Daytona Beach, FL – Pack drafting is back at Daytona International Speedway, and what a show it made for in Saturday's Budweiser Shootout.
In what turned out to be a frantic night of racing at Daytona, Kyle Busch bounced back from two near wrecks and beat reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart to the finish line by inches to win the preseason, non-points race.
Midway through the event, Busch got nudged by Jimmie Johnson and lost control but did an amazing job of saving his car, as he remained in the draft. He was also involved in a multi-crash in the closing laps, which led to a green- white-checkered finish.
Busch hooked up with Stewart on the second-to-last lap and then pushed Stewart ahead of Marcos Ambrose on the final lap. Both drivers pulled away in what then became a two-man battle for the win.
After they came out of the final turn on the last lap, Busch made a sling-shot pass on Stewart and then nipped him at the line by 0.013 seconds. Busch not only won the Budweiser Shootout for the first time but gave Toyota its maiden victory in this event.
"I don't know how many times I spun out," Busch said. "It was a tough race but a fun race. I'm glad the pack is back like that. Made it interesting for us drivers. Hopefully, it was great for the fans, as much as it was for us drivers."
The two were in a similar situation during the final lap of the July 2009 race at Daytona. Heading to the finish line, Busch made contact with Stewart and then slammed hard into wall. Stewart went on to victory.
"I've seen the move done before, and it was my turn to do it this time," Busch said. "Stewart had me the last time here in July a couple of years ago, so I was glad to put this car into victory lane."
With the return of pack drafting and two-car tandems at a minimum at Daytona, this race featured three big crashes, including the final one that involved eight cars. Jeff Gordon got the worst of it after he made contact with Busch's left rear. Gordon made contact with several other cars and got turned upside down as he hit the wall. His car then slid about 1,000 feet along the backstretch before it moved side over side multiple times and came to a rest on its roof.
Gordon crawled out of his battered car unscathed.
"Every time I got to Kyle's bumper, he just started getting sideways, and I thought he was going to wreck," Gordon said. "I started to see him spin, so I went wide not knowing that somebody got to my outside. That turned me into those guys and into the wall, and along for a ride I went."
For the past several months, NASCAR has conducted test sessions at both restrictor-plate tracks -- Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway -- to drastically reduce the number of two-car breakaways, which had been the style of racing at these tracks the past year. NASCAR had made numerous modifications to the cars, and this event was the first test in race conditions.
"We're still bump-drafting, but we just can't do it for long periods of time," Gordon added. "So now we're doing it in packs ... You got to be real careful how you push and when you push. It's definitely going to take some patience."
If the Budweiser Shootout is any indication of what the Daytona 500 will be like, the racing world is in for a doozy next weekend.
"I don't know what the consensus is from everybody else, but I had more fun as a driver tonight than what we've had in the past," Stewart said.