News & Media

500 questions? Shootout may begin to provide answers

February 18, 2012, David Caraviello,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Kevin Harvick has participated in the Budweiser Shootout seven times, won it twice, and once used it as a springboard to a victory in the Daytona 500. But he can't recall a time when the season-opening exhibition at Daytona International Speedway carried as much significance as it does this year.

"I think this is as an important of a Bud Shootout as I can possibly ever remember, just for the fact that the rules have changed a little bit from the time we were here at the test," Harvick said. "So there are still a lot of unknowns, a lot of things as drivers and teams that you want to push and want to test the limits of before you get to the 500."

Ominous warning?

A five-car wreck in Budweiser Shootout practice sent several to backups as drivers try to make plans at Daytona.

Sprint Cup teams tested at Daytona last month, in a three-day session in which NASCAR officials tinkered with the cars' cooling and communication systems to encourage more pack racing on the 2.5-mile layout. For the past year, two-car pairings have proven the fastest way around the big oval, an unexpected result of track resurfacing and tweaks to the front ends of the vehicles. But many fans are uncomfortable with that tandem drafting format, and NASCAR has worked to roll back the clock to what spectators and television viewers are more accustomed.

So far, that effort is a work in progress. NASCAR requested some pack drafting in the Daytona test session, and since then the consensus has been that the Daytona 500 will feature a mixture of the two styles. But which kind will dominate, and which kind will drivers ultimately use to try to win? That's where Saturday night's 75-lap, 25-car exhibition comes into play.

"I think it will be big for everyone," Denny Hamlin said. "Even the guys that are not involved, they are going to see how it's going to play out. They're going to know -- what do they need to work on? Do they need to work on cooling for two-car tandems, or do they need to work on just getting their cars to suck up good? That's what you used to work on all the time. For me, I think it's going to be big. I think it's going to come down to even practice -- what are guys going to work on? We don't know until they throw on the green light and tell us to go."

Practice on Friday evening offered mixed results, thanks in part to a multi-car crash ignited in the first session when Tony Stewart inadvertently spun Kurt Busch in a pack draft. But there was two-car drafting, as well, and Clint Bowyer believes that NASCAR may make further changes to discourage tandem drafting if the sanctioning body doesn't get the results it wants to see out of the Shootout.

"I think they've got an idea of the direction they need to head, and obviously made the appropriate changes, but they never really got to see what that big pack is going to do," Bowyer said. "Is it going to prevail over two cars? Are two cars still going to be able to break out and get away? Definitely they're going to have to switch more often than they did, but are they going to be able to go out there and do that efficiently and get gone?"

Bowyer believes the Shootout is long enough to answer some of those questions. "It's going to have that pack, and it's going to be able to tell you if two cars can get away from that pack or not," he said. "And if they are ... NASCAR is going to step in. They're going to answer to the fans and give them what they asked for, one way or another."

Temperature could play a large role. A warm night may not allow the cars to draft in a pack for very long, Harvick said, because the vehicles run hotter in a group than they do in a two-car tandem -- where drivers can switch positions to allow the pushing car to cool, or the trailing vehicle can peek out to force fresh air through the front grille. Conditions in the January test also were cooler than they have been this week, which may skew whatever data teams gathered a month ago.

"There will be some scrambling, I would say," Harvick said.

Findings in the Shootout will allow teams to game plan for Thursday's shorter Daytona 500 qualifying races, the next big step in resolving some of these unknowns that currently loom over the main event. But it's not all just prep work for the big show -- there's also the matter of winning the Shootout itself, which allows a driver to claim a sought-after race victory at NASCAR's most famous speedway.

"Definitely you should expect to get a feel and use that as a practice session, but it's a big race," Bowyer said. "You can't make too much of a story out of practice for the 500, because hell, it is a big race. It's a huge race."