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NASCAR NEWS: Speedweek Opens Strong at Daytona

JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
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DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 18: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet, leads a group of cars during the NASCAR Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – FEBRUARY 18: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet, leads a group of cars during the NASCAR Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Kyle Busch twice appeared destined to destroy his race car, and twice used breathtaking saves to keep on running around Daytona International Speedway.

He probably shouldn’t have been in position to race with the leaders. Yet there he was, bearing down on the finish line with a shot at winning Saturday night’s exhibition Budweiser Shootout, and with a slingshot pass on the outside of defending NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, Busch pulled off a miraculous win in the first event of 2012.

Not too shabby of a start to the season.

NASCAR has every right to be giddy about Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500, a pivotal race in sparking interest at the start of a very long season. A rain-shortened event in 2009 set the tone for a rocky year, and two lengthy delays to fix a pesky pothole in the track surface impacted the 2010 season.

Then came Trevor Bayne’s upset victory last year, and NASCAR never looked back. The 2011 season ranked among the best in years, and ended with a phenomenal race between Stewart and Carl Edwards for the Sprint Cup championship. The two ended the season tied in the standings, with the title going to Stewart on a tiebreaker.

All that momentum meant NASCAR could tweak very little during the offseason. Why mess with a good thing, right?

Well, not everything was sunshine and roses.

NASCAR officials said earlier this month that more than 80 percent of fans polled “hated” the two-car tandem style of racing that had taken over at Daytona and Talladega. Such a strong opinion forced NASCAR to spend a significant chunk of the offseason tinkering with the rules package in an effort to recreate pack racing before the Feb. 26 opener.

The Shootout proved NASCAR made the right moves, and the drivers seemed overwhelmingly in favor of the racing.

“It’s pretty wild and crazy, but, I mean, I like this better than what we had last year, definitely,” said four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who rolled his car several times and wound up on his roof for what he said was the first time in his NASCAR career.

Gordon’s night ended seconds after he nudged Busch, triggering a chain-reaction crash that also led to Busch’s second save of the race. It was one of three multicar crashes — the wrecks collected 23 total cars, set up a green-white-checkered overtime finish and resulted in the closest finish in race history. Busch’s margin of victory was a mere 0.013 seconds, and his driving awed his competitors.

139295121 NASCAR NEWS: Speedweek Opens Strong at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 18: Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, and Kurt Busch, driver of the #51 Tag Heuer Avant-Garde Chevrolet Chevrolet, and Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Brown Toyota, crash in front of the pack during the NASCAR Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

“I was right behind him … and he had to catch it three times before he saved it,” Stewart said. “When you get 3,400 pounds moving like that, to catch it one time was pretty big. To get away from him and catch it a second time was big. The third time was big. That’s three big moments in one corner. He just never quit driving it.

“There’s a lot of guys that wouldn’t have caught that. I’m sitting there and the green is still out. I’m going, ‘Man, that’s the coolest save I’ve seen in a long time.'”

It was a redemption of sorts for Busch, who had to fight hard to keep his sponsors intact at the end of last season. Suspended by NASCAR for intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday Jr. in a Truck Series race at Texas, primary sponsor M&M’s told Joe Gibbs Racing it didn’t want Busch in its car the final two races of the year.

His career was at a crossroads, and Busch worked hard during the offseason to repair his reputation. He referenced M&M’s, which was back on his car for the first time since the company pulled itself off the No. 18 Toyota for the final two races of last season, during his Victory Lane celebration.

“First race back in the M&M’s car, and we’re back in Victory Lane. Pretty cool,” Busch said.

There are other feel-good stories heading into NASCAR’s biggest race of the year.

— Danica Patrick will make her Daytona 500 debut, and the series is thrilled she’s made the full-time move to NASCAR.

— Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver, had his best season in five years in 2011 and is excited about his chances in the Daytona 500.

“I like this kind of racing better. At least I know what to expect,” Earnhardt said. “I feel like I have a better chance with this style than I did last year for damn sure.”

— Edwards bounced back from his loss to Stewart in the title race by winning the pole for the Daytona 500.

— There’s already some controversy, as the car for five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson failed inspection before it ever got on the track. Crew chief Chad Knaus will likely be penalized after the Daytona 500.

It’s all setting the stage for Sunday, which is shaping up to be a strong opener for NASCAR. The race probably won’t be 500 miles of three-wide racing, but if it’s anything close to the Shootout, it’s bound to be entertaining.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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