenseth, Michael Waltrip, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Burton and Gordon.
Ragan was running behind Menard near the front of the pack when the wreck started.
“Everyone was very racy to begin with,” Ragan said. “I got a good run and was pushing Menard into one. He caught Harvick, and we were too close. It was a product of being aggressive at the beginning and a little too close.”
Menard said he “was trying to get to Kevin’s bumper, and I had the No. 34 (Ragan). I think he was getting pushed. Then he was pushing me, and I got to Kevin’s bumper, and the No. 34 kept pushing me until I went around.
“It was a hell of a wreck. You just hate to tear up race cars like that. … This is pretty damn chaotic.”
Despite being involved in the wreck, Waltrip welcomed the pack racing. “We’re all in a glob,” he said.
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.